Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions, Ooldea, South Australia, Part 2: Animals in the Ooldean Sky

A relationship between animals in the sky and the behaviour of their terrestrial counterparts is demonstrated in Aboriginal Indigenous Astronomical traditions. Leaman et al. investigated the relationship between animal behaviour and stellar positions when these relationships are not described specifically in the written records, in their continued study of Aboriginal astronomical traditions from the Great Victoria Desert, South Australia. A methodology was developed to test the hypothesis that the position in the sky of the celestial counterparts of an animal at particular times of day predicts the behaviour of the terrestrial animal. Of the 12 stellar (i.e. non-planet or non-galactic) animals that were identified in the Ooldean sky 9 were analysed and a close connection was demonstrated between the behaviour of the animal and stellar positions. Leaman et al. suggest the possibility that this may be a recurring theme in Aboriginal astronomical traditions, which requires further methodology development.

A wealth of traditional knowledge of the night sky has been revealed by the study of astronomical knowledge and traditions in Australian Aboriginals. It has been found that calendars and economics of food are closely integrated with astronomical traditions (Frederick, 2008; Johnson, 1998; Sharp, 1993) which often involved animals and their behavioural habits. It is common across Australia for oral traditions to describe animals in the skyworld (Stanbridge, 1861) and the world (e.g. Kelly & Milone, 2011: 499; Urton, 1981). Constellations, asterisms, individual stars, star clusters, planets, nebulae and other celestial objects may represent these animals. Celestial animals are commonly linked to behavioural patterns of the terrestrial counterparts by Australian Aboriginals, such as mating, birthing or brooding their young (Cairns & Harney, 2003; Johnson, 1998; Stanbridge, 1861). In part, these traditions serve as a guide for noting the time of year when particular food sources may be available.

According to Leaman et al. this paper continues on from a study of Aboriginal astronomical knowledge carried out near Ooldea in the Great Victoria Desert, South Australia (for the first part see (Leaman & Hamacher, 2014). Most of this information comes from Daisy Bates, an amateur anthropologist (Bates, 1904-1935; 1921a; 1921b; 1924a; 1924b; 1933; 1938) as well as Ronald and Catherine Berndt, professional anthropologists Berndt, 1941; Berndt & Berndt, 1943, 1945, 1974; 1977). The primary information that was used in the paper was derived from Daisy Bates in a story she had recorded about the Orion and the Pleiades, a constellation and a star cluster (Bates, 1921b; 1933). Many animals in the Ooldean sky were describes by Bates, though no details were recorded concerning animals and their celestial counterparts. In most cases the stories only mentioned the type of animal that was represented by each of the celestial object, and their major or minor role in the narrative.

In this paper Leaman et al. tested the hypothesis that each animal in the Ooldean sky is associated with a celestial object that is used to predict the breeding habits of these animals, such as mating, birthing, egg incubation, brooding and fledging the young. Therefore the study investigated whether the heliacal or acronychal rising or setting, or meridional transit, predicted the breeding habits of the respective terrestrial counterparts.

Animals of the Aboriginal skyworld

The realm of the skyworld has topography that is similar to and as real as the terrestrial landscapes below, according to the cosmology and cosmography of Australian Aboriginals   (Clarke, 2007/2008; 2015b). The skyworld realm is inhabited by plants, animals and celestial beings, each of which is represented by celestial bodies (Clarke, 2014b; 2015a; 2015b; Leaman & Hamacher, 2014), or other prominent features in the night sky, such as the prominent dark bands of the Milky Way (e.g. see Fuller et al., 2014a; 2014b).

