Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Observations of Red Giant Variable stars by Australian Aboriginals

Australian Aboriginals observe carefully the properties and positions of stars, which includes overt as well as subtle changes in their brightness, for subsistence and social applications. They encode these observations in oral tradition. Hamacher examined 2 Aboriginal oral traditions from South Australia that describe the periodic changes in brightness in 3 pulsating, red giant variable stars: Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri), and Antares (Alpha Scorpii). The accounts by the Australian Aboriginals are the only known descriptions of pulsating variable stars in any Indigenous oral tradition in the world. Over the last century researchers that examined these oral traditions, including anthropologists and astronomers, missed the description of these stars as being variable in nature as the ethnographic record contained several misidentifications of stars and celestial objects. Hamacher suggests that, arguably, ethnographers who work on Indigenous Knowledge Systems should have academic training in both natural and social sciences.

It was written by Aristotle (350 BCE) that the stars are unchanging and invariable, a position which was held in academic discourse for 2,000 years. With the exception of the occasional “guest star” (novae and supernovae), it was not until 1596 that this position was challenged. After almost 2,000 years, careful observations by David Fabricius in 1596 of the star Mira (Omicron Ceti) revealed that its brightness changes over time (Hoffleit, 1996). Johannes Hevelius calculated these changes in 1662, definitively overturning Aristotle’s claim and ushered in a new era of variable star research. This is regarded as the established discovery of variable stars by historians of astronomy.

Researchers have attempted to identify (non-eruptive1) variable stars that may be mentioned in texts from ancient civilisations, such as those in pre-Classical Greece (Wilk, 1996) and Egypt (Jetsu et al., 2013). It was found that the evidence from pre-classical Greece is open to interpretation, though by carefully analysing the Egyptian Cairo Calendar, which dates to 1271-1163 BCE, it was found that the Egyptians noted the variability of Algol (Omicron Persei), an eclipsing binary star (Jetsu & Porceddu, 2015). Nothing has been found to date that has been published showing any clear evidence of indigenous peoples observing and recording variability in the oral traditions.

In the culture and cosmology of many indigenous peoples, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures of Australia, astronomical knowledge is a significant component, with direct importance to anthropological studies (Clarke, 2007; Johnson, 1998). Is it possible that oral, sky-watching cultures observed the variability of stars and incorporated this phenomenon into their knowledge systems, given the scholarship that shows that many indigenous peoples were (and are) keen observers of the night sky (Norris, 2016)? Hamacher examined the oral traditions of Aboriginal Australians in order to answer this question.

Aboriginal people have been in Australia for more than 65,000 years (Clarkson et al., 2017), and they speak more than 350 distinct languages (McConnell & Thieberger, 2001), which provide a diverse range of deep-time traditions that can be explored for this evidence. As the Aboriginal cultures are oral rather than literate, the laws, social rules; and knowledge are committed to memory then transmitted to subsequent generations by way of oral tradition (Kelly, 2015). Oral traditions consist of cultural narratives describing the creation of the world by ancestors who established the traditional law which guides the people through their daily lives (Clunies-Ross, 1986). Oral traditions and Knowledge Systems are dynamic, and not static, in nature, and incorporate new knowledge and experiences as the people and their environment change over time (Battiste & Henderson, 2000).

Indigenous Knowledge Systems that are multifaceted and multi-layered contain a posteriori forms of knowledge. The origin of natural features is explained by this, as well as the dynamics of natural processes, and various natural phenomena through deduction, observation, experimentation, and experience. This has application to astronomy (Cairns & Harney, 2003), meteorology (Green et al., 2010), geological events (Hamacher & Norris, 2009), and physical geography (Nunn & Reid, 2016). Help in gaining a better understanding of the development of Aboriginal cultures, how Aboriginal people understand their world view, and the myriad ways in which Western academia can learn from these traditional Knowledge Systems for mutual benefit, can be provided by an anthropological understanding of this knowledge.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders observe the positions and properties of stars to inform navigation, development of calendars and plant and animal behaviour (Clarke, 2014; Hamacher et al., 2017). Included among these properties are stellar brightness, colour, relative position with respect to other celestial objects, and position with respect to the horizon. Changes in these characteristics are observed and interpreted in order to predict weather and seasonal change (Parker & Lang, 1905: 73-74). Included among transient phenomena are meteors, cosmic impacts, and eclipses, are often incorporated into oral tradition, where they serve as mnemonics for obeying the traditional law and avoiding social taboos (Hamacher & Norris, 2010; Hamacher & Goldsmith, 2013; Hamacher & Norris, 2011a, respectively.

