The Skies as a Calendar – And as a Moral Compass
In a dangerous and uncertain world, the patterns in the night sky gave the Aboriginal people the ability to predict natural events. For example, the Boorong people gave the name “Neilloan” to the constellation commonly known in the West as Lyra to reflect the role that it played in their lives1. This constellation becomes visible in skies over Victoria in March and disappears again in October – at which time the eggs of the Mallee-fowl, or loan bird, are ready to be collected and eaten. Every year, the Boorong people used their knowledge of the skies to tell them when to take advantage of this food source.
The meaning of Australian Aboriginal astronomy is not limited to its practical uses. Many Aboriginal stories feature the constellations that they saw in the night sky. These stories, passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, contain important messages about how people should behave. For example, the constellation we call Orion is considered by the Yolngu people to be a canoe containing three brothers who were swept up into the sky as a punishment for eating a king-fish, which is forbidden by the law of their tribe2.
The Emu in the Sky
There is not only one Aboriginal culture. Around 400 separate indigenous cultures have existed in Australia, and they did not all take the same meanings from the skies. Whilst the Boorong people were watching the skies for the Mallee-fowl, the Yolngu people relied on the presence of the constellation Scorpius to tell them when fisherman would arrive from Indonesia to fish for Trepang3.
However, there is one Aboriginal motif that is common to tribes in many parts of Australia. That is the “Emu in the Sky”. This is not a constellation, but rather a dark shape in the middle of the Milky Way. The dark skies of the Australian outback are a great place to see the Milky Way stretching across the sky – in cities it is often not visible due to light pollution. Here, in the accompanying image, you can see the emu: a thin strip of dark clouds that bulges out at one end – much like the skinny neck and fat body of an emu. Emus are large flightless birds that are common throughout Australia. They were important to the way of life of the Aboriginal people who hunted them for food and made knives and tools from their bones.
There is a carving of an emu in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. When the Emu in the Sky lines up with the emu carving, the real emus on Earth are laying their eggs. This is another example of Aboriginal people using astronomy to predict natural events.
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.
Revealing Ancient Astronomy to the World
The Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Project is an attempt to investigate the meaning that astronomy holds in Aboriginal culture. As well as studying carvings and artifacts, the researchers are also working closely with the Yolngu community, who live in a protected area, to find out the role that astronomy plays in their lives. With the traditional Aboriginal way of life under threat, this collaboration is vital to prevent the astronomical knowledge and culture of these people from being lost forever.
- 4Norris, Ray, In search of Aboriginal Astronomy, Australian Sky & Telescope, 2008.
- Pictures: by Ray Norris, licensed under Creative Commons license.
- 1Stanbridge, William Edward, On the Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria, 1857.
- Aboriginal Astronomy Project Website: more information on the “Emu in the Sky”, Sun and Moon beliefs, “Ngaut Ngaut”, the Wurdi Young circle, and the current program of research.
- 3Norris, Ray, Searching for the Astronomy of Aboriginal Australians, 2007.
- 2Jennifer Isaacs, 40,000 years of Aboriginal history, Landsdowne Press, 1980.