In the foundational work by William E. Stanbridge (1820-1894; 1861) on Aboriginal astronomy in western Victoria he recorded some of the astronomical traditions that were given to him by the Boorong, an Aboriginal clan belonging to the Wergaia language group that lived near Lake Tyrell. Included in his papers are several animals that relate to stars. The star Vega (α Lyrae) is an example, that is called Neilloan in the Wergaia language, was linked to the mallee fowl (Leipoa ocellata), a megapode that is the size of a chicken and lives on the ground where it builds its nest mounds when Vega rises at dusk (acronychal rising). These birds are laying their egg clutches when Vega is high in the sky at dusk (dusk meridian crossing), and the chicks begin to hatch when Vega sets at dusk (heliacal setting). Similarly, Arcturus, a star (α Boötis), Marpeankurrk in the Wergaia language, is related to the wood-ant larvae, which are plentiful for only a couple of months each year, August and September, the time when Arcturus is visible in the evening sky. These associations were built on to construct a detailed picture of the night sky of the Boorong, in which complex calendars are noted that are related to seasonal behaviour of animals (Morieson, 1996; 1999).

A definitive link between animal behaviour and the positions of their celestial counterparts, particularly at dusk and dawn, has been found by recent studies of Aboriginal astronomical knowledge (e.g. Cairns & Harney, 2003; Frederick, 2008; Fuller et al. 2014b; Hamacher, 2012). Aboriginal people know emus are laying their eggs, an important food source, when the dark emu in the Milky Way, from Crux to Sagittarius, appears in the evening sky (Fuller et al., 2014a; Norris & Hamacher, 2009).

In Aboriginal traditions such examples are common, though most of the traditions that were collected by early anthropologists do not provide much of this sort of information. In this paper Leaman et al. explore animals in the Ooldean sky searching for connections with their terrestrial counterparts, such as patterns of annual breeding behaviour in order to understand better the nature of Aboriginal astronomical knowledge.

Animals in the Ooldean sky

The Kokatha traditional country is where Ooldea is located (Gara, 1989). Ooldea Soak was a permanent water source which made the area around the soak an important drought refuge and meeting place in which trade and ceremonies took place, not only for the local people, but also for many Aboriginal language groups (Bates, 1938; Gara, 1989; Tindale, 1974). Activities that were associated with the Trans-Australian Railway were causing major disruption to traditional lifestyles of these peoples at the time Daisy Bates visited Ooldea (Bates, 1938; Brockwell et al., 1989; Colley et al., 1989), an important disruption was the establishment of more permanent camps, with diverse peoples of the region living in close proximity to each other. Leaman et al. suggest that this may be the explanation for blending that occurred of the vocabularies from different language groups in the word list of Daisy Bates (e.g. see Bated 1918), and in the skylore which she recorded in the Ooldea region (Bates, 1921a; 1921b; 1924a; a924b;1933. In this paper Leaman et al. have adopted the term ‘Ooldean sky’ to describe the skylore of the region that was linguistically blended at the time of its recording, instead of attempting to disentangle Bates’ records.

Several animals in the Ooldean sky are noted in records provided by Bates (1904-1935): the Australian bustard, Black Cockatoo, Dingo, Emu, Grey Kangaroo, Owlet Nightjar, Crow, Redback Spider, Red Kangaroo, Thorney Devil lizard and the wedge-tailed eagle. Most of the animals are related to stars, star clusters and asterisms, or to the dark band of the Milky Way (see also Leaman & Hamacher, 2014). The Red Kangaroo and the Grey Kangaroo are exceptions, being related to the ‘morning’ star and the ‘evening’ star respectively. Bates identifies these as the planets Jupiter and Venus respectively, though it is not clear if she was misrepresenting Jupiter as the morning star (as Venus is called both the morning star and the evening star), if Jupiter was prominent in the morning sky at the time Bates recorded the relevant astronomical traditions. There is no time stamp for when Bates recorded these traditions, though they are in the notes from Ooldea, where she lived and worked from 1919-1935. On many occasions Venus and Jupiter would both have been bright in the early morning sky during that 16 year period. The Black Cockatoo is related to both Antares and Mars. According to Leaman et al. planets are not suitable for denoting  annual seasonal change on earth, though they may be used to reference longer climatic cycles, such as droughts, floods ENSO-driven events, etc.), so Venus, Mars and Jupiter will not be connected regularly with the annual seasonal cycles of any animal.