According the Hamacher Indigenous and Western knowledge systems are dynamic and experimental in nature, which allows them to evolve with the introduction of new knowledge (Flavier et al., 1995). Indigenous Knowledge has traditionally been viewed as inferior to Western science, with centuries of colonisation, subjugation and oppression eliminating their influence or presence (Laws et al., 1994). It is argued by frameworks for working at the intersection of Indigenous Knowledge and Wester Science that productive engagement breaks down these barriers and moving beyond the comparative focus of pitting Indigenous and Western ways of knowing against each other, or focusing on distinctions between them (Agrawal, 1995; Nakata, 2010).

This paper, which is generally positivist in its approach, argues that Aboriginal oral traditions contain information that was gained through careful, long-term observations of stars. Hamacher shows that the subtle changes in stellar properties, such as variable brightness, were observed by Aboriginal peoples and incorporated into their oral traditions. This was accomplished by analysing 2 oral traditions from South Australia that were published in the anthropological literature. Hamacher showed that these traditions describe the variability of the pulsating red-giant stars Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri), and Antares (Alpha Scorpii), and allude to the relative periodicities in these stars variability. It is shown by the evidence that variable stars serve as a mnemonic, that reflects the cultural practices and traditional laws, and that these views may have some physiological and psychological basis in human perception. This supersedes accepted consensus by historians of astronomy  that the variability of the stars Betelgeuse, Antares, and Aldebaran was first discovered by Western scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Oral tradition 1: Nyeeruna

In Aboriginal oral traditions that are associated with the Western constellation of Orion and the Pleiades star cluster are ubiquitous across Australia (Johnson, 2000), with the notable exception of Tasmania (Johnson, 2011). These traditions commonly involve the stars Orion, typically a male hunter or group of hunters, pursuing the Pleiades star cluster, which are commonly associated with a group of women, usually sisters. In some traditions the Hyades star cluster, between Orion and the Pleiades, serves as a barrier between the man/men of Orion and the women of the Pleiades (Haynes, 2000).

The dynamic between these stars is often reflected as Orion pursuing the women of the Pleiades to make them his wives (White, 1975). The women of the Pleiades do not reciprocate this love interest, in many traditions, and are constantly running away from the advances of Orion (Fredrick, 2008). A continual celestial chase is represented by the diurnal motion of the stars rising in the East and setting in the west. This shares close similarities with the Greek traditions of these stars, where Orion the hunter pursues the 7 sisters of the Pleiades to make them his wives, but is challenged by Taurus the Bull, which is represented by the Hyades star cluster.

Kokatha communities in the Great Victoria Desert, South Australia, share an oral tradition that describes the relationship between ancestors that were anthropomorphic that are represented by Orion, Hyades, and the Pleiades. The tradition was published by daisy Bates (1921), an amateur anthropologist, who spent 19 years living among Aboriginal communities near Ooldea, South Australia, at the start of the 20th century and was later reanalysed by Leaman & Hamacher (2014).

According to the oral tradition a man, Nyeeruna, is a skilled hunter and a vain womaniser who lives in the sky. He is comprised of the stars of Orion, in the same orientation as his Greek counterpart, i.e., upside-down as seen from Australia. He pursues the Yugarilya sisters, represented by the Pleiades to make them his wives, and the pursuit is indicated by the relative diurnal motion of the 2 star groups. Nyeeruna is prevented from reaching the Yugarilya sisters by Kambugudha, the elder sister who is represented by the Hyades star cluster.

