Australian Aboriginal astronomy
Australian Aboriginal astronomy is a name given to indigenous Australian culture relating to astronomical subjects – such as the Sun and Moon, the stars, planets, and the Milky Way, and their motions on the sky.
One of the earliest records of indigenous astronomy was made by William Edward Stanbridge, an Englishman who emigrated to Australia in 1841 and befriended the local Boorong people. A recent comprehensive review  summarises all published research on Aboriginal Astronomy up to 2016.
Some Aboriginal groups use the motions of celestial bodies for calendar purposes. Many attribute religious or mythological meanings to celestial bodies and phenomena. There is a diversity of astronomical traditions in Australia, each with its own particular expression of cosmology. However, there appear to be common themes and systems between the groups. Due to the long history of Australian Aboriginal astronomy, the Aboriginal peoples have been described as "world's first astronomers" on several occasions.
Interpreting the sky
Emu in the Sky
A constellation used in Aboriginal culture in Australia is the "Emu in the Sky", a 'constellation' that is defined by dark nebulae (opaque clouds of dust and gas in outer space) that are visible against the Milky Way background, rather than by stars. The Emu's head is the very dark Coalsack nebula, next to the Southern Cross; the body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way to Scorpius.
In Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, north of Sydney, are extensive rock engravings of the Guringai people who lived there, including representations of the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife. An engraving near the Elvina Track shows an emu in the same pose and orientation as the Emu in the Sky constellation. This Emu in the sky is known all around the worl
Canoe in Orion
The Yolngu people of northern Australia say that the constellation of Orion, which they call Julpan (or Djulpan), is a canoe. They tell the story of three brothers who went fishing, and one of them ate a sawfish that was forbidden under their law. Seeing this, the Sun-woman, Walu, made a waterspout that carried him and his two brothers and their canoe up into the sky. The three suns that line in the constellation's centre, which form Orion's Belt in Western mythology, are the three brothers; the Orion Nebula above them is the forbidden fish; and the bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are the bow and stern of the canoe. This is an example of astronomical legends underpinning the ethical and social codes that people use on Earth.
The Pleiades also figures in the Dreamings of several language groups. For example, in the central desert region, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion. The close resemblance of this to Greek mythology is believed to be coincidental — there is no evidence of any cultural connection.
The Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation explain them in the Karatgurk story. Another story involves seven sisters, the Maya-Mayi who were so beautiful that a warrior, Warrumma, kidnaps two of them. They eventually escape by climbing a pine tree that continually grows up into the sky where they join their other sisters.
However, stars were commonly used to measure time and the seasons and to regulate daily activities before written culture, and long after in some cultures. The myths of the Australian Aboriginal people are, as around the world, to do with moral lessons and various reminders such as when to eat certain types of food, which is itself a cultural connection in the general form of the stories. Therefore, the study of the stars is probably the oldest knowledge on earth, such that it remains an intriguing possibility that aboriginal star knowledge does contain some fragments of a much older original culture. Aboriginal people came to Australia from Asia 50,000 years ago (well before Greek culture formed 3,000–4,000 years ago), and presumably the Aboriginal people originally came from Africa. While there is no hard evidence of a cultural connection, the possibility should not be written off, and the door is open to research to construct models of older human cultures, through the tracing of these narratives and other means such as linguistics.
The Milky Way
The Yolngu people believe that when they die, they are taken by a mystical canoe, Larrpan, to the spirit-island Baralku in the sky, where their camp-fires can be seen burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way. The canoe is sent back to Earth as a shooting star, letting their family on Earth know that they have arrived safely in the spirit-land. Aboriginals also thought that god was the canoe.
Sun and Moon
The Yolngu say that Walu, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn. She paints herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the sunrise. She then lights a torch and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. At the end of her journey, as she descends from the sky, some of her ochre paints again rubs off onto the clouds, creating the sunset. She then puts out her torch, and throughout the night travels underground back to her starting camp in the east. Other Aboriginals of the Northern Territory call her Wuriupranili. Other stories about the Sun involve Wala, Yhi, and Gnowee.