It is not known which exact star that represents baba the dingo father in the sky. It has been described as being the ‘horn of the bull’ (Bates, 1933). It is argued (Leaman & Hamacher, 2014) that it could be either the star β Tauri or ζ Tauri, though this is not certain, and Aldebaran (α Tauri) is already ascribed to a major character in the narrative.

Terrestrial behaviour of Ooldean sky animals

The Australian Bustard – Vega

Gibbera is the word for what is called in Central Australia the bush turkey. The Aboriginal people in the Central Australian deserts use the term ‘bush turkey’, or ‘brush turkey’ colloquially to refer to the Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis). This is not to be confused with the Australian bush or brush turkey (Alectura lathami), which inhabits more temperate, wet tropical areas, The Bustard is an important source of food for the Aboriginal people (Ziembicki, 2009).

The breeding cycle of the Australian Bustard varies throughout its range across Australia and it is believed to be linked closely with weather and seasonal patterns, especially rainfall frequency (Ziembicki, 2009; 2010; Ziembicki & Woinarski, 2007: Fig. 2) Populations are transitory and migratory in arid areas, such as exist at Ooldea, as the numbers fluctuate as a response to habitat and the availability of food in wet/dry years (Ziembicki, 2009). At Ooldea breeding generally occurs from May to August, peaking slightly in June (Ziembicki, 2009). The incubation period for the chicks is 23 days (Beruldsen, 2003).

In Early August the acronychal rising (AR) of Vega and setting at sunset (HS) by mid-November, and it crosses the meridian (reaching its maximum altitude) at dusk in the northern sky in late September. Therefore, during the entire mating season of the bustard for most regions in Australia, the star is prominent in the evening sky, with peaks occurring close to the dusk meridian transit (Mdusk). Regarding the mallee fowl a similar relationship is given with the star Vega in traditions of the Wergaia of western Victoria (Stanbridge, 1861).

According to the population survey that was carried out in 2007-2009, the breeding cycle in the Ooldea region can occur earlier, from May to July (Ziembicki, 2009). In this case, mating, laying and hatching correspond to acronychal setting (AS) of Vega, and during the star’s acronychal rise (AR) fledging takes place. It is likely that the actual breeding patterns around Ooldea are highly variable, and wetter years may be more typical of other regions as the population of bustards is transient and highly dependent on rainfall. Leaman et al. relied on data supplied by Ziembicki (2009) for this study as there was a lack of other reliable data.

Altair, the Crow Mother and Delphinus, her Chicks

The star Altair (α Aquilae) is Kangga Ngoonji, the mother crow, and the stars of the constellation Delphinus are her chicks Nyumbu. Kangga (or Kaanka) is the name for the Torresian crow (Corvus orru) (Reid et al., 1993). It is believed that this species is not likely to be the species referred to in the story of Bates, as it is not usually found south of the Birksgate Ranges, which are located to the northeast of the Great Victoria Desert. The Little Crow (Corvus bennetti) is a species that is similar in appearance, and it is found in the area around Ooldea, and it is easy to mistake it for the Torresian Crow. Though Wangarangara, the Pitjantjatjara name is usually specific to this species, it is possible that around the time Bates was recording her story the name Kangga Ngoonji was used for it, especially if her informants were less particular about distinguishing between the 2. Another species with a similar appearance, the Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides) is also found around Ooldea. It’s range is a thin stretch of land across the Nullarbor and in the desert regions of South Australia (Beruldsen, 2003).

The breeding season is similar for all 3, whichever species is referred to in the account by Bates, ranging from July to September, and the incubation period for the eggs is about 20 days. Within 45 days the chicks are fledged, though the mother continues feeding them for up to 4 months (Beruldsen, 2003).

The crows begin laying their eggs in late July, and at this time the acronychal rising (AR) of Altair occurs. The eggs are hatching by early August and the brighter group of stars in Delphinus (the chicks) rise at sunset (AR). Altair crosses the meridian in the sky after sunset (Mdusk) by October and most of the chicks have fledged by this time. Altair (mother crow) and Delphinus (celestial chicks) set at dusk (HS) in December, as the last of the chicks are starting to leave the nest. Leaman et al., suggest it is worth noting that Altair and Delphinus first set in the western sky at dawn (AS) during the very start of the breeding season in July, to reappear in the eastern sky at dusk (AR). The result of this is that there are 2 possible, and sequential, connections to indicate the start of the breeding season.

