Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Australian Aboriginal Astronomy – Overview

There are still some Aboriginal cultures in northern and Central Australia that have retained almost all of their culture and language from pre-contact times, still conducting initiations where knowledge is passed down the generations. Most of the detailed information has been obtained from some of these, in particular the Yolngu and Wardaman peoples. In this paper only the material that is not considered to be secret and sacred by the traditional Aboriginal owners is considered. .

In the song, stories, art, and ceremonies of many traditional Aboriginal cultures celestial objects feature, the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, the Milky Way, as well as the dark clouds within it (Stanbridge, 1861; Mountford, 1956; Haynes, 1992; Johnson, 1998; Cairns & Harney, 2003; Norris & Norris, 2009; Norris & Hamacher, 2009; 2011; Hamacher & Norris, 2011a). For example, included in the Aboriginal “constellations” are the Southern Cross, the meaning to different Aboriginal groups might be seen as the footprint of an emu, a stingray, or a possum in a tree. Alternatively, in many different Aboriginal groups Orion symbolises a young man or group of young men, chasing the Pleiades (7 sisters). The “constellation” the emu is another that is well-known (Cairns-Harney, 2003; Massola, 1963), consists of the dark clouds within the Milky Way, which is important in many different Aboriginal groups throughout Australia.

The deeper understanding of the sky, such as the explanation of the tides, eclipses, the motion of the Sun and Moon, and the ability to predict the rising and setting places of celestial bodies in the sky also had practical applications for navigation and time keeping (Cairns & Harney, 2003; Clarke, 2009), discussed in greater detail by Clarke (2014).

The Sun, Moon and planets

It is shown by many Aboriginal people that they sought to understand the motion of the celestial bodies, and to place them in a framework that was self-sufficient that described the natural world. The motion of the Sun, e.g., is described by the Yolngu people as being caused by the Sun-woman, Walu, who lights a stringy bark tree each morning, then carries across the sky to her camp in the West (Wells, 1964). The lunar phases represent the Moon-man, Ngalindi, being attacked by his wives wielding axes who cause the lunar phases by slicing pieces off him.

Solar eclipses were widely viewed as a bad omen, though good evidence exists that shows that at least 3 Aboriginal groups, the Euahlayi, Yolngu and Warlpiri people, each from a different state of Australia, recognised an eclipse for what it is, a conjunction between the Sun and the Moon (Hamacher & Norris, 2011b). In all of these 3 cases they were seen as mating between the Sun-woman and the Moon-man, and in one account, the Warlpiri, adding a bit extra, the Sun-woman was sent away by the sky spirits for trying to seduce the Moon-man. In many other Aboriginal groups an eclipse was recognised as something covering the Sun, but thought that it was a hood or cloak. As a total solar eclipse is seen in any one location every 3 or 4 generations, this implies there was a remarkable continuity of learning in these explanations.

Lunar eclipses were also interpreted widely as something covering the Moon, though there is only one case in which it was attributed to the relative positions of the Sun and Moon (Hamacher & Norris, 2011b). Others have thought of the Moon-man being covered by shadow of a man walking in the Milky Way. It was widely believed that the red on the Moon during a lunar eclipse was blood on the face of the Moon-man.

The Yolngu noticed that tide height varies depending on the phase of the Moon, and the highest tide, a spring tide, occurs at the time of a new moon, an association that was not noticed by Galileo. The Yolngu noticed this connection and devised an explanation for the phenomenon. Their explanation, which was based on the filling and emptying of the Moon as it passed through the ocean at the horizon (Berndt, 1948), differs somewhat from that of modern science, though it is suggested by Norris & Hamacher that it is a good example of an evidence-based approach to understand the world in a cultural context.