Kambugudha is contemptuous of Nyeeruna and is protective of her younger sisters. She stands between him and her sisters, mocking and taunting him as she blocks him from reaching them. Nyeeruna is filled with lust and angry because he is being prevented from reaching the sisters. The club in his right hand (Betelgeuse) fills with ‘fire magic’, ready to throw at Kambugudha. In defence, she lifts her left foot (Aldebaran), which also fills with fire magic. She kicks dust into Nyeeruna’s face, which humiliates him. This causes dissipation of the fire magic of Nyeeruna’s hand. Then Kambugudha places a row of dingo pups in front of Nyeeruna to shield her and her sisters from his unwanted advances. The curve of stars representing the dingo pups, that consist of л1,2,3,4,5, ѻ2, 6, 11, and 15 Orionis, which comprise the stars of Orion’s shield in Greek traditions. Nyeeruna’s magic returns over time and his club hand (Betelgeuse) increases in brightness and ‘fire lust’ as he pursues the sisters. Kambugudha calls out to Babba, the father dingo, who attacks Nyeeruna as she points and laughs. The timid Yugarilya sisters are frightened and hide their heads until Nyeeruna is released by Babba. Kambugudha is joined by the surrounding stars in mocking and laughing at Nyeeruna, who again loses the fire lust of his hand. Bates described Babba as the “the horn of the bull”, but didn’t specify if he was Beta or Zeta Tauri. At magnitude 1.65 Beta Tauri is brighter, though at magnitude 3.01 is closer to Orion and is also variable in nature. It is an eclipsing binary and has a variation of 0.1 magnitudes (Harmanec et al., 1980). In the story there is no clear indication that Babba is variable, so no judgements can be made about this property in the oral tradition.

Across the Great Victoria Desert there are variants of this tradition (Anonymous, 1922) and Central Australia. To the north of Ooldea a similar tradition involves a man named Njuru as Orion pursuing the sisters of the Pleiades (see White, 1975), and across the Central Desert, there are several similar variants, including Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara traditions about Nirunja (Orion) and Kunkarangkalpa (Pleiades), and traditions to the north at Glen Helen Gap (Mountford, 1976).

Oral tradition 2: Waiyungari

Young Ngarrindjen men in the Lower Murray region of South Australia underwent a complex initiation as part of their transition to adulthood (Berndt & Berndt, 1993). As a part of this process male novices (Narambi) spend some time covered in red ochre while they live in isolation, go without food, sleep and clothes and abstain from any contact with women. During this period it is forbidden to have sexual contact. If this sacred taboo is broken there can be severe punishment for the individuals involved as well as their families. According to Hamacher an element of forbidden love sometimes enhances the sexual attractiveness of the Narambi to young women and the narratives serve as a warning to the people about obeying sacred law. A young man named Waiyungari (‘red man’), is described in the oral tradition, which was described first by Meyer (1846) and later described by Taplin (1879: 57), and over the next 100 year by several ethnologists. Across the region there are a number of variants of the tradition (see Clarke, 1999), though they adhere to the same primary theme.

Waiyungari is described by the narrative as a Narambi, covered with red ochre (Clarke, 1999). Waiyungari was deeply attractive to 2 women who were the wives of his brother, Nepeli, and they followed him as he went about his activities in isolation. They took the form of emus as they approached his hut and made sounds to draw him out. The women morphed into human form and seduced him when he ran out to pursue the emus. Nepeli attempted to take revenge when his betrayal was discovered by setting his hut in which his wives and brother slept on fire. The trio escaped and ran along the river. Waiyungari cast his spear into the Milky Way and pulled himself and his women up into the sky to avoid punishment. Waiyungari became a bright red star, signifying the colour of his ochred body. The 2 women became fainter stars flanking him on either side. They all sit in a canoe in the Milky Way and with the celestial emu to the west. Waiyungari occasionally brightens and gets ‘hotter’, which increases the sexual desires of the people. Narambi must refrain from lascivious activities at this time.

