Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Story of Alakitja

Alakitja was a large rock cod, a fish who lived in the water of the River, the Milky Way. He swam to reach his favourite water hole. He swam carefully past the fishtraps placed there by the Sky People. He swam past the many water lilies with their white flowers shining so brightly that people could se them, and they called them stars. Finally he reached a water hole, where he rested under a rock way from the hot Sun.

The Two Brothers were hungry. They had been busy making mountains and rivers on Earth and they now looked for food. They crept up to the water hole and saw the gigantic fish Alakitja. They drove their spears into Alakitja and pulled the fish from the water hole.

They shared the fish and each brother made his own campfire. They can still be seen there today. The two campfires are the stars Delta Crucis and Gamma Crucis. The two brightest stars of the cross, Alpha and Beta Crucis, are the Two Brothers. The fish is the dark patch close by (the Coal Sack).
The two pointers, Alpha and Beta Centauri, are friends of the brothers who are waiting for their share of Alakitja the fish.
The Southern Cross (Right), the Coal Sack (Middle), and the Pointers (Left)
 - all in the Milky Way.
Source: Questacon.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Aboriginal Astronomy Lecture at Lake Tyrrell

Below is a 4-part video of the Lake Tyrrell lecture on Aboriginal Astronomy by Paul Curnow (BEd), a Lecturer at Adelaide Planetarium.  His talk places a focus on the astronomy of the local Boorong (Wergaia) people.

The video is a bit dark, but the audio is clear and Paul does a great job at explaining the Western and Aboriginal aspects of the night sky.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Keynote Lecture on Aboriginal Astronomy

A 45 minute video on Aboriginal Astronomy by keynote speaker Professor Ray Norris is available from the Australian Science Teachers Association website.  Click on the image below for the video.

Professor Ray Norris giving a lecture on Aboriginal Astronomy.
 Click on this image to go to the video.

Ray Norris is an astrophysicist at the CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science. He received an Honours Degree in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University and then a PhD at Manchester University. He moved to Australia in 1983 to work for CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, where he became Head of Astrophysics in 1994 and Deputy Director in 2000.  He currently leads a project to image the faintest radio galaxies and star-forming galaxies in the Universe, to understand how they form and evolve. He also studies the astronomy of Aboriginal Australians, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Dept. of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University. Professor Norris has been sponsored by CSIRO for CONASTA 60.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Call for Students

The Aboriginal Astronomy Project is seeking students who wish to undertake a PhD in Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney.  The university has several MQRES scholarships specifically dedicated to Indigenous Australians who wish to undertake a PhD in any field - including Aboriginal Astronomy.  The MQRES stands for the "Macquarie University Research Excellence Scholarship" and includes a stipend, research funds, and all associated costs for up to 3.5 years.  For international students, the scholarship also covers tuition and health insurance (and some relocation costs).

We are actively trying to increase Indigenous membership and researchers in our project.  The university also has MQRES scholarships available for non-Indigenous students, both domestic and international.

Our project is seeking students to undertake research projects in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Astronomy.  Projects include ethnographic, archaeological, historical, and linguistic approaches.  Students with degrees in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities are ideal.  Students are not required to have an astronomy background, but it is very useful.  Those with no formal background or training in astronomy will be recommended to audit a first year course in the subject.

Candidates will need a bachelor's degree with honours or a research masters degree to be eligible for the MQRES.  Evidence of research experience (i.e. publications) may meet this requirement if you don't have an honours or masters degree.  A senior thesis for international students may count towards this requirement.

Students may also opt to complete an Honours degree or Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Indigenous Studies working on a topic in Aboriginal Astronomy.  Some scholarships may be available, but the MQRES is for PhD students only.  Additional funding is available in the form of ITAS tutoring, planetarium and observatory work, and public outreach.

Students will be centered in the Department of Indigenous Studies but will also have formal ties to the Research Centre for Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Astrophotonics.

For more information, visit the following links:

Feel free to contact us if you are interested!

Duane Hamacher
Aboriginal Astronomy Project
Department of Indigenous Studies
Macquarie University
Phone: 02 9850 8671

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evil Meteor Spirits of Aboriginal Astronomy

Halloween is upon us once again.  Incidentally, Halloween is my favourite holiday and a great chance for me to merge the spooky world of All Hallows Eve with Aboriginal Astronomy by discussing the evil celestial beings that permeate through the Aboriginal Dreamings of Arnhem Land.

Look out on a dark clear night, and you just might see one of these beings streaking across the sky.  But be careful! Aboriginal groups across northern Australia believe this flash of light, which Westerners call a meteor, is the eye of an evil spirit with a ferocious demeanour.  This spirit has many names – Thuwathu, Papinjuwari, Indada... They streak across the sky with their long claws, searching for the souls of the sick or dying.  In Arnhem Land, this being is called Namorrorddo or Namorrodor.

Namorrorddo - a profane spirit
by Samuel Namunjdja  (2010).

According to Pamela Weston, the legend of the Namorrodor is handed down by grandparents through many generations. The presence of Namorrodor, a flying serpent and a man-eater, is signaled by a shooting star in the night sky. Namorrodor lives in a cave and goes hunting at night for food.  At dusk it begins moving in the cave, preparing to go out hunting.  It makes noise like wind, it has long claws and a head like a kangaroo or horse.

Namorrodor - the evil falling star spirit.

Meat must never be cooked at night, because Namorrodor smells it, meat attracts it to the camp.  It hides in the bushes watching, moving closer by jumping from tree to tree.  Namorrodor’s favourite prey is small babies, when it finds them it rips out their heart and takes it away. Babies that sleep in the bush always lie face down or sideways to protect their hearts. They are always well covered. When a shooting star is seen in the night sky, it signals to people that someone has died.

Namorrodor is a shooting star.  It transforms into a terrifying spirit creature that hunts for babies.  It is known to eat their hearts.  Two of this story’s main messages are that babies should not sleep unprotected in the bush, and that meat should not be cooked on the fire at night.  The smell of meat cooking at night attracts Namorrodor, as well as centipedes, scorpions, ants and other biting insects. The story is told to children to encourage them to behave and go to sleep.

Bark painting by Arnhem Land artist Samuel Manggudja (1960).

It is said that the only person who can kill Namorrodor is a medicine man (or witchdoctor) who has as much strength as the spirit creature. This man can only kill Namorrodor at a certain time of the night, and with a spear, which has been shaped over a fire while certain words are sung.  It is also said that when Namorrodor dies it makes a terrible scream.

Watch a film about Namorrodor below.

Click on the image to go to the video.  Video by Dust Echoes.
Happy Halloween!!!

Dreaming on the Stars

Our blog has recently been featured in the Campus Review, entitled Dreaming on the Stars.  The full text of the article is given below.

By Jennifer Bennett (19 October 2011)

The Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Blog, which highlights the thousands of years of sky gazing of the original inhabitants of this country England has Stonehenge and Peru has the Nazca Lines, strange standing stones and carvings that are all that are left of ancient astronomical observations, but what many people may not know is that Australia has its own equivalents. Macquarie University PhD candidate Duane Hamacher runs the Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Blog, which highlights the thousands of years of sky gazing of the original inhabitants of this country.

Hamacher, who is originally from the United States, studied in Australia for a period as an undergraduate and loved it so much he returned to complete a research masters in astrophysics at the University of NSW.  After that though he decided he wanted to do something a little different and started looking at the intersection of astronomy and Aboriginal culture. He said that while it was an area that had been studied for a long time, the first paper on the topic came out in the 1850s, there was still much to learn.

“Compared to how big Australia is, and just the sheer volume of time people have been here, over 50,000 years, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge to learn,” he said. “When you look at it on a grand scale, it’s just not been researched very much and I found it to be completely open territory.”

The blog (described as a “loose collaboration”) features both work Hamacher has been directly involved in, as well as research by his supervisor and other astronomers in the field. “One of the things that we’ve found with a colleague is that an Aboriginal group in Victoria, the Boorong, actually noticed the eruption of the hyper-giant variable star Eta Carina in the 1840s and incorporated it into their rituals, and it’s the only indigenous account from all over the world that we have,” he said.

The blog, which has been running since late last year, is almost at 20,000 hits, many of which come from overseas. “Astronomy is arguably the most famous of all the sciences and the one that generates the most public interest, so I think when you cross astronomy with culture, you’re going to generate a lot of interest,” Hamacher said.

One site that should pique the public interest is Wurdi Youang, a complex arrangement of stones in a secret location between Melbourne and Geelong. It can be used to mark solstices and equinoxes and is made from some 100 basalt stones of about waist height.

“We have no idea [what it was used for],” he said.  “The problem is that when the British came through Victoria they drove a lot of people from their lands, and what Aboriginal people were left there had their languages and traditions banned, mostly by missionaries. We’re in contact with the local custodians, though, and they are very interested in learning more too … so it’s interesting to put together these bits of information.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kaurna Night Skies (Part II)

By Paul Curnow

...Continued from last week.

In many ancient and primeval cultures the sun is nearly always seen as male and the moon is viewed as female. For example, to the ancient Greeks the sun was the god Helios who daily drove his fiery chariot across the sky westward and the moon was the goddess Selene. In addition, in ancient Egypt the sun was known as the supreme god Ra and to the Aztecs of Mexico as Huitzilopochtli both male deities. However, in many but not all Aboriginal Australian cultures, our sun is often viewed as female and the moon as male. For the Kaurna People this is also the case. The Kaurna called the sun Tindo and the moon was named Kakirra. Although, Wyatt (1879) claims that Kakirra is male, not female. When the moon was full it was called Kakirramunto. Kakirra was believed to have a benevolent affect on human affairs, however, Tindo (sometimes written as Teendo) was considered to be more malevolent in nature.

Accordingly during the hours of darkness the Kaurna believe that Tindo sat in her Wodli (wurley) and ate fish. Furthermore, the Kaurna People believe that Tindo was originally created by an ancestral being named Monaincherloo, who was also known by the name Teendo yerle which meant ‘sunfather’. Wyatt (1879) had recorded that the Kaurna believed that Teendo yerle had created the sun, moon, stars, men and “plenty of things.”

Jamie Goldsmith, Steve Goldsmith, Paul Curnow and Karl Telfer

The Kaurna called the constellation of Orion Tiinninyarra (also sometimes written as Tiinninyarrana), and the Tiinninyarra are a group of young men who are hunting emu, kangaroo and other game of the celestial plain known as the Womma. They are hunting this game by the banks of a river, which they called Wodliparri (wodli=hut and parri=river). Therefore the band of the Milky Way from the Southern Cross through to the constellations of Orion, Auriga and Taurus is seen as a giant river in the sky world, and along the edge of the river are reeds and huts. Neighbours of the Kaurna to the south the Ramindjeri People who live around the Encounter Bay area also saw the band of the Milky Way as a river in the sky world with huts along the edge.

