Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Records of Supernovae in Indigenous Traditions?

In this paper traditions of Australian Aboriginal people are explored for possible descriptions of novae/supernovae. There are currently no conformed accounts of supernovae in indigenous Australian oral or material traditions, though representations of supernovae may exist in Aboriginal traditions.

Australian Aboriginal people have a detailed knowledge of the night sky, as do many indigenous cultures around the world, using their knowledge for navigation, calendars and time keeping, when to gather particular types of food, ceremonies and social structure (e.g. Cairns & Harney, 2003; Frederick, 2008; Hamacher & Norris, 2011a; Johnson, 1998). Involved in the sky knowledge is an understanding and explanation of the motions of planets, relative to the positions stars, lunar phases and tides, and the position of the rising and setting Sun throughout the year with respect to the landscape  (Hamacher & Norris, 2011a; Norris & Hamacher, 2009; Norris et al., 2013). Explanations of transient phenomena are included in this knowledge, such as meteors, comets, eclipses and aurorae (Hamacher & Norris, 2010, 2011b, 2011c; and Hamacher, 2013, respectively). Oral traditions and material culture were the forms by which this knowledge was passed down through successive generations (Clunies-Ross, 1986).

Scientific information explaining the natural world in terms of cause-effect is contained in astronomical traditions of indigenous people. This scientific information, which was based on observation and deduction, was used for predictive purposes. Australian Aborigines linked lunar phases to tides and this knowledge was used as a guide for deciding when to fish, and their traditions also contained an explanation of how and why the Moon was connected to the tides (e.g. Johnson, 1998: 27,37). The Arrival of winter in the Central Desert was signalled by the heliacal rising of the Pleiades (Tindale, 2005: 374), while the rising after dusk of the celestial emu indicated that the emu eggs would be ready to collect (e.g. Fuller et al., 2014). Also, transient phenomena, rare or common, were often linked to special events on Earth. An example is the sudden flash of a meteor may coincide with a death in the community, or the appearance of a comet or an eclipse might coincide with a famine, drought or a battle (Johnson, 1998:86-89).

One account confirms the sudden brightening in the oral traditions: the ‘supernova-imposter’ eruption of Eta Carinae in 1843. The Boorong people of western Victoria, Australia, witnessed this event and incorporated it into their oral traditions. Stanbridge recorded the required data, such as the physical appearance of the star, its position in the sky and catalogue number during the outburst of the star. The Great Eruption of Eta Carinae was not, however, a real supernova or nova.

One story has been identified as indicating the appearance of a new star in the sky. This story of “The Fisherman Brothers” is from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia (Wells, 1873: 31-36).

According to Hamacher this paper establishes criteria that are necessary to identify novae/supernovae in oral traditions or material culture. He also suggests that attempts at linking oral traditions or material culture to novae/supernovae are worthwhile. Understanding of cultural astronomy and indigenous knowledge traditions will benefit from the identification of these phenomena in oral accounts or material culture. Also, astronomers could be led to supernovae remnants that have been unrecorded.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Hamacher, Duane W., 2014, Are supernovae recorded in indigenous astronomical traditions? Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 161-170 (2014).


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 08/10/2016
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