The Emu (Coalsack Nebula)

The head of Kalia the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the Coalsack Nebula, a dark absorption nebula bordering Crux, Centaurus and Musca resembling the profile of the head and beak of an emu. In December and January emu breeding pairs form, then in late April to Early May they begin mating, continuing through to June (Eastman, 1969). The emu lays a single egg every day until all are laid. It can take as much as much as 3 weeks to complete the clutch and the size of the clutch varies between 5 and 20 eggs. The eggs are incubated for 56 days (Eastman, 1969; Reid et al., 1993). The male emu raises the chicks for up to 7 months. The prime predator of emu chicks is the wedge-tailed emu (Reid et al., 1993), which Leaman et al. suggests may be another reason the Wedge-tailed Eagle is in Crux, which is adjacent to the celestial emu, which is its natural prey in both the celestial world and the terrestrial world.

The head of the emu’s association with the Coalsack has been found throughout Australia (e.g., Cairns & Harney, 2003, Fuller et al., 2014a; Stanbridge, 1861; Wellard, 1983). In many Aboriginal traditions it is the head of the emu with its eye being represented by the star BZ Crucis (mv = 5.3) Hamacher, 2012). The emu can been in profile stretching from the Coalsack to the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy in Scorpius, Ophiuchus and Sagittarius, the galactic bulge outlining the body of the emu. Similarly it was claimed by Bates (1904-1935: No. 25/308, p.13) that the “…long dark patch in the Milky Way . .[is the] emu father …” in the traditions of another desert community. The criterion used for single celestial objects is not applicable, as the emu is traced out by a large part of the sky. Similarly, it was excluded by Leaman et al. from analysis for the study. However, they reiterated that the rising of the celestial emu at dusk is at the time of year when emus are breeding and egg-laying (e.g. see Fuller et al., 2014a).

The Black Cockatoo – Antares

Antares (α Scorpii), a red giant star, is Warrooboordina, the red-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii). The red-tailed black cockatoo is the only member of its genus, Calyptorhynchus, that is found in the Central Desert. These parrots occur through the Musgrave Ranges, near the northern extent of the country of the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara-Yankuntjatjara (APY), though the range of its distribution does not extend as far as the Ooldean region, which lies about 480 km to the north, that Leaman et al. suggest may be because of the lack of mature River Red Gums along the major water ways, this particular tree being required for nesting sites by the red-tailed black cockatoo. A clue to why it is connected to the bright red star Antares is the red on the tail feathers of this cockatoo. They breed from March to September (Forshaw. 2002) incubating their eggs (Kurucz, 2000) for about 30 days. The inland subspecies Calyptorhynchus banksii samueli also breeds in March, though it has a peak in July (Higgins, 1999; Storr, 1977). Fledging occurs a median of 87 day from hatching, with the chicks being fed by both parents for a further 3-4 months after leaving the nest (Higgins, 1999).

The crossing of the meridian at dawn (Mdawn) of Antares coincides with the beginning of the breeding cycle and in early May the acronychal rising (AR) coincides with the first egg clutches hatching. Soon after the acronychal setting (AS) in mid-June the breeding cycle peaks. Antares crosses the meridian and is almost at the zenith after sunset (Mdusk) by mid-August, towards the end of the breeding season and the beginning of the fledging.