Additionally, along the edge of the Wodliparri, a group of women are collecting reeds and berries and they are known as the Mankamankarrana who many astronomers know today as the ‘Seven Sisters’ or the ‘Pleiades’ cluster. The Pleiades are an open cluster of stars which formed approximately 50-60 million years ago and are located some 378 light years away from our sun.

The Pleiades.  Image from

In addition, the dark patches along the band of the Milky Way are known as Yurakauwe (yura=monster or magnificent creature and kauwe=water). These dark patches are seen as waterholes, lagoons and billabongs where a very dangerous ‘being’ is said to reside. The Kaurna believe that if you were to wander too close to - or swim in these areas you would be dragged down under the water and killed by this creature.

Dark patches (dust lanes) in the Milky Way.  Image from

Prominent in the skies of Australia is the majestic Wedged-tailed Eagle Aquila Audax. Eagles and other Australian Birds feature strongly in many stories told by Indigenous Australians and the Kaurna have an eagle constellation known as Wilto.  Unfortunately, there do not seem to be ethnographical recordings of which particular stars that the constellation of Wilto was comprised. However, I personally believe the Kaurna were referring to the Southern Cross as Wilto. I have a number of reasons for believing this.

A wedge-tailed eagle.  Image from

The Ngadjuri People who lived in the Barossa Valley and Clare Valley region north of the Kaurna People had a constellation they called Wildu. The Ngadjuri People viewed the Southern Cross as the footprint of the Wedge-tailed eagle Wildu.  Furthermore, there are many words that are similar in the Ngadjuri and Kaurna languages in addition to some similar stories. To me, Wildu and Wilto are very similar in sound and they both refer to an eagle. Furthermore, one needs to be mindful that the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia did not use a written language, so many of these names have been recorded by early ethnographers who often spelt the word the way it sounded to them.

Accordingly, as we journey further north through the different Aboriginal Groups in South Australia other peoples also saw the Southern Cross as a Wedge-tailed eagle.  Like the Ngadjuri People, the Adnyamathanha People of the Flinders Ranges also called the Southern Cross Wildu and it was seen as the footprint of the Wedged-tailed Eagle Aquila Audax. In addition, the Aranda People who come from the far north of South Australia and part of the Northern Territory saw the Southern Cross as a Wedgedtailed Eagle that they called Waluwara. The two pointer stars Alpha and Beta Centauri are his throwing stick and the Coalsack Nebula is his nest in the sky. The four brightest stars in the Southern Cross are Waluwaras talons.

The Aboriginal Groups of Australia shared a close relationship with their environment and the natural world for 45,000+ years. Today we are left with just a taste, of the incredibly complex knowledge and understandings that the Kaurna People and other Aboriginal Peoples of Australia have developed over these thousands of years. This early drive to understand the night sky still fires the passions of many contemporary astronomers. Hopefully, efforts will continue to preserve these remaining snippets of stellar knowledge for future generations of Indigenous descendants and night sky enthusiasts.


Amery, Rob, 2000, Warrabarna Kaurna: Reclaiming an Australian Language, Swets & Zeitlinger Publishers, Netherlands.

Clarke, Philip, 1990, Adelaide Aboriginal Cosmology, Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, Adelaide.

E.D.S.A., 1989, The Kaurna People: Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains, Education Department of South Australia, Adelaide.

Pring, Adele, Warrior, Fred, Knight, Fran, & Anderson, Sue, 2005, Ngadjuri: Aboriginal People of the Mid North Region of South Australia, SASOSE Council Inc.

Pring, Adele, 2002, Astronomy and Australian Indigenous People (draft), DETE, Adelaide. 

Ridpath, Ian, & Tirion, Will, 2000, Collins Guide to the Stars and Planets 3rd EditionCollins, London.

Willis, Roy, 1995, The Hutchinson: Dictionary of World Myth, Helicon & Duncan Baird Publishers, Oxford.

Simpson, Jane, & Hercus, Luise (Editors) et al, 1998, History in Portraits: Biographies of nineteenth century South Australian Aboriginal People, Southwood Press, Sydney.

Wyatt, William, 1879, Some Account of the Manners & Superstitions of the Adelaide & Encounter Bay Aboriginal Tribes with a Vocabulary of their Languages, Names of Persons and Places etc, E.S. Wigg & Son, Adelaide

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kaurna Night Skies (Part I)

Before Europeans first came to colonise the Adelaide Plains in 1836, the night skies would have been truly dark by today's standards. There was no street lighting, no security lighting and no industrial pollution to obscure the view of our galaxy.  However, within a short period of time of just over 150 years we have managed to create a large metropolis of approximately 1 million people with industries, communities and lots of street lighting. Although, Adelaide’s skies are still quite good by world standards this light pollution has managed to obscure the faint light, which has often been travelling for aeons from reaching the Earth and the Adelaide Plains.