Norman Tindale (1935), an anthropologist, studied the oral tradition. Tindale identified Waiyungari as the planet Mars during his ethnographic fieldwork and stated that several “native sources” confirmed this. He was not able to identify the 2 stars that represented the 2 women. Tindale consulted G. F. Dodwell, the Government Astronomer in 1935 who suggested that if Waiyungari was Mars, then the women were probably Jupiter and Venus (Tindale n.d., Tindale, 1983: 368). The justification of Dodwell was based on symbolism: He argued that the planets wander the sky and occasionally “come into conjunction with Mars, travel with it, and together are overwhelmed by the fiery orb of the sun, following which they reappear after a lapse of time as evening stars.” The oral tradition was later discussed by Tindale (1983: 369) with Von Del Chamberlain, the archaeoastronomer, who suggested that one of the wives was probably Saturn instead of Venus, as the behaviour of Saturn fits more closely the description that was provided by Dodwell. The brightness changes of Waiyungari were in any case attributed to the variable distance of Mars from Earth which causes the brightness of Mars to be attributed to the variable distance of Mars from Earth, the result of which is that the brightness of Mars ranges from magnitude -2.91 to +1.84.

The husband and wife anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt worked with those Aboriginal communities in the 1930s and 1940s. The identification of Waiyungari as Mars was the result of the Berndts’ repeating the work of Tindale. They also state that Waiyungari dominates the evening sky in September (Berndt & Berndt. 1993). Waiyungari is described by the Berndts in terms of symbolic anthropology: he is considered the personification of sexual prowess and fertility, being a seasonal marker of the arrival of Spring. The sexual desire of humans and animals is influenced by his presence high in the sky. The Berndts wrote (1951: 223) that when Waiyungari is at its brightest, the sexual feelings of men and women are enhanced significantly.

The identification of Waiyungari with Mars is a problem. Mars is not a suitable indicator of annual season as it will not always be in the same position in the sky at a given time of year because it is a planet (“wandering star”). Described as a bright red star in the Milky Way sitting in the celestial canoe with the emu to the west, appearing high in the evening sky in September, and pointing clearly to Antares the red giant (Alpha Scorpii). Tau and Sigma Scorpii, which are 2 fainter white stars of comparable brightness that flank Antares. At dusk in September Antares lies near the zenith and the trio of stars form part of the celestial canoe in the Milky Way. The emu is comprised of dark nebulae, not bright stars, in the Milky Way between the coal Sack Nebula (the head) the constellation Crux and the galactic bulge, the Body, to the West of the canoe (Hamacher, 2012: Fig. 5).

A comparative analysis of the oral traditions of other Aboriginal groups in the region supports the identity of Waiyungari as Antares and the 2 women as Tau and Sigma Scorpii.

·        In northwestern Victoria the adjacent Wergaia people describe Antares as Djuit with his 2 wives represented by Tau and Sigma Scorpii (Stanbridge, 1861).

·        In the traditions of Central Australia, among the Arrernte, Antares is a woman covered in red ochre, who is accompanied by 2 other women, Tau and Sigma Scorpii, who are trying to avoid the advances of a group of men (Maegraith, 1932).

·        In central Victoria, the Wurunjerri traditions have Nurong as the brother of the primary creation ancestor, Bunjil. Antares represents Nurong and his wives are represented by Tau and sigma Scorpii (Howitt, 1904: 128).

·        In the Clarence River region in northeastern New South Wales there is a tradition which resembles closely the Waiyungari  tradition, according to which a man, Karambal stole another man’s wife. Karambal was afraid of retribution so hid in a tree. The angry husband found Karambal hiding and set the tree on fire. Karambal ascended into the sky as smoke and became the star Aldebaran (Clarke, 2015).

·        A Pitjantjatjarra tradition from the Central Desert near Tomkinson Range tells of an initiate who was seduced by a young woman. As a result of his recent circumcision they were unable to separate during copulation. In fear of punishment for breaking the traditional law, they travelled to the sky where they and their tracks became close visual binary stars Mu1 and Mu2 Scorpii in the tail of Scorpius (Mountford, 1976: 456-459).