The Yolngu tell that Ngalindi, the Moon-man, was once young and slim (the waxing Moon), but grew fat and lazy (the full Moon). His wives chopped bits off him with their axes (the waning Moon); to escape them he climbed a tall tree towards the Sun, but died from the wounds (the new Moon). After remaining dead for three days, he rose again to repeat the cycle, and continues doing so till this day. The Kuwema people in the Northern Territory say that he grows fat at each full Moon by devouring the spirits of those who disobey the tribal laws. Another story by the Aboriginals of Cape York involves the making of a giant boomerang that is thrown into the sky and becomes the Moon.
In the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park there are a number of engravings showing a crescent shape, with sharp horns pointing down, and below it a drawing of a man in front of a woman. While the crescent shape has been assumed by most researchers to represent a boomerang, some argue that it is more easily interpreted as a solar eclipse, with the mythical man-and-woman explanation depicted below it.
The rising of Venus marks an important ceremony of the Yolngu, who call it Barnumbirr ("Morning Star and Evening Star") They gather after sunset to await the rising of the planet. As she approaches, in the early hours before dawn, the Yolngu say that she draws behind her a rope of light attached to the island of Baralku on Earth, and along this rope, with the aid of a richly decorated "Morning Star Pole", the people are able to communicate with their dead loved ones, showing that they still love and remember them.
In 2010, astronomers Duane Hamacher and David Frew from Macquarie University in Sydney showed that the Boorong Aboriginal people of northwestern Victoria, Australia, witnessed the outburst of Eta Carinae in the 1840s and incorporated it into their oral traditions as Collowgulloric War, the wife of War (Canopus, the Crow – wɑː). This is the only definitive indigenous record of Eta Carinae's outburst identified in the literature to date.
Aboriginal calendars tend differ from European calendars: many groups in northern Australia use a calendar with six seasons, and some groups mark the seasons by the stars which are visible during them. For the Pitjantjatjara, for example, the rising of the Pleiades at dawn (in May) marks the start of winter.
Many stories exist where the heliacal rising or setting of stars or constellations are used to tell Aboriginal Australians when it is time to move to a new place and/or look for a new food source.
The Boorong people in Victoria know that when the Malleefowl constellation (Lyra) disappears in October, to "sit with the Sun", it is time to start gathering her eggs on Earth. Other groups know that when Orion first appears in the sky, the dingo puppies are about to be born. When Scorpius appears, the Yolngu know that the Macassan fisherman would soon arrive to fish for trepang.
It is not known to what extent Aboriginal people were interested in the precise motion of the sun, moon, planets or stars. However, it has been suggested that some of the stone arrangements in Victoria such as Wurdi Youang near Little River, Victoria may have been used to track the equinoxes and/or solstices. The arrangement is aligned with the setting sun at the solstices and equinox, but its age is unknown.
There are rock engravings by the Nganguraku people at Ngaut Ngaut which, according to oral tradition, represent lunar cycles. Unfortunately, most of the Nganguraku culture (including their language) has been lost because of the banning of such things by Christian missionaries over a hundred years ago.
In contemporary culture
A great deal of contemporary Aboriginal art has an astronomical theme, reflecting the astronomical elements of the artists' cultures. Prominent examples are Gulumbu Yunupingu, Bill Yidumduma Harney, and Nami Maymuru, all of whom have won awards or been finalists in the Telstra Indigenous Art Awards. In 2009 an exhibition of Indigenous Astronomical Art from WA, named Ilgarijiri was launched at AIATSIS in Canberra in conjunction with a Symposium on Aboriginal Astronomy.
Other contemporary painters include the daughters of the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who have the seven sisters as one of their Dreamings. Gabriella Possum and Michelle Possum paint the Seven Sisters Dreaming in their paintings. They inherited this Dreaming through their maternal line.
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- AIATSIS Collections Subject Guide Indigenous Australian Astronomy
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- The Emu in the Sky story at Questacon
- ABC Radio National Artworks piece on "The First Astronomers"
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