Sadly few people now give thought to the original inhabitants of Adelaide Plains - the Kaurna People. Before European occupation, the Kaurna (pronounced gar-na) had been living on the Adelaide Plains for thousands of years. They were comprised of a number of different clan groups who were united by a common language. According to records the Kaurna lived as far north as Port Wakefield near the coast and inland to Crystal Brook, and as far south as Victor Harbor (note: many Kaurna and their descendants still live in the Adelaide region). Their traditional boundary to the east is the Adelaide foothills and to the west the Adelaide coastline. The Kaurna were bordered by the Peramangk People in the Mount Lofty Ranges to the east, by the Ngarrindjeri and Ramindjeri Peoples to the southeast and by the Ngadjuri People to the north.

Kaurna dancers at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.

There were 650 Kaurna People on the South Australian Register in 1842. However, before Europeans began the occupation of the Adelaide area on mass in 1836, many of the diseases of the west which had been brought by the convicts and colonists from Europe were to decimate many Indigenous Australian populations. For example, it is believed that through the interaction of Aboriginal Groups in the eastern states with invading Europeans that many diseases such as smallpox had migrated down through the Murray-Darling Aboriginal Nations who unwittingly spread the disease. Once Europeans first started arriving at Holdfast Bay many of these diseases had already impacted upon the Kaurna People, therefore, it is hard to say with certainty how many Kaurna People may have already fallen to these pathogens.

The Kaurna People still occupy the Adelaide Plains. However, over time, and through brutal government policies they were displaced and moved on to other lands.  Resurgence and interest in Kaurna Culture has recently been taking place, as it has been for many other Aboriginal Cultures around Australia. For example, similar to the nomenclature now used in the Northern Territory where Ayers Rock is usually called Uluru, many notable Adelaide place names now share dual naming. For example, the River Torrens is now also known as Karrawirraparri (karra=Red Gum, wirra=forest and parri=river).

Today, because of the endeavours of a few thoughtful individuals about 3,500+ words of the Kaurna language survive. Unfortunately, little is now known of the astronomy and cosmological beliefs of the Kaurna. However, these same people responsible for the recording of Kaurna linguistics also documented snippets of Kaurna knowledge of the night sky in addition to their cultural and spiritual beliefs.

Kaurna Elder, Steve Goldsmith.

Most notable of these recorders were two Lutheran missionaries who had arrived from Germany in the colony in 1838. Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann had come to Adelaide fleeing the religious persecutions of their homeland in the interest of greater freedom and converting the local Anglo and Indigenous populations to their own faith. Schürmann and Teichelmann established the first ‘native school’, as it was then called, on the banks of the River Torrens Karrawirraparri at a place that is known as Piltawodli, which means ‘possum’s house’. It is here that the two missionaries likely recorded some of the Kaurna cosmological beliefs.

Somewhat similar to some ancient Egyptian beliefs, the Kaurna believed that celestial bodies such as the stars formally lived on the earth. They believed that while on the earth these celestial bodies lived their lives partly as men, and partly as animals.  Eventually, they exchanged this existence for a higher level and ventured into the heavens. Thus, the Kaurna applied names given to beings on the earth to celestial objects and there was a close connection between the lower and upper realms of existence.

Next week - Part II...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

BBC World Service Discovery Program

The Aboriginal Astronomy Project has been featured on a radio program by the BBC World Service Discovery.  Hosted by Robert Cockburn, it is a discussion about Aboriginal Astronomy and Wurdi Youang and contains interviews by Duane Hamacher (Macquarie), James Wilson-Miller (Powerhouse Museum), Ray Norris (CSIRO), and Janet Mooney (Sydney University).

Click here for full audio (18 minutes in length).


The Wurdi Youang stone arrangement in Victoria.

Were Australia's prehistoric Aboriginal people the world's first true astronomers, predating European and ancient Greek and Indian astronomers by thousands of years?
The stunning discovery of what is being called an "Aboriginal Stonehenge", the first of its kind to be found in Australia, could change that continent's history and with it our whole understanding of how and when humans began to accurately chart the night skies.
The 50 metre egg-shaped arrangement of stones in a farmer's field in Victoria, was forgotten after the arrival of European settlers some 200 years ago and until recently overgrown by meadow grass.
Now, the site called Wurdi Youang has got Aborigines and astronomers scratching their heads.
How did its stones come to be perfectly aligned with summer and winter Solstices and the autumn and winter Equinoxes, like Britain's 4,500 year-old Stonehenge?
The problem is that there are very few Aboriginal records in the literature and nobody left to explain what they meant and what they were used for.
What is becoming clear is that Australia's ancient indigenous people had a command of astronomy and mathematics, and ability to observe and keep accurate astronomical records.
The stones at Wurdi Youang will be a test of Australia's scientists and of Australia’s willingness to properly appreciate its ancient indigenous past.
Read our previous blog post on Wurdi Youang.
We would like to thank Wathaurong cultural officers Reg Abrahams and Trevor Edwards and recognise the Wathaurong people, both past and present.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Latest Project News...

I must apologise to our readers for the lack of consistent posts this month.  A lot has been going on and the status of the project is now at an exciting point.  I am also in the final stages of writing up my doctoral thesis on Aboriginal Astronomy, which I plan to submit in just a few weeks.  This is one of the main reasons posts have been a bit erratic this month :-)

The panel session on Indigenous Astronomy at the ACMI film exhibition in Melbourne last week was a success, although only myself and one other panelist were able to make it (mostly due to the Qantas strikes).  We had a great session and the audio will be released as a podcast soon.  Read a blog about the event from Nick Lomb of Sydney Observatory.

Duane Hamacher (left) and Munya Andrews (right) at the ACMI in Melbourne.

