"The world's first astronomers"
August 17th, 2012
As the world's oldest continuous culture, Aboriginal people can make the claim to be the world's first astronomers.
For them, gazing at the stars is about more than making out and naming constellations.
Bill Yidumduma Harney, an elder of the Wardaman people from near Katherine in the Northern Territory, is a tour operator, an artist, a musician and a storyteller.
He says he used to lie down and learn about the stars from his Wardaman elders.
Mr Harney, 81, co-authored the book 'Dark Sparklers' about the role astronomy plays in the Wardaman culture and prominent figures in Aboriginal Dreaming.
"Well Hugh Cairns and I wrote a book about stars - when I ran my tours, I would talk about rock paintings and star people and he took an interest in it," Mr Harney said.
"He asked me 'Would you be able to make a book out of it?' and I said 'yes'.
"Stars are very important; the stars are part of the creator; in the creation time, everything was human, the kangaroos, the lizards - everything was human," he said.
"Then when everything changed and everything became skill; all the humans became the mountain, the tree, the kangaroo, the birds changed. And some of the people stayed in the stars, they didn't come down."
Ray Norris is a CSIRO astronomer and adjunct professor in the department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney.
He leads the Aboriginal Astronomy Project, which studies the importance of the stars and sky in Australian Indigenous cultures.
"There is a lot of astronomy used in the Australian Aboriginal culture and it goes way beyond naming constellations and telling stories," he said.
"There is an intellectual aspect that is not often depicted of the Aboriginal culture as seen by white fellas.
"For example a textbook about Aboriginal culture produced in 1983 said traditional Aboriginal cultures couldn't count beyond five, which is rubbish - there is no basis in this whatsoever."
Professor Norris says the intellectual culture of Aboriginals has tended to be underestimated.
"There are two reasons for this: firstly, colonial bias - when the Brits came here 200 years ago, they were making out that Aboriginal people had no culture. There are still remnants of that bias," he said.
"The other reason is that most anthropologists don't have a good background in science.
"The Aboriginals were actually quite sophisticated, they used the stars to determine how the tides work, how planets move, where to find food.
"We have a site - there may be others - where stones lined up to indicate when the sun sets on midsummer's day and midwinter's day - the Aboriginal Stonehenge if you like.
"The Aboriginal people were nomadic, so they needed to know in advance when it was time to move and they used the stars for this."
Mr Harney started working with Professor Norris on a show called the First Astronomers where they would show images and discuss their knowledge of astronomy.
He says their approaches were different but the stories they were telling were the same.
"Ray and I were working together - he was doing the white man way from England and I was doing the Aboriginal way from the Aboriginal side," he said
"The stars are very important; for us we use the stars also for walking in the dark, walking in the parks, the direction we get from the stars, all the animals in the stars, the people in the creation time that became stars.
"And in the white man time, when droving cattle, we didn't have any watches so we used the stars."
Perth astro-photographer John Goldsmith is also researching Aboriginal astronomical knowledge.
His PhD research project, a joint venture between the University of Western Australia and Curtin University, focuses on Aboriginal 'sky knowledge'.
"Cultures all over the world, including ancient cultures, used the stars for all sorts of reasons," he said.
"The star patterns were important for Aboriginal people, they used their stars for things like navigation, time keeping, calendars and searching for food.
"A good example is the story of the great emu in the sky," he said.
"It is quite different to normal star patterns, the dark areas within the Milky Way make the shape of a giant emu - almost like a reverse of what we usually see in a constellation.
"One of the best times to find emu eggs is the first rains of the season.
"There is a fantastic show of the star pattern at the same time emus start to lay their eggs; so the Aboriginals knew it was time to hunt emu eggs.
"There is a direct link of knowledge of the night sky with what is happening on the ground."
Mr Goldsmith has been collaborating with Indigenous elders in WA to document their accounts about star patterns and astronomical events.
One of the areas he studied was the Wolfe Creek meteor crater in the East Kimberley.
Mr Goldsmith says there are multiple Dreaming stories about the formation of the crater.
"Some of the knowledge related to Dreamtime stories and ancient stories, other about what people experienced," he said.
Mr Goldsmith says there is a strong link between astronomy and history.
"The night sky is a really rich source of human history and culture," he said.
"All the cultures around the world have stories and knowledge wrapped up in the stars.
"The sky is like a global history book for those than can interpret it."
The above poster and booklet can be purchased at Australian Aboriginal Astronomy .