According to Tindale several Aboriginal people confirmed that Waiyungari was Mars. It is not known if the Aboriginal people physically pointed out Mars in the sky or simply discussed it with Tindale. It is not known exactly when Tindale carried out his fieldwork. In May 1935 Tindale sought the opinion of Dodwell. According to Hamacher, at this time Mars was prominent in the sky, to the north of Scorpius. Mars and Antares reached their closest approach by September 1935, when they were separated by only 3 degrees. In October 1933 mars was again at its closest approach to Antares. Could this have anything to do with the confusion or misidentification (Hamacher, 2017).

In Classical astronomy as well as Astronomical traditions of Aboriginal groups across Australia Mars and Antares are often linked. Ares is the Greek god of war, while Antares means “like Ares” or “rival of Ares” (Allen, 2013). Mars is the Roman god of war. Both objects are red and of similar brightness. Occasionally, Mars passes very close to Antares, since the ecliptic passes through Scorpius, where they fight for dominance. The reason for this misidentification is not known, but these could be contributing factors.

According to Hamacher Tindale was correct when it came to the women.  Because Tindale had only limited knowledge of astronomy he asked the leading astronomer, and an experienced archaeoastronomer. Hamacher suggests it is understandable that both astronomers would associate the wives with planets, as Tindale associated Waiyungari with Mars. As the planets themselves wander along the ecliptic, a fixed star would not make sense. Tindale stated (1983) that he did not quite understand why Dodwell or Del Chamberlain made their claim, though that he had deferred to their expertise. If Tindale told them Waiyungari was Antares maybe their opinions would have been different.

The variable nature of Nyeeruna, Kambugudha, and Waiyungari

The brightness variations in stars needs to be greater than approximately 0.1 magnitude, which is the normally accepted limit (North & James, 2014) to be visible to the unaided eye. The difference from one magnitude to the next represents a change in brightnessofif ~2.512, because the apparent magnitude scale is logarithmic. People who had keen eyesight and in ideal conditions could potentially see variations a bit fainter then this, though not substantially less. Also, a correction was devised (Baily & Howarth, 1979, 1980) from what is measured by telescopes to what the human eye actually sees. The corrections for the mean brightness of a star are:

·        Betelgeuse = +0.80 magnitude,

·        Aldebaran  = +1.09. and

·        Antares       =   +1.35.

This correction does not alter the change in brightness visible to the naked eye or the result so this paper significantly.

The role of the stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran in Nyeeruna narrative are described in the Nyeeruna traditions. It states clearly that Betelgeuse, the right hand of Nyeeruna holding the club brightens with fire magic/lust, and then fades over time. It is suggested by the narrative that the left foot of Kambugudha (Aldebaran), also brightens ad fades over time, though less so than Betelgeuse and so less frequently. Betelgeuse is a semi-regular, M-class red supergiant that varies from magnitude 0.0 to +1.3 (ΔVmag = 1.3), spending a majority of its time at magnitude +0.5 (Samus et al., 2107). Brightness variations occur with 2 primary periods of 388 ± 30 days and 2050 ± 460 days (Kiss et al., 2006). Calculated secondary periods in previous studies ranged from 1478 to 2200 days (Goldberg, 1984, Wood et al., 2004). Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri), a small amplitude, slow irregular K-class orange giant star, the magnitude of which ranges from +7.5 to +0.95 (ΔVmag = 0.2), but spends most of its time at magnitude +0.86 (Samus et al., 2017). The description of Nyeeruna and Kambugudha is consistent with the variable nature of Betelgeuse and Aldebaran in terms of both variable amplitude and periodicity. The increasing passion of Nyeeruna that is described in terms of lust and fire is reflected in the changes in brightness of Betelgeuse (Fredrick, 2008). Betelgeuse and Aldebaran are both described and brightening as they fill with ‘fire’, in association with lust and magic. The right hand of Nyeeruna fades as he is humiliated, and the fire magic of Kambugudha dissipates the dust into Nyeeruna’s face. The periodic nature of these changes is evident in the oral traditions. The ‘fire lust’ of Nyeeruna returns quickly, which does not allow time for Kambugudha to prepare. She is forced to call the father dingo to handle Nyeeruna, after which Nyeeruna’s fire lust/magic [lust fire/magic?] again dissipates and the brightness of his hand dims.

