The First Astronomers?
leThe Aboriginal people certainly had a rich and complex relationship with the night sky. But could we call them astronomers in the modern sense of the word? The answer could be “yes" – there are hints that Aboriginal people not only observed the sky, but also made and recorded measurements4.
At a site known as “Ngaut Ngaut," there are circles and lines carved into the rock. According to the Nganguraku people who own the site, these markings represent the cycles of the Moon. However, neither the surviving Nganguraku nor the researchers working with them can work out how the symbols relate to the lunar cycle. The knowledge has been lost due to interference by Christian missionaries who banned the Nganguraku language and initiation ceremonies, interrupting the traditional passage of knowledge down the generations.
Even more intriguing is the Wurdi Youang stone circle, sometimes referred to as the “Aboriginal Stonehenge." Some outlying stones appear to line up with the positions at which the Sun sets during Summer and Winter solstice. Could this be evidence that Aboriginal people took a scientific approach to astronomy as well as a spiritual one, carefully making and recording measurements?
We might never know. What is intriguing is the similarity that some of the Aboriginal stories bear to modern scientific theories. For example, solar eclipses are explained as the Moon “man" chasing the Sun "woman" across the sky, occasionally catching up and hiding her from view. Like modern astronomers, aboriginal people understood that eclipses happened because of interactions between the Moon and the Sun.