Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Comet and Meteorite Traditions of Aboriginal Australians

There are hundreds of distinct Aboriginal cultures in Australia, among which there are many oral traditions that are rich in descriptions and explanations of comets, meteors, meteorites, airbursts, impact events and impact craters. Attribution of these phenomena is generally to spirits, death and bad omens. Also, there are many traditions describing the formation of meteorite craters as well as impact events that are not known to Western science.

Roughly once every 5 years, bright comets can be seen in the sky. Among the Aboriginal cultures of Australia these celestial bodies were commonly believed to be harbingers of death and disease. Rare transient events in the ordered and predictable cosmos typically were viewed negatively – which is view that was shared by most cultures around the world (Hamacher & Norris, 2011). There were some cases in which the appearance of a comet would coincide with a battle, a disease outbreak, or a drought. Following such a coincidental event the comet was thought of as the cause and therefore attributed to the deeds of evil spirits. In South Australia, the Tanganekald people believed that comets were omens of sickness and death and were met with great fear. In western Victoria, the Gunditjmara people also believed the comet was an omen of the death of many people. In communities near the present day Townsville in Queensland, comets were seen as the spirits of the dead returning home. Comets led the Euahlayi people in New South Wales to believe that as there was a coincidence of a comet appearing at a time of drought that they were evil spirits who sucked the water from the clouds, and thereby caused the drought. The tail of the comet was the large family that consumed the water from the river.

Among other aboriginal groups the tail of a comet resembled smoke, so significance was given to the tail of the comet. This association was made by Aboriginal communities in the Talbot, Victoria, Cape York, Queensland, and Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland, as did the Maori of Aotearoa, New Zealand. In the Central Desert in the Northern Territory groups believed comets were representations of celestial spears that were thrown by spirits of ancestors in the sky; the groups included the Pitjantjatjarra, Kaitish, Luritja and Arrernte.

Meteors

Across Aboriginal cultures the beliefs associated with meteors are many and diverse. An interpretation that is frequently found is that meteors are the spirits of the recently deceased. The traditions among the Wardaman, near Katherine in the Northern Territory, held that upon the death of a person the spirit of that person ascends into the sky and passes through the star Garrdarin (Spica), and then became a star of its own. It was looked after by Munin (Arcturus) the Rock-Cod star before falling back to Earth as a meteor. The star-spirit fell into a stream, where it was looked after by the Earthly Rock Cod again. The spirit pursued a potential mother and entered her to be reincarnated as a baby.

Meteors are believed to be the fiery eyes of celestial serpents across northern Australia, which are also referred to as the Rainbow Serpent. On Bathurst and Melville Islands to the north of Darwin, Northern Territory, the Tiwi Aboriginal people believe meteors are the Papinjuwari – evil spirits that have long claws that steal babies’ hearts. According to the traditions of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Namorrorddo are similar evil spirits, and in the traditions of the Lardil people of Mornington Island, Queensland, the evil spirits are Thuwathu.

War was also involved in the traditions of meteors. In northern Queensland Aboriginal groups followed the trails of meteors in the belief that falling stars would lead them to enemy Warriors. In New South Wales the Ngarigo People believed that a meteor pointed in the direction of a group that was preparing for war. In the Murray River region, Victoria, the Wathi-Wathi people believed meteors to be the path of a nulla-nulla (which is a short spear) in the sky. In the Central Desert, Northern Territory, Arrernte revenge rituals involved throwing a small spear that had been filled with evil magic in the direction of the intended target. The death of a person was signified by the appearance of a meteor.

Impact Events

The oral traditions of Aboriginal people from across Australia describe a fiery star falling from the sky with a roar, causing death and destruction when they strike the land. With the exception of Henbury, which is described below, all of these accounts do not coincide with impact sites known to Western science (Hamacher & Norris, 2009).

In north-central New South Wales the Weilan people have a tradition of a large star that fell to Earth, which lit up all the surrounding land. The Aboriginal people from Wilcannia, northwestern New South Wales, have a story which describes a large fiery star that rumbled and smoked as it fell from the sky, and crashed into the bed of the Darling River to the northwest of Wilcannia at a place they called Purli Ngaankalitji. The impact was followed by a deluge. According to Hamacher it is not certain if these stories are related, but there are no impacts that are known from New South Wales.  