The Narambi becoming the star Antares (misidentified previously as Mars), and the 2 women becoming the stars Sigma and Tau Scorpii after escaping into the Milky Way to avoid punishment for breaking sacred Law is described in the Waiyungari tradition. Antares is a red supergiant irregular M-class star, that ranges in brightness from magnitude +0.6 to +1.6 (ΔVmag = 1.0) every 1560 ± 640 days (Kiss et al. 2006; Samus et al., 2009). Small peaks in brightness on a timescale of 19 years (Pugh, 2013) are exhibited by the star. Rather than Waiyungari brightening every September when it is visible overhead, as was interpreted by Tindale and the Berndts, the brightness of the star peaks every few years.

Waiyungari is described as brightening occasionally, which causes an increase in sexual desire of the people, particularly the Narambi initiates. This reminds the people of obeying traditional law. The overall increase in sexual activity during the Spring is a reflection of the sexual act between Waiyungari and the 2 women. As well as a rapid increase in breeding by animals and the flourishing of animal life, there is a tendency for initiation ceremonies to be held at this time of the year (Fuller et al., 2013). The brightening of Antares every few years acts as a mnemonic which reminds the people to refrain from forms of sexual conduct that are taboo.

Discovery of Visibility over time

According to Hamacher it can be difficult to demonstrate definitely that oral traditions describe subtle astronomical phenomena. The descriptions in the case of the 2 oral traditions that are presented in this paper are well supported. The periodicity of these changes is implied, though it is not noted explicitly. Knowledge of the relative periodicity of Betelgeuse and Aldebaran is alluded to in the Nyeeruna tradition, which suggests that Nyeeruna (Betelgeuse) fluctuates more rapidly than Kambugudha (Aldebaran), as is evidenced by her needing to call upon baba the father dingo to assist her as she was not able to generate the repelling fire-magic that is needed in time to defend against the advances of Nyeeruna.

The primary peak in the brightness of Betelgeuse occurs every 1.09 ± 0.08 years and a second peak every 5.6 ± 1.26 years. If it is assumed than in pre-colonial times Aboriginal lifespans were between 40 and 60 years, Betelgeuse would have gone through 47.2 ± 9.5 primary brightness peaks and 8.9 ± 1.8 secondary peaks. In the case of Aldebaran the periods of brightness peaks are not well known, though they occur regularly. As shown the light curve of the star it can undergo frequent fluctuations over a short time, which were followed by long periods of inactivity.

The variability of Aldebaran has not been well studied and any estimate of its periodicity is lacking (Wasatonic & Guinan, 1997). It is considered to be an irregular variable, though there are no regular or semiregular changes in brightness. There are short term fluctuations in the variability of Aldebaran, which are followed by longer periods of inactivity. Sporadic peaks and dips in brightness between 1997 and 2004 were revealed by photometric data from VSNET. It was noted by Sir John Herschel that the brightness of Rigel is exceeded by Betelgeuse at times though at other times Rigel was fainter than Aldebaran (Herschel, 1840).

The brightness of Antares peaks every 4.5 years, and there is a secondary peak every 19 years. Though the periodicity of Betelgeuse is slower, this amounts to 11.1 ± 2.2 primary peaks and 2.7 ± 0.6 minor peaks during an estimated lifetime. As a result of this the variability of these stars is not a rare occurrence. Aboriginal people would be able to detect the frequency of these peaks of brightness many times over a person’s life. For comparison, astronomical events that are much rarer are well known in Aboriginal traditions. Examples include bright comets, which are visible about once every 10 years (Hamacher & Norris, 2011c), total solar eclipses, observed every few hundred years from a given location (Hamacher & Norris, 201a), and meteor impacts that form craters, which occur every few thousand years (Hamacher & Norris, 2009).

