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...

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