Dreaming of the sky

THE ABORIGINAL ‘EMU-IN-THE-SKY’ CONSTELLATION, WHICH APPEARS ABOVE THE EMU ENGRAVING AT THE ELVINA ENGRAVING SITE, IN KURING-GAI CHASE NATIONAL PARK, NEAR SYDNEY EACH AUTUMN. CREDIT: BARNABY NORRIS
THE ABORIGINAL ‘EMU-IN-THE-SKY’ CONSTELLATION, WHICH APPEARS ABOVE THE EMU ENGRAVING AT THE ELVINA ENGRAVING SITE, IN KURING-GAI CHASE NATIONAL PARK, NEAR SYDNEY EACH AUTUMN. CREDIT: BARNABY NORRIS

Just as ecologists are increasing their understanding of the Australian environment through studying Aboriginal stories and talking to tribal Elders, so astronomers are beginning to appreciate Indigenous knowledge of the sky.

When Macquarie University PhD student Duane Hamacher encountered Aboriginal Dreamtime myths involving fiery stars falling to Earth, he decided to see if he could track where these objects had landed. Following several leads, Duane surveyed remote areas of Australia using Google Earth—and discovered a meteor impact site at Palm Valley, about 130 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs.

What Duane and colleagues from Macquarie’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science found when they visited Palm Valley was a bowl-shaped geological structure that could not have been formed either by erosion or volcanic activity. Rock samples at the site revealed shocked quartz, a direct indicator of meteorite impact. While, as Duane points out, this link between the story and his discovery could be coincidental, evidence that he and several other astronomers are beginning to accumulate suggests Indigenous knowledge of astronomy was considerable.

One of the leaders of this scientific appraisal is Duane’s supervisor, Ray Norris of CSIRO. For many years he has had a personal interest in exploring the Aboriginal view of the heavens. He’s infected his whole family with his fascination, and has become an adjunct professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University.

“The picture we are building up is that the Aboriginal peoples across Australia before contact [with Europeans] had a pretty good understanding of the how the sky worked —on their own terms, of course.”

Understanding eclipses

Most, if not all, of the 400 Indigenous Australian peoples had their own names and interpretations for celestial and planetary features. Many peoples talked of the Emu in the Sky, a feature marked by the regions of darkness in the Milky Way rather than by stars. And they named many other constellations. The constellation that astronomers know as Lyra, the Boorong people in northern Victoria call Neilloan, the mallee fowl. Orion was seen by Yolngu people of Arnhem Land as a canoe, and they named it Djulpan.

Aboriginal groups used these sky features for navigation and to time events. They clearly understood the link between the movements of the stars and the seasons of the year. When the mallee fowl disappeared from the sky, for instance, the Boorong knew it was time to collect mallee fowl eggs.

Not surprisingly, the heavens also became the source and inspiration for stories, celebrations and artwork (see page 14). The Yolngu people have a special ceremony where they gather after sunset to await the rising of Barnumbirr, or Morning Star (which is the planet Venus).

Two features that crop up in many Aboriginal cultures—the explanation of eclipses, and a linking of the phases of the moon with the tides—have convinced Ray that Indigenous understanding of the workings of the sky was profound.

Aboriginal stories typically talk of a Sun woman and a Moon man. Eclipses are seen in terms of the two coming together and making love—one hiding the body of the other. “Actually, this is a giant intellectual leap,” says Ray, “to realise that eclipses of the Sun are not something magic, but a natural process of the Sun and the Moon coming together.”

Even more astonishing, he says, is that lunar eclipses are explained in the same way, as a conjunction of bodies. In this case, the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the sky and Earth moves in between, casting a shadow on the Moon. “Some Einstein sitting out there in the bush figured this out at some point, and it has become part of Aboriginal tradition,” Ray notes.

“And then you’ve got people discussing how the Moon causes the tides. The idea appears to be pre-contact, and probably goes back a long way. But in 1600, Galileo was saying the Moon doesn’t have anything to do with the tides. So the link can’t be that obvious. Indigenous people must have made careful observations over time.”

PHOTO: THE ABORIGINAL ‘EMU-IN-THE-SKY’ CONSTELLATION, WHICH APPEARS ABOVE THE EMU ENGRAVING AT THE ELVINA ENGRAVING SITE, IN KURING-GAI CHASE NATIONAL PARK, NEAR SYDNEY EACH AUTUMN. CREDIT: BARNABY NORRIS

Department of Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney Adjunct Professor Ray Norris, Tel: +61 (2) 9372 4416, ray.norris@csiro.au, www.warawara.mq.edu.au/aboriginal_ astronomy/index.php