Another name for the red-tailed black cockatoo was Kogolongo in the traditions that were recorded by Bates, and was represented by the planet Mars. Leaman et al. suggests the red feathers in the birds’ tail are almost certainly the connection of both objects to this bird. It is most likely that their relationship to each other is due to the ecliptic passing through Scorpius, and sometimes Mars comes to within a few degrees of Antares. This occurred 10 times in the evening sky between 1919 and 1935 in:

·         September 1922 (angular separation 2.7o)

·         March 1922 (5.4o)

·         July 1922 (2.4o)

·         February 1924 (4.9o)

·         January 1926 (4.7o)

·         December 1927 (4.4o)

·         December 1929 (4.2o)

·         November 1931 (3.9o)

·         October 1933 (3.8o)

·         September 1935 (3.1o)

It can be reasonably assumed that the red colour of Mars and Antares, as well as their occasional close approach, are the reasons for Antares and Mars both being associated with the red-tailed black cockatoo, though there is no clear time-stamp to indicate when Bates recorded the story.

The owlet nightjar (Canopus)

The star Canopus (α Carinae) is Joorr-Joorr, is the Australian owlet nightjar (Aegotheles cristatus), which occurs throughout the Australian outback wherever there are tree hollows or rock crevices are present which are suitable for the birds to lay their eggs. According to Leaman et al. the name of the bird is onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of one of its repertoire of nocturnal calls. This, as well as other calls that are commonly used by this species have been described as sounding similar to ‘laughs’ or ‘chuckles’ of humans (Higgins, 1999).

The owlet nightjar breeds mainly from October to January and it has an incubation period of 18-29 days, depending on temperature (Brigham & Geiser, 1997). By late October the chicks form the first clutch of eggs hatch and are fledged by about 1 month later. The birds also hibernate (torpor) from May to September (Brigham et al., 2000).

The crossing of the meridian at dawn (Mdawn) of Canopus in mid-October and acronychal rising (AR) occurs in late October, and Canopus is high in the sky at dawn, which coincides with the beginning of the breeding season. In the “Orion story” (Leaman & Hamacher, 2014) Joorr-Joorr observes Nyeeruna’s attempts seduce and impress the 7 Mingari sisters, who are represented by the Pleiades, laughing at the Nyeeruna’s humiliation by Kambugudha, represented by the Hyades. Most chicks are fledging by early December, and begin using the ‘churring’ adult call (Higgins, 1999), and Orion is rising at dusk. An increase in vocalisation overall is led to by a combination of fledglings calling and a seasonal spike in the vocal activity of the birds during the warmer nights of summer (Schodde & Mason, 1980). Leaman et al. suggest this may explain why Joorr-Joorr laughs at Nyeeruna in the “Orion Story” (Leaman & Hamacher, 2014).

The heliacal rise (HR) of Canopus occurs at the time the owlet Nightjar begins a period of torpor, which is another interesting celestial correspondence. During the onset of spring the lifecycle concludes, which coincides with the heliacal setting (HS) of Canopus.

The Dingo (Achernar)

The star Achernar (α Eridani) is Ngurunya, the mother dingo (Canis lupus dingo). The dingo breeding season generally begins in March in most parts of Australia and gestation lasts between 61 and 69 days (Corbett, 1995), and the first litters are whelped from May to July (Catling et al., 1992). Dingoes have been observed with pups throughout the year (Purcell, 2010: 43), which suggests the breeding cycles are also likely to be influenced by seasonal availability of food resources due to the cycles of weather and climate, though in the Central Desert there is a distinct breeding peak in March,

In March the breeding season peaks which corresponds with the heliacal rising (HR) of Achernar in the southeast. The dingoes begin whelping by June, Achernar sets at dusk (HS) and at dawn the Pleiades rise at dawn (HR). The Pleiades kept a ‘tribe of dingoes’ with them to keep the men away, so dingoes are related to the Mingari women of the Pleiades (Bates, 1933). The helical rising of the Pleiades indicated the beginning of winter and the time for the Aboriginal People to start the harvest of the dingo pups among the Aboriginal cultures of the Central Desert e.g. Clarke, 2007/2008; Mountford, 1956; 1958).

The Thorny-devil lizard (Pleiades)

The Pleiades (M45 open star cluster) are Yu-garilya, the 7 Mingari sisters. The sisters become frightened and transform into the thorny-devil lizard (Moloch horridus) as Nyeeruna (Orion) tries to seduce the sisters (Leaman & Hamacher, 2014). The thorny devil is their totem animal and plays a central role in the narrative.