We are finishing new research papers with exciting results, which we will submit to journals in the next month or so.  Future blog posts will focus on this emerging research.

We have been contacted by a donor through a community foundation that wishes to present us with a VERY healthy research grant!  This is fantastic news and ensures that top-quality research and outreach on Aboriginal Astronomy will continue.  Funding is always a scarce commodity and much of the time we could be using for research we spend looking for new sources of funding, so generous grants like this are an amazing benefit all around.  If anyone else is interested in donating to our project, feel free to contact me... your donation will be well utilised! (Contact details are on the right sidebar labeled "Contact").

And finally, Macquarie University has recently purchased a new state-of-the-art mobile planetarium, which is absolutely amazing.  We are hoping to be able to take the planetarium to Indigenous communities as an outreach tool for sharing both Western and Aboriginal astronomy.  More to come!

Duane Hamacher

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

'Visions of Space' Exhibition on Aboriginal Astronomy

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne presents the world premiere of 'Star Voyager: Exploring Space on Screen', a major exhibition charting the history and future of space exploration as experienced through the moving image.

From early films by Fritz Lang and Georges Méliès, through to footage of the 1969 moon landing and recent films such as the Alien series, Moon and Sunshine, the moving image has allowed us to experience what most of us can only dream of.

Combining scientific and documentary footage with feature films and video artwork, the Star Voyager exhibition celebrates an enduring fascination with space travel through the imaginations of artists, scientists and astronauts.

Enjoy a rare opportunity to see real NASA artefacts used in space plus film production materials, including costumes from Star Trek, Austin Powers and Total Recall. The exhibition also features an exciting new work, developed here in Melbourne, allowing visitors to explore the surface of Mars in 3D.

Visions of Space

Between the twinkling of the stars and the majesty of the planets, space has long held fascination for human kind. It has been a canvas for mythical storytelling and a sandpit for scientific research. 

To celebrate the opening of Star Voyager, this forum will explore our fascination with space from two distinct angles - through the eyes of Indigenous Australians and the way that art and science have come together to create a new vision of space.

Thursday 22 September 2011
ACMI, Melbourne

Full $20
Concession $17
ACMI Members $15

11am-1pm > Panel 1: The First Astronomers

Be guided through the intricacies of Indigenous astronomy with
  • Duane Hamacher (astronomer and researcher in Australian Aboriginal Astronomy), and
  • Munya Andrews (amateur astronomer, lawyer, and Bardi woman from Western Australia's Kimberly region)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Books on Aboriginal Astronomy (Part I - Emu Dreaming)

This week, we bring you some of the educational materials on Aboriginal Astronomy. There are several books and articles available on Aboriginal Astronomy - some great, some good, and some not-so-good. We strive to present the highest quality material we can. If you have any questions or concerns about published material on Aboriginal Astronomy, please contact me and we will get back to you ASAP.

This week, I present the small booklet written by Ray and Cilla Norris and a poster developed by their son Barnaby. Ray is the Director of the Aboriginal Astronomy Project.

Duane Hamacher - Editor


Emu Dreaming was written by CSIRO Professor Ray Norris and his wife, Cilla.  Together, they spent five years studying Aboriginal Astronomy.

Their research included:
  • uncovering little-known academic manuscripts,
  • visiting Aboriginal sites throughout Australia, including Sydney rock-art sites,
  • spending time with the Yolngu communities in Arnhem Land.
This book is an easy-to-read introduction to what we know about Aboriginal Astronomy and the current state of research into this area.

Each of the 400 different Aboriginal cultures in Australia has a distinct language, oral tradition, ceremonies, and art forms, some of which have a strong astronomical component. Many share common traditions such as the “emu in the sky” constellation of dark clouds, and stories about the Sun, Moon, Orion, and the Pleiades. Several use the rising and setting of particular stars to indicate the time to harvest a food source, and some link the Sun and Moon to tides, and even explain eclipses as a conjunction of the Sun and Moon.

These traditions reveal a depth and complexity of Aboriginal cultures which are not widely appreciated by outsiders. This book explores several wonderful Aboriginal astronomical stories and traditions, and the way in which these are used for practical applications such as navigation and harvesting. It also describes the journey of exploration which is opening Western eyes to this treasury of ancient Aboriginal knowledge.

The cover photo is the famous Emu in the Sky by Barnaby Norris, which is also available as a full colour poster. This superb high-resolution poster printed on heavyweight (250 gsm) art-quality paper shows the Aboriginal "emu-in-the-sky" constellation, standing above the emu engraving in Kurung-Gai Chase National Park.

Many Aboriginal groups have stories about the “Coalsack” - the famous dark cloud next to the Southern Cross. Some see it as the head of a lawman, or a possum in a tree, but many groups tell stories of a great emu whose head is the Coalsack, and whose neck, body, and legs are formed from dust lanes stretching across the Milky Way. It’s easy to make out the emu in a dark autumn sky, and once you’ve seen it, the Milky Way will never look the same again.

Below it is the emu engraving, one of thousands of finely constructed engravings drawn by the Guringai people hundreds of years ago, and still visible in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, north of Sydney. Sadly, the Guringai people vanished soon after the arrival of the British in 1788.

A few years ago, Hugh Cairns of Sydney University pointed out that this engraving looks more like the Emu in the Sky than a real emu. Furthermore, the Aboriginal artists oriented the engraving to line up with the Emu in the Sky at just that time of year when real-life emus are laying their eggs. To illustrate this, Ray and Barnaby decided to take a photo of the engraving with the Emu in the Sky correctly positioned above it. The poster shows the constellation positioned above the engraving as it appears in real life in Autumn.

Photographing these engravings is tricky. The grooves are shallow and frequently obscured by natural undulations in the rock. Received wisdom is to photograph them at sunrise or sunset, when the low angle of the Sun outlines the grooves with shadows. But we can’t always wait for sunset, and even then the resulting photo is likely to be marred by shadows of nearby trees.Instead, Barnaby and Ray decided to replace the Sun by a 1000 Joule studio flash (emitting something like 1MW of light), together with batteries and an inverter for use at remote sites. This low-angle flash technique took care of the engraving, but what about the sky?

Since the night sky in the National Park is now spoiled by the streetlights of nearby Sydney, they decided to photograph it from Siding Spring Mountain, near Coonabarabran. A further challenge is that the emu stretches half-way across the sky, so doesn’t fit in the field of view of a normal lens. A fish-eye lens on an equatorial mount would do the trick, but would distort the image, preventing a realistic comparison with the engraving. So instead they made a mosaic of smaller images that could be stitched together in software. Furthermore, by taking a series of short exposure images, they wouldn’t need an equatorial drive, as they could correct for sky rotation in software. Having taken the photos, Barnaby spent two months stitching the hundreds of images together, working out how to correct for the distortions and sky rotation while keeping the shape true to the projection seen by the human eye from the engraving site. The result was magnificent (see below) and in August 2007 won Barnaby a $2000 prize in the New Scientist Eureka science prizes.

Poster Caption: Composed of dark clouds of dust in the Milky Way, the Emu rises above an Aboriginal rock-engraving in Kuring-Gai Chase National Park, Sydney, Australia. She stands upright above her engraving only at the time each year when the emus lay their eggs – an important food for the Ku-ring-gai Aboriginal people. Quite unlike European constellations which are traced out by stars, the Emu is traced by the mysterious dark spaces between the stars. See her head and beak at the top right, her long neck stretching down to her body in the centre, and her legs trailing to the lower left. This powerful image in the sky is reflected in the ancient Aboriginal engraving in the rock below. We acknowledge and respect the traditional owners of this land, and thank the National Parks and Wildlife Service for helping preserve these wonderful legacies of human history and achievement.

Both the book and poster are for sale for the price of AU$13.50 + S&H, which you can order here.

All proceeds from these sales support research on Aboriginal Astronomy.

Ray Norris is an astrophysicist at CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science. Born in England, he obtained an MA in theoretical physics at Cambridge, followed by a PhD and postdoc in radio-astronomy at Manchester, while also studying the astronomy of ancient standing stones. In 1983, Ray and his family moved to Australia where he joined the CSIRO, and now researches the formation and evolution of the first galaxies in the Universe, and also the astronomy of Aboriginal Australians. He was appointed as an Adjunct Professor at the Macquarie University Department of Indigenous Studies in 2008.

Cilla Norris has worked as an artist, high school teacher, veterinary nurse, wildlife sanctuary guide, and wild-life carer for 30 years. As well as working with her husband Ray on Aboriginal Astronomy, she is known as an authority on the care and rehabilitation of possums, and writes and teaches about possums to the NSW Wildlife Information and Rescue Service (WIRES) and other groups.

Barnaby Norris is a PhD candidate in astrophysics at the University of Sydney. He also has an arts degree and worked on a number of short films, music videos, and commercials, either as Director or Cinematographer. The short film Snow, for which he was Director of Photography, was one of 11 international short films, selected from thousands submitted, featured at the Cannes film festival in 2006.


*Editor's Note: For those that have wondered, we will never use this blog for profit. As we have garnered over 14,000 hits in the last six months, Blogger is constantly pressing us to "monetize". It defeats the purpose and it's extremely annoying to be reading a blog while bombarded with adverts. All proceeds from these book and poster sales go directly to funding research in Aboriginal Astronomy, much of which comes directly out-of-pocket by the researchers themselves.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Solar Eclipses (Part II)

By Duane Hamacher

Read Solar Eclipses Part I

From the following accounts, it seems many Aboriginal groups had a firm understanding that during a solar eclipse, an object was covering the sun, although many explanations were presented as to what that object was and why it covered the sun. However, these explanations were dependent upon the person recording and translating these descriptions, which were nearly always non-Aboriginal people, typically recorded as a passing observation with little detail provided to the reader.

In Euahlayi culture, the sun woman, Yhi, is constantly pursuing the moon man Bahloo, who has rejected her advances. Sometimes Yhi eclipsed Bahloo, trying to kill him in a jealous rage. However, the spirits that held up the sky intervened and drove Yhi away from Bahloo. The Yolngu people of Elcho Island in Arnhem Land provided a similar, but less malevolent, explanation for a solar eclipse: it was an act of copulation between the sun woman and moon man.  The Wirangu of South Australia believed the solar eclipse on 21 September 1922 was caused by the hand of maamu-waddi, a spirit man that covered the earth during the eclipse for the privacy of the sun woman and moon man while they were guri-arra – “husband and wife together”.  Near Eucla, South Australia, the Yircla Meening believed solar eclipses were caused by “the Meenings of the moon, who were sick, and in a bad frame of mind towards those of Yircla”.