According to Hamacher it is not clear how observations by Aboriginal people of variable stars were made. They may have utilised a technique that is similar to that used by John Herschel, as well as many other contemporary observers of variable stars. Comparison of the variable brightness of several stars of similar magnitude may have been involved in this technique, using standard candle stars that exhibit no variability. In 1840 Herschel undertook a 4-year study in which he noted the relative brightness of stars such as Rigel, Procyon, Acrux, Pollux, and Regulus, and then compared them with the stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran.

It is difficult to know when these observations by Aboriginal people were first made, or when they were incorporated into oral tradition. Examination of geological events in oral tradition, such as volcanic eruptions, sea level rise, and meteorite impacts, it has been demonstrated by researchers that oral traditions can survive for thousands of years (Nunn & Reid, 2016; Hamacher & Goldsmith, 2014). It is shown by the theoretical framework of Kelly (2015) how this is accomplished. Regarding the 2 oral traditions that are described in this paper only the dates the stories were first published, though obviously, they are much older.

Regarding variable stars, historians of astronomy have attributed the first recognised discovery of a pulsating red giant to John Herschel, who observed the variability of Betelgeuse between 1836 and 1840 from Cape Town, South
Africa. The first record of this Nyeeruna tradition was published in the 1930s, and the first version of the Waiyungari tradition was published in 1846. At that time, these were known to be oral traditions of long standing within the Aboriginal communities.

Symbolism of the colour red

In the 1830s, when Herschel was observing the variability of Betelgeuse, he also noted a significant increase in brightness of the luminous blue variable star Eta Carinae. This is a supergiant star that is unstable and erupts occasionally, expanding in size and shedding its outer layers. As a result of this the brightness of the star increases significantly. Eta Carinae underwent a major eruptive event, the brightness peaking in 1843 to become the second brightest star in the night sky. This is referred to as the Great Eruption of Eta Carinae (Frew, 2004). This event was incorporated into the oral traditions of the Boorong clan of the Wergaia language group. William Stanbridge, who was living near Lake Tyrell in northwestern Victoria, recorded their knowledge. Stanbridge kept notes of the celestial objects that were pointed out to him by his Boorong informants. He recorded Collowgullouric War, female crow, as a bright red star, giving details of its location, appearance, and catalogue number. Eta Carinae is a blue star, but The Great Eruption (as well as previous eruptions) ejected dust and debris into the surrounding space, which cooled as it moved away from the star. This scattered and attenuated the bluer wavelengths of light from the star, and made it appear as ruddy in colour.

In aboriginal astronomical traditions the colour is regarded as especially significant (Hamacher, 2013). There are multiple names for red colours that have an array of meanings among Aboriginal people, and these names are commonly related to sacred concepts of power, blood, and passion (Clarke, 2007). It is argued by Clarke that objects which are either red or white, and bright, are associated with the power of the ancestors, and possess a special significance. It is shown by Aboriginal astronomical traditions that red celestial objects or phenomena are generally assigned negative attributes. Red meteors were seen as an omen of sickness in Lardil traditions from the Wellesley Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, while meteors that were white or other colours were regarded as a sign of good news (McNight, 2005: 209). The red colour of a total lunar eclipse is associated with blood and death in Lardil traditions (Hamacher & Norris, 2011a). The ruddy colour of the Aurora Australis is associated with war, blood and death across Australia (Hamacher, 2013).

The red colour of the stars was associated with magic and sexual lust in both oral traditions, and the association was negative. The fire magic of Nyeeruna was related to his sexual desire for the sisters of the Pleiades. The brightening of Betelgeuse signified his persistent attempt to rape the sisters. Sexual desire led to infidelity and the breaking of traditional Narambi law in the Waiyungari story. During the Narambi period of strict abstinence and to respect marriage fidelity, the increasing brightness of Antares serves as a warning to the people to control their carnal urges.