 The lizard, also known as the ‘thorny dragon’, is 20 cm long with conical spines and camouflaged skin (Browne-Cooper et al., 2007). The female lays a clutch of 10 eggs in a burrow about 30 cm deep between September and December (Priyanka, 1997). After incubating for 3-4 months (ibid.), the hatchlings crawl out of their burrow.

The crossing of the meridian at dawn (Mdawn) of the Pleiades coincides with the beginning of egg-laying. The acronychal rising (AR) of the Pleiades 2 weeks prior to the emergence of the first clutch of lizards from their nests in early December, which is followed by the acronychal setting (AS) closer to the actual time of hatching, and the last hatchings taking place just before the helical setting (HS) in April.

The bustard is the most important predator of the thorny devil lizards (Pianka & {Pianka, 1970). Leaman suggests that this predator-prey relationship may be seen in the interaction between the counterparts in the sky: as Vega (the Bustard) disappears from view in the northwest sky, the Pleiades (the thorny-devil) ‘safely’ emerge soon after in the northeast. This scenario is similar to the Greek mythology portrayal of the eternal pursuit of Orion and Scorpius.

The wedge-tailed eagle (Crux)

The 4 brightest stars of Crux are seen as resembling the footprint of Waljajinna, the eagle-hawk, or wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax), which is represented by the stars of the Southern Cross constellation (Crux). This association is present in the astronomical traditions of the Arrernte and Luritja communities in the Central Desert (e.g. Maegraith, 1932; Mountford, 1976).

The wedge-tailed eagle, one of the largest birds of prey in the world, is common across the Ooldean region. The breeding season begins in March to April and continues to September, though a majority of the eagles laid their eggs in July (Olsen, 1995; 2005), and the eggs are incubated for 45 days.

The number of eggs in a clutch is normally 2, though only 1 of these survives to fledge from the nest. The stronger chick usually out-competes the weaker sibling for food, and sometimes the weaker chick is killed by its stronger sibling, a phenomenon known as Cainism. On a worldwide basis, for eagles of the Aquila genus this is a common action (Olsen, 1995; Simmons, 1998). The weaker chick usually doesn’t live longer than 20 days after hatching. Fledging rates vary between 75 and 95 days, depending on factors such as the availability of food and nest disturbance (Marchant & Higgins, 1993).

At dusk Crux is at its highest altitude in the sky (Mdusk), and α and γ Crucis cross the meridian at close to the same time in June, which coincides with the peak in breeding and laying. This also coincides with the time of the hatching of the first clutch of eggs that were laid in late March, at which time the siblicide process is usually complete, with the surviving chick on the way to fledging. The breeding peak then carries over to a hatching peak in mid- to late-August, which coincides with the heliacal rising (HR), and a fledging peak in mid- to late-November, just after the heliacal setting of Crux (HS).

The reedbuck spider (Arcturus)

Arcturus (α Boötis), a red-orange star, is Kara, the redback spider (Latrodectus hasseltii). Though it was identified in some of Bates’ records as the blue star Rigel (β Orionis), Leaman et al. suggest this was probably a transcription error in her notes (see Leaman &Hamacher, 2014) for justification for this conclusion).

Redback spiders, less common in desert regions, mate throughout the year. The breeding rate increases as the temperature rises, peaking in summer (Forster, 1995). Sexual activity of the redback spider has been shown by studies near Perth, Western Australia, to peak in late November (Andrade, 2003). The spiderlings may emerge from their egg sack in 11 days after the eggs were laid, though their emergence is also temperature dependent, and the time before they emerge may be increased by cooler temperatures.

The breeding cycle peak of redback spiders in late November result in the emergence from the egg sacs of the spiderlings in early- to mid-December, closely corresponding with to the heliacal rising (HR) of Arcturus.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Leaman, T.M., Hamacher, D.W., and Carter, M. (2016). Aboriginal Astronomical traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 2: Animals in the Ooldean Sky. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 19(1), pp. 61-78.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 15/10/2016
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