Australia’s Indigenous Astronomy Tradition

 

There is increasing recognition of non-Western astronomy traditions. Last year, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognized 86 new star names from around the world. Four of those names come from languages of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is no surprise that these languages were able to contribute star names; Aboriginal Australians have been gazing to the night sky for more than 65,000 years.

The Torres Strait Islander people, specifically the Meriam people of Mer (Murray Island), have songs that indicate insight into how stars regularly change appearance. One song describes seasonal twinkling, for instance, which is caused by wind, and another describes the pattern of the Moon’s rise in a way that facilitates marine navigation. Further west on the mainland, oral tradition from the Great Victoria Desert describes the variable nature of some red giant stars.

The Aboriginal perspective on astronomy has distinctive features as compared to the Greek tradition. Many Aboriginal groups named dark patches in the sky. Several groups, for instance, noticed an “Emu in the Sky”, a dark patch in the Milky Way. By looking at the Emu’s position in the sky, Aboriginal people could use the sky as a calendar to follow the seasons.

Wiