Astronomy is considered to be the most ancient science, although until recently it was not conducted as science for curiosity’s sake or for the furthering of human knowledge. Instead, the study of the sky was a vital part of the theological foundation of ancient civilizations. However, astronomy formed the basis to prepare calendars, navigate at night and explore the nature of the universe through philosophy and mythology.
Some civilizations well-known for their astronomical developments include the Babylonians, the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Greeks. The astronomy of many other cultures, however, has been side-lined, as a result of the prevailing Euro-centric view of astronomy, and civilization, in general. One of these is the astronomy of the Australian Aboriginal people.
Australian Aborigines were some of the first people in the world to develop ideas with astronomy. It is possible that their interpretation of astronomy is the oldest still alive today.
Indigenous Australians have developed complex knowledge systems for thousands of years. These learning systems are used to understand, explain, and predict nature. They are then passed to successive generations through oral tradition. The Australian Aboriginals believed that astronomy is not just a science but a story-telling series. They used stories to offer explanations about the heavenly bodies and other natural phenomena that were associated with them.
Western science and Indigenous knowledge systems both perceive the sense of the world around us but in their different ways. There are many such cultures across Australia with 400 different language groups. Each of these cultures has their astronomical version and stories with varied meanings and importance.
‘Emu’ and ‘Saucepan’
The ‘Emu in the sky’ is the most famous and shared stories. In western astronomical terms, it is described as the head of the emu is the Coalsack nebula, located near the Crux or the Southern Cross constellation while its body, neck and legs are created from the dust trails stretching across the Milky Way till the constellation of Scorpius.
Various Aboriginal groups have provided different versions of stories for numerous years regarding the Emu in the Sky. For instance, the Boorong people considered the Southern Cross as a ringtail possum called Bunya, hiding in a tree from an evil emu called the Tchingal.
The Aborigines of the Western Desert, on the other hand, regarded the orientation of the emu in the sky as something that changes according to the time of the year. They once used it to determine the time to hunt emus or to collect their eggs.
Another constellation that helped these groups to organize their year is called as ‘The Saucepan’. It is also known as the ‘Djulpan’ by the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory. It is the most recognizable constellations and is known as the Orion in the Western astronomy. The Australian Aboriginals perceived it as the canoe.
The three stars in a row are called as Orion’s Belt together form the middle of the canoe while the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel form the bow and stern respectively. The Kuwema people of the Northern Territory regarded the rising of the Orion in the early morning during winter as the beginning of the dingoes’ mating season. The offspring of the dingoes served as an important source of livelihood for these people.
The Torres Strait Islanders’ would pay close attention to the night sky. This indicates their use of stellar scintillation or twinkling to determine the amount of moisture and turbulence in the atmosphere. It also helps them predict the weather patterns and the seasonal change. The Islanders can distinguish planets from the stars because planets do not twinkle.
Similarly, the Islanders used to comprehend that they have to plant their gardens with sweet potato, sugarcane and banana when the evening appearance of the celestial shark, Baidam, is traced out by the stars of the Big Dipper or the Ursa Major. The Islanders further believed that when the nose of Baidam touches the horizon just after the sunset, the shark breeding season begins and hence people should stay out of the water as it could prove fatal.
Meteors: Weapons of Punishment, or Signs of Reward
Other heavenly bodies play important roles in the Australian Aboriginal astronomy. For example, the meteors were considered as ‘fiery demon eyes’ or the ‘glowing eye of a celestial serpent flying across the sky’ by some groups.
Meteors were believed to contain an evil magic called Arungquilta, which was harnessed in ceremonies to inflict harm or death upon someone that broke a taboo, such as infidelity. Arungquilta could also be found in toadstools and mushrooms, which were believed to be fallen stars, and their consumption was forbidden. Such a taboo may have developed from the consumption of poisonous fungi that are found in the region.
In Luritja culture, meteorites were used as tools of punishment or signs of approval. Men from the Ngalia clan (of the Luritja language group) believe that the Walanari, celestial deities who were seen as protectors of good men and punishers of bad men that lived in the Magellanic Clouds, would throw stones to the earth as punishment for breaking taboos or as signs of approval during totemic ceremonies. The Ngalia men claim that people have been killed by stones thrown by the Walanari.
While Western science proposes that amino acids, which form the basis of life, were transported to earth via comets the origin of life or humankind in Arrernte and Luritja Dreaming* is also attributed to cosmic debris. Some researchers suggest the first human couple originated from a pair of stones that were thrown from the sky by the spirit Arbmaburinga (or Altierry), a “great strong old man” that lived in a place called Jirilla to the far north. A Luritja Dreaming* describes how life was brought to earth by a meteorite called Kulu:
“All the animals had a big meeting. Who was going to carry the egg of life up to the universe? The Kulu was chosen. When you see where the egg of life was carried. Meteorite has landed and dropped, split three ways. This is our memory of the Kulu. And life began.”
The Arrernte and Luritja were not the only groups in Central Australia to associate their cosmology with meteors. The Yarrungkanyi and Warlpiri people of the Northern Territory tell how Dreaming* men traveled through the sky as falling stars and landed at a place called Purrparlarla, southwest of Yuendumu, bringing the Dreaming* to the people. From this, we see that Aboriginal views of meteoritic phenomena in this region are multiple and diverse. They can be omens, tools of evil magic, progenerators of life and culture, weapons of punishment, or signs of reward. These accounts show that meteors and meteorites were an important component of the Dreamings*, ritual practices, and cosmology of the Aboriginal people of Central Australia.
The groups that are preserving this traditional knowledge are facing an uphill battle as the young Aboriginals are attracted to the modern way of life. As a result, they are giving up their traditional lifestyle, and the astronomy of the forefathers is edging towards extinction. However, some efforts are underway to preserve this knowledge.
* In the animist framework of Australian Aboriginal mythology, The Dreaming is a sacred era in which ancestral Totemic Spirit Beings formed The Creation. “Dreaming” is also often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. For instance, an indigenous Australian might say that he or she has Kangaroo Dreaming, or Shark Dreaming, or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their “country”. Many Indigenous Australians also refer to the Creation time as “The Dreaming”. The Dreamtime laid down the patterns of life for the Aboriginal people.