Artistic interpretation of Yhi, the sun goddess.
Image from 

Among other communities, it is clear that the people understand something was covering the sun during a solar eclipse, but attributed that “something” to various objects or actions, including a large black bird called tia to the Arrernte or spun possum fur to the Luritja (both of Central Australia). To some Aboriginal groups in southwestern region of Western Australia, a solar eclipse is caused by mulgarguttuk (sorcerers) placing their booka (cloaks) over the sun, while to some other groups they move hills and mountains to cover the sun. A similar view is held by (unspecified) Aboriginal people of the Central Desert who call a solar eclipse bira waldurning and claim it is made by a man (waddingga) covering the sun with his hand or body.

A black bird covering the sun.  From

During an eclipse of the sun on 5 April 1856, a Bindel man claimed that his son covered the sun and caused the eclipse in order to frighten another person in the community. An earlier Arrernte account attributes a solar eclipse (Ilpuma) to periodic visits of the evil spirit Arungquilta who takes up residence in the sun, causing it to turn dark. The Pitjantjatjara of the Central Desert believed that bad spirits made the sun “dirty” during a solar eclipse while the Wardaman believed a solar eclipse was caused by an evil spirit swallowing the sun. The Wheelman people of Bremer Bay, Western Australia told a story about how one day the sun and moon fell to earth, splitting it in half. The lazy people were separated from the rest of the community to the other side of the sun.  Sometimes they got bored and wanted to see what was happening in this world.  As they tipped the sun on its side to have a peek, several of them would gather, blocking the sun’s light, causing a solar eclipse.  They only do this for a short time – just long enough for each of them to have a look, which explains why the eclipse does not last long. The informant claimed that "Yhi (the sun) hide him face and Nunghar look down," when storms come or the sky becomes dark in the daytime (solar eclipse).

Not all causes of solar eclipses were attributed to an object covering the sun. According to a community in Turner Point, Arnhem Land, a solar eclipse was caused when a sacred tree at a totemic site was damaged by fire or carelessness. As such, sitting under the tree or even seeing it is reserved solely for initiated elders. One final account provides no insight to the cause of the eclipse, but provides an interesting account of how tangible and nearby some Aboriginal people thought the sun to be. When astronomers in Goondiwindi, Queensland were observing and recording the total solar eclipse of 21 September 1922 in order to test Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, some Aboriginal people present thought the astronomers were trying to catch the sun in a net.

This photograph is of the scientific expedition led by Walter Gale to
Queensland to view the 1922 solar eclipse.

Given the low probability of witnessing a total solar eclipse in Australia, we expected to find very few accounts of total solar eclipses. And since a partial eclipses can pass without notice because of the sun’s intense brightness, and because of the damage to the eye that can result from directly looking into the sun, we did not expect to find many accounts of partial eclipses, either. Of the four accounts that we can attribute to a specific solar eclipse, three of them are partial eclipses, with some obscuring as little as 75% of the sun’s surface. We also find a number of Aboriginal words and descriptions of solar eclipses, despite our initial predictions. This shows that Aboriginal people did observe some total and partial eclipses and the memory of these events remained strong in many areas. We cannot attribute any partial eclipses that covered less than 75% of the sun’s surface to oral traditions and would use this as an estimated lower limit to what people could reasonably notice, although observing the sun even when 75% is eclipsed would still cause retinal damage.  However, other factors can reveal partial eclipses, such as diffraction by tree leaves, sufficient cloud-cover, or low-horizon partial eclipses, where the intensity of the sun’s light is reduced.

A partial eclipse in Kalgoorlie seen on the ground through tree leaves.  Image courtesy of CSIRO.

The evidence shows that Aboriginal people understood the mechanics of the sun-earth-moon system and the relationship of lunar phases to events on the earth. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land provide the most complete ethnographic evidence, in that their oral accounts demonstrate that they understood that the sun and moon move in an east to west motion, the moon goes through repeated phases that affect the ocean tides, the earth is finite in space, and the moon covers the sun during a solar eclipse. Some interpretations presented here are solid examples of “Aboriginal Astronomy” in that they clearly display an understanding of the motions of the sun and moon and their relationship with eclipses.

Previously: lunar eclipses.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Solar Eclipses (Part I)

This week is the start of a two part series about the sun and moon in oral traditions, with an emphasis on solar eclipses.

Aboriginal Oral Traditions of the Sun and Moon

In most Aboriginal cultures, the sun is female and the moon is male. While the specific details vary between groups, many Aboriginal communities describe a dynamic between the sun and moon, typically involving one pursuing the other across the sky from day to day, occasionally meeting during an eclipse. Many stories explain why the moon gets progressively “fatter” as it waxes from new moon to full moon, then fades away to nothing as it wanes back to new moon. For example, the full moon is a fat, lazy man called Ngalindi to the Yolngu of Arnhem Land. His wives punish his laziness by chopping off bits of him with their axes, causing the waning moon. He manages to escape by climbing a tall tree to follow the Sun, but is mortally wounded, and dies (new moon). After remaining dead for three days, he rises again, growing fat and round (waxing moon), until his wives attack him again in a cycle that repeats to this day.