In many Aboriginal traditions the significance and symbolism that is attributed to red celestial objects may be a contributing factor as to why the variability of Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, and Antares was noted and incorporated into oral tradition. In the blue star Algol, which is 18o north of the Pleiades and is visible across Australia, more noticeable variations are evident. The ancient Egyptians observed and noted it, so why not Aboriginal Australians? Hamacher suggests it is possible the Algol star is described in Aboriginal tradition, though it has not been identified or the knowledge was lost during the last 2 centuries of colonisation.

Hamacher suggests Physiological and psychological factors might contribute to the explanation of why the variability of red stars is described in oral tradition.

·        In terms of physiology, cones – the photoreceptor cells in the retina are sensitive to red wavelengths of light, which means variations in the brightness of red are more noticeable in red stars (Isles, 1970). 

·        In psychological terms, both oral traditions describe a close association between the 3 red stars and sexual desire.

For a long time psychologists have explored the link between the colour red and sexual attractiveness, which shows evidence of their relationship (Meir et al., 2012). It has been shown by research that the colour red enhances sexual attractiveness between people of sexual interest, in both men and women, which evokes romantic approach-related motivations (Elliot & Niesta, 2008; Elliot et al., 2010). The brightening red colour of these stars reinforces symbolically this relationship, which reflects traditional laws and customs relating to sex, taboos, and marriage, in the context of these 2 Aboriginal oral traditions.

Cross-disciplinary training

Hamacher stresses it is important to address any potential ‘cultural contamination’ between Aboriginal knowledge and Western science. The probability that western science influenced the description of variable stars in these oral traditions is negligible. As it relates to variable stars, the interpretation of the narrative was not considered by ethnographers  of the day and went unnoticed in the literature until it was suggested (Fredrick, 2008) that the Nyeeruna tradition described the variability of Betelgeuse, which was explored by Leaman & Hamacher (2014). The increasing ‘fire-magic’ of Betelgeuse was attributed (Bates, 1921) to the “effects of radiations from nebulae”. The misidentification of Waiyungari as Mars was not noticed by astrophysicists that were engaged in cultural astronomy research who wrote about the tradition (Bhathal, 2011; Norris, 2016).

The necessity for cross-disciplinary training in social and natural sciences for anyone who is conducting ethnographic research on indigenous knowledge systems is highlighted by the misidentification of Waiyungari as Mars  and its subsequent repetition throughout the literature, by astronomers as well as anthropologists. Mistakes and errors in the identification of objects can affect negatively scholarly and community outcomes. One goal of conducting work in this discipline is to document accurately and preserve Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and to develop educational curricula and pedagogies from it. This can be a difficult challenge considering very different worldviews between Aboriginal and Western ways of thinking and knowing. Misidentifications, errors and other problems arising from having a poor understanding of astronomy can have the result of feeding inaccurate or faulty information back to communities. In order to overcome this it requires that ethnographers who work on Indigenous Knowledge Systems have a sufficient working knowledge of astronomy, ecology, geosciences, and meteorology.


It was shown by critical reanalysis of 2 oral traditions from South Australia that Australian Aboriginals describe the variability of the red giant stars Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, and Antares. In Betelgeuse and Antares the amplitudes in variation are conspicuous to a keen observer and are the only first magnitude stars that are noticeably variable, though there is a possible exception, the K-giant star Arcturus. The amplitude of Antares is small, though it is observable.

With regard to these stars the variability measured by astrophysicists is in close agreement with the descriptions in the Aboriginal oral traditions. The traditions imply that Aboriginal Knowledge about the relative periodicities in these stars.

It is argued by Hamacher that Aboriginal People observed these stars and incorporated their variability into their oral tradition, and that these traditions predate the discovery of the variable nature of these stars in the 19th century by European scientists. This highlights the importance of considering and examining Indigenous oral traditions around the world for descriptions of celestial phenomena that can aid astrophysicists as well as social scientists in their understanding of oral tradition, and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

Sources & Further reading  

Hamacher, D. (2017). Observations of red–giant variable stars by Aboriginal Australians.



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 03/07/2019
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