Traditions of the Yuin people from the Shoalhaven region, near Nowra, to the south of Sydney, New South Wales, which describes an impacting meteor shower and airburst. According to the story the sky heaved and many stars fell to the Earth, flashing in the sky. A large reddish mass burst in the air, which made a deafening roar as debris was scattered across the region, and burnt holes were left in the ground. A Gurudara story from east of Darwin, Northern Territory, tells of a bright star, Nyimibili, which fell onto the camp near the Wildman River from the sky, which burnt all of the grass and trees. It is suggested by some published research that the rates of impacts are higher than is currently predicted by scientists that large impacts in the ocean in recent times, less than 1,000 years ago, caused huge tsunamis to impact coastal Australia and New Zealand. Though these claims are circumstantial and have been refuted, they remain as a controversial topic in modern studies of cultural astronomy and geomythology.

Meteorite Craters

There are oral traditions among Aboriginal people relating to the Gosses Bluff crater in the Northern Territory, Liverpool Crater, also in the Northern Territory, Wolfe Creek crater in Western Australia, and the Henbury crater field in the Northern Territory (Hamacher & Goldsmith, 2014). Yingundji is the Kunwinjku name for Liverpool crater in eastern Arnhem Land, which is 1.6 km wide that formed more than 500 Ma. It is believed by the Aboriginal people to be the nest of a giant catfish, and catfish were depicted in rock art in the caves along the crater wall.

The Wolf Creek crater, which is 900 m wide, in the eastern Kimberley, Western Australia, formed 300,000 years ago. Kandimalal is the name in the local Jaru language for the Wolf Creek Crater, and there are several stories about the formation of the crater (Goldsmith, 2000). Included among these is a being that was digging for yams, a Rainbow Serpent emerging from the ground, and a star falling to Earth. Views from Western scientists working in the area are apparently incorporated into some traditions, as attested to by an Elder who claimed the star-story was “white man’s story” Reeves-Sandy, 2007).

Gosses Bluff crater, a crater that is 22 km wide that is heavily eroded, having formed about 142 Ma, is in Central Australia to the west of Alice Springs, Northern Territory. All that remains of the crater at the present is a range of hills that is ring-shaped, 5 km wide and 150 m high. To the Western Arrernte people it is Tnorala. According to the traditions of the Arrernte a group of 8 women were going to take the form of stars to have a corroboree in the Milky Way. One of the women set her baby down in a wooden basket that was called a turna. As she danced with the other women in the ceremony, the baby rolled off the Milky Way and fell to Earth. The rocks were driven upwards to form a mountain range in the form of a ring by the impact of the baby and the turna. The constellation Corona Australis that can be seen in the sky (the Southern Crown) is the turna.

The Henbury crater field, located to the south of Alice Springs, is the youngest group of impact sites in Australia. The result of the disintegration of a meteorite in the atmosphere (an air burst) was the formation of 13 craters that cover an area of 1 km2. The impact was probably witnessed by Aboriginal people as it occurred less than 4,700 years ago. According to oral traditions that were collected in the 1930s it is the place where a fire devil came from the Sun and ran down to the Earth, creating the craters. The spirit burned and ate people because they broke sacred laws. The Aboriginal people would not collect water from the craters as they were afraid the fire devil would fill them with iron.

Meteorites

Meteorites were used by some people as axe blades, but they were generally viewed with reverence as sacred objects. In western Queensland some Aboriginal people were “deadly afraid” of meteorites from the Tenham meteorite fall of 1879. Outside of Melbourne a large exposed meteorite was struck with the axes of some local Aboriginal people. There is evidence that Aboriginal people transported meteorites over long distance, but the reasons for this are unknown (Bevan & Bindon, 1996). Interest in meteorites by White people in the early 20th century led Aboriginal people to collect meteorites and tektites for sale. It was common for Aboriginal people to use tektites for surgical tools and ritual implements (Baker, 1957; Edwards, 1966).

Sources & Further reading

  1. Hamacher, D. W. (2008). Comet and Meteorite Traditions of Aboriginal Australians. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. H. Selin. Dordrecht, Springer Netherlands: 1-4.

         

 

 

Author: M. H. Monroe
Email: admin@austhrutime.com
Last updated:
06/07/2017
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                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email: admin@austhrutime.com     Sources & Further reading