Lunar Phases.
Because the lunar month is roughly the same length as the menstrual cycle, the moon is sometimes associated with fertility, sexual intercourse, and childbearing. In some communities, young women were warned about gazing at the moon for fear of becoming pregnant. The Ngarrindjeri of Encounter Bay, South Australia saw the moon as a promiscuous woman became thin and wasted away (waning moon) as a result of her numerous sexual encounters. When she became very thin (crescent moon), the creator being Nurrunderi ordered her to be driven away. She was gone for a short while (new moon), but began to eat nourishing roots causing her to fatten again (waxing moon). A similar account is given by the nearby Jaralde people, except the waxing moon represents the moon-woman coming to term in pregnancy. Several other Aboriginal groups associate the moon with love, fertility and intercourse, including the Koko-Yalanyu of the Bloomfield River, Queensland and the Lardil people of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The moon and the sun have a gravitational influence on the ocean, causing tides. High (spring) tide occurs when the sun and moon are aligned or opposed while low (neap) tide occurs when the sun and moon are at 90º to the earth, damping each other’s gravitational effects. The Yolngu understand the relationship between lunar phases and the ocean Yolngu of Arnhem Land and the Anindilyakwa of Groote Eylandt, when the tides are high, the water fills the moon as it rises at dawn and dusk (full and new moon, respectively). As the tides drop, the moon empties (crescent) until the moon is high in the sky during dusk or dawn, at which time the tides fall and the moon runs out of water (first and third quarter).

Spring and Neap tides.

In addition to describing the lunar phases and their relationship to tides, some Aboriginal groups identified that the earth was finite in expanse. The Yolngu tell how the sunwoman Walu lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn. She decorates herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the red sunrise. She then lights her torch, made from a stringy-bark tree, and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. Upon reaching the western horizon, she extinguishes her torch and starts the long journey underground back to the morning camp in the east. When asked about this journey, a Yolngu man explained that “the Sun goes clear around the world”, who illustrated this “by putting his hand over a box and under it and around again”. Some Aboriginal astronomers (elders who studied the motions and positions of stars and celestial objects) seem to know the earth was round, as a particular reference to a “day” meant “the earth has turned itself about”.

These accounts reveal that Aboriginal people were well aware of the motions of the sun and moon and their effect or correlation with events on the earth, such as tides. Given that Aboriginal people survived in Australia for over 40,000 years, this conclusion is not surprising. Understanding this relationship is a major step to determining the causes of eclipses.

Reactions to Solar Eclipses

Much like other transient celestial phenomena, such as comets and meteors, many Aboriginal groups held a negative view of solar eclipses. They could be a sign of a terrible calamity, an omen of death and disease, or a sign that someone was working black magic. According to colonist accounts, solar eclipses caused reactions of fear and anxiety to many Aboriginal people, including Aboriginal people near Ooldea, South Australia, the Euahlayi of New South Wales, the Yircla Meening of Eucla, Western Australia, the Bindel of Townsville, Queensland, the Wirangu of Ceduna, South Australia, the Ngadjuri of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, the Arrernte and Luritja of the Central Desert, the Kurnai of Victoria, the people of Roebuck Bay, Western Australia and Erldunda, Northern Territory. One colonist noted seeing Aboriginal people run under the cover of bushes in a fearful panic upon a solar eclipse. The Mandjindja people of South Australia called an eclipse of the sun on 30 July 1916 “Tindu korari” and were struck with great fear at first, but were relieved when the eclipse passed with no harm having come to anyone.

Path of annular solar eclipse of 1916.
To many Aboriginal communities of southeast Australia, the sky world was suspended above the heads of the people by various devices, such as trees, ropes, spirits, or by some magical means. In Euahlayi oral traditions, the sun is a woman named Yhi who falls in love with the moon man, Bahloo. Bahloo has no interest in Yhi and constantly tries to avoid her. As the sun and moon move across the sky over the lunar cycle, Yhi chases Bahloo telling the spirits who hold the sky up that if they let him escape, she will cast down the spirit who sits in the sky holding the ends of the ropes and the sky-world will fall, hurling the world into everlasting darkness. To combat this omen of evil, some communities employed a brave and well-respected member of the community, such as a medicine man or elder, to use magical means to fight the evil of the eclipse. This typically included throwing sacred objects at the sun whilst chanting a particular song or set of words. This practice was shared by Aboriginal communities across Australia, including the Euahlayi, whose medicine men (wirreenuns) chanted a particular set of words and the Ngadjuri who threw boomerangs in each cardinal direction to avert the evil. Similarly, medicine men of Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara communities would project sacred stones at the eclipsing sun whilst chanting a particular song – always with success. The act of casting magical stones at the sun strengthened the medicine man’s status in the community since he was always successful in bringing the sun back from the darkness, averting the evil and saving the people. A nearly identical practice is performed in the event of a comet, which yields the same result. Among the Wardaman of the Northern Territory, the head of the sunclan is a man named Djinboon. He can prevent or rescue the earth from an eclipse of the sun by magical means, or allow it to occur and frighten the people if laws are broken or if he does not receive the gifts he desires.

However, not all Aboriginal communities viewed solar eclipses with fear. The Aboriginal people of Beagle Bay, Western Australia were unafraid of solar eclipses. Aboriginal people near Erldunda, Northern Territory reacted with a combination of fear and joy to a solar eclipse that occurred on 21 September 1922, with some calling out “jackia jackia” while others sang, in a fearful tone, the song “You want to know what is my prize”.

Total solar eclipse of 1922.

Previously: lunar eclipses.

To learn more, read "Eclipses in Australian Aboriginal Astronomy" by Duane Hamacher and Ray Norris.