Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Astronomy

It has been suggested the Australian Aboriginal People may have been the first astronomers (Haynes, 1992). A number of stone arrangements have been found in Australia that show remarkable similarity to stone arrangements in Europe, but could be thousands of years older. In Victoria, the Wurdi Youang people built a stone arrangement, that was roughly egg-shaped, and with a diameter of about 50 m. Its major axis is east-west. 3 prominent stones, that are waist high, are at its highest point at the western edge. It has been found that, viewed from these stones, some outlying stones to the west of the main arrangement appear to indicate the setting of the sun at times of equinoxes and solstices. The straight sides of the arrangement have also been found to point to the solstices. They had differentiated between planets, stars and constellations, and they used the sky as a calendar to plan their year, when to harvest their various food sources, when to move camp as the season was about to change. And they knew the connection between the Moon and the tides. They had myths to explain the effect the Moon had on the tides, they knew what tides to expect by observing the Moon. They had a sound knowledge of the cyclical phases of the Moon. They used this knowledge to plan when to move to new sites and to hold their big ceremonies, when many people would gather and need a large, assured food supply for the duration of the rituals, that could last for weeks or months.

An astrophysicist studying Aboriginal Astronomy has found an impact crater in Palm Valley that was about 280 m wide and 30 m deep, about 130 km southwest of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, that was connected to a story from the Dreaming of the local Arrente people. According to the story, a star fell to earth at Puka, the approximate site of the crater. The crater is heavily weathered and no fragments of meteorite were found, but a small amount of shocked quartz was found. The only 2 ways this material forms is by nuclear explosions and by meteorite impact.

About 170 km west of Alice Springs, at Gosse's Bluff, is another impact crater, in this case associated with a dreaming story of a 'cosmic baby' that fell to earth. As both craters are millions of years old it is not possible that they were witnessed by humans. It seems the people may have learned to associate craters with impacts of objects from space. There are some craters at Henbury, about 70 km from Palm Valley, that are about 4,000 years old, these could have been witnessed by humans. The tribal elders know Dreaming stories about the Henbury craters but they are considered sacred and secret.

In the north, when Scorpio was visible in the morning sky in early December the people of Yirrkala knew that the Macassan Traders were due to arrive on the northern shore. On nearby Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, they knew that when 2 stars in the 'sting' in Scorpio's tail appeared in the evening sky at the end of April the wet season would soon end and marimariga, the dry southeast wind, would soon come. Mountford (1956), Crawford, (1668), Dreaming the Stars.

Confirming the suspicions that these stone arrangements may have had astronomical significance, other stone arrangements have been found in Victoria that also appear to point to the cardinal points.

Ngaut Ngaut is a site north of Adelaide on the banks of the Murray River in South Australia. At this site the Nganguraku people had engraved a rock with a series of dots and lines. The traditional owners say it represents the cycles of the moon, but as the early Christian missionaries banned the speaking of the language, as well as the initiation rites, during which much of the oral tradition was passed on to younger generations, the oral tradition has been mostly lost.

The Kuwema people near Katherine in the Northern Territory used the rising of Orion early in the morning in winter to know when dingoes were breeding, so pups would soon follow, in this case as a food source. (Harney, 1959).

The Yolngu people in the Northern Territory call the constellation of Orion Djulpan. According to a Yolngu story, 3 brothers went fishing but could only catch kingfish. As they were of the Nulkal totemic group (kingfish) they were prohibited from eating this fish species. One got so hungry that he ignored the ban on eating his totem fish. Walu, the Sun woman, punished him by making a waterspout that carried the canoe to the sky where it became Orion's belt, but to the Yolngu the 3 stars representing the belt were the 3 brothers in their canoe. The Orion Nebula was a fish on a line from the canoe.

The emu in the sky. At the Elvina Engraving Site in the Kuring-Gai Chase National Park, Sydney, is an engraving of the emu in the sky, a constellation recognised by many Aboriginal groups across Australia, that is formed of dark clouds in the Milky Way, rather than the stars as in most constellations. When the constellation is above the carving in the rock the local Aboriginal People knew it was time to collect emu eggs.

The people of the Torres Strait islands use their constellation of Tagai, a warrior, to tell them when it is time to plant their crops. When his left hand, the Southern Cross, is about to enter the sea the first rains of the wet season are coming.


  1. Australian Aboriginal Astronomy
  2. Rocky Ways to secrets of the Sky
  3. Australian_Aboriginal_Astronomy - wikipedia
  4. Aboriginal Astronomy - Questacon
  5. Aboriginal Astronomy - Neilloan
  6. Emu Dreaming
  7. Aboriginal folklore leads to meteorite crater
  8. Emu Dreaming: An Introduction to Aboriginal Astronomy by Ray & Cilla Norris
  9. Cosmogenic Mega-tsunami in the Australia region
  10. Dreaming the Stars
  11. Australian Aboriginal People the first astronomers


Sources & Further reading

  1. Jennifer Isaacs, Australia Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, New Holland Publishers, 2005
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 28/09/2013


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