Similarly, it was noticed widely that the planets move differently from the stars. E.g. the Yolngu noticed how Venus was always low in the sky, and close to the rising or setting Sun.  Their explanation for this was to suggest that Venus as a morning star was attached by a rope to the mythical island of Baralku in the east (Norris & Norris, 2009; Allen, 1975), which prevented her from rising high in the sky. Venus as an evening star was held down by a rope connected to the “spirits of the West” (Berndt, 1948). Norris & Hamacher also suggest that it is possible that the zodiacal light, which is easily seen in Arnhem Land, was believed to be supportive evidence for this rope.

Orientation and Prediction

For several Aboriginal groups, most notably the Warlpiri people, the concept of cardinal direction is important, as much of their cultural lore is based on cardinal directions (Pawu-Kurlpurlurnu et al., 2008), which are largely determined by the rising and setting Sun. The dead are buried facing to the east in some Aboriginal cultures (e.g. Mathews, 1904), and initiation sites are often oriented north-south (Fuller et al., 2012). It has been shown (Hamacher et al., 2012) that a sample of linear stone arrangements is oriented north-south with an accuracy of a few degrees.

There are 3 techniques that have been suggested as possible methods of determining the cardinal directions:

1                    This would involve the use of so-called “magnetic” termite mounds, but this couldn’t have been used as this type of termite mound that is elongate and is aligned north-south, and has an accuracy of 10o  as they are found only in the Northern Territory (Grigg & Underwood, 1977). Therefore they could not have been used as they are a long way from the boras and stone arrangements which are in the south of the continent. Astronomical observations are involved in the other 2 techniques.

2                    From a given viewing position, a stone or stick could be placed on the ground in the direction of the setting Sun. The ends of the lines that result will indicate the position of the Sun at the solstices, and the midpoint between the ends indicates due west. It has been shown (Ruggles, 1997) that variations in the height of the horizon limits the accuracy of this technique, but this is not likely to limit these measurements, as the accuracy being cited is here is of the order of a few degrees. It is noted that the solstitial positions at Wurdi Young are indeed marked with due west being marked between them.

3                    The position of a circumpolar star, such as those within the Southern Cross, similarly may be marked by placing a stick or stone vertically below the star at various times through the year. Due south will be indicated by the midpoint of the line that results.

The Wurdi Youang stone ring is the best example of astronomical alignments (Morieson, 2003; Norris et al., 2012), where there are several east-west indicators that are accurate to a few degrees, as well as outliers and sections of the ring that are straight and indicate the setting position of the Sun in midwinter and midsummer. It is indicated by a Monte Carlo analysis that these alignments are not likely to be due to chance. This the only known Aboriginal site  that indicates significant astronomical positions on the horizon other than the cardinal points, and, as long as it is not a statistical freak or a hoax, suggests that there may be other such sites that are yet to be discovered.

Archaeoastronomical significance

There is unequivocal evidence that Australian Aboriginal people possessed a deep knowledge of the sky, and were aware of many celestial phenomena. Evidence has also been found that interest in the sky went beyond this, to the extent that they were trying to understand the mechanisms behind these phenomena, and how they fitted into a world view that was self-consistent.

A sparsity of data hinders these studies. With the exception of comets (Hamacher & Norris, 2010), there is only a single known example of a transient phenomenon that has been incorporated in to a traditional Aboriginal oral account (e.g. the Great Eruption of η Carina: (Hamacher & Frew, 2010), and attempts have been made to link stories of stones from the sky with meteorite events that are known of have not been successful (Hamacher & Norris, 2009).

There is also a danger that an interpretation from the point of view of Western culture may be imposed on it. An example is that it has sometimes been stated that careful measurement is alien to Aboriginal culture, and it has sometimes been asserted until recently (e.g. Blake, 1981) that there is no Aboriginal language that has a word for a number greater than 5. There is no basis in fact for this latter assertion, though it appears to reflect a combination of post-colonial prejudice and a lack of understanding of number systems.

Relying only on evidence-based studies is the best way to avoid such cultural bias, in either direction.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Norris, R.P. and Hamacher, D.W. (2014). Australian Aboriginal astronomy: an overview. Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, Vol. III, edited by Clive Ruggles. Springer-Verlag, pp. 2215-2223


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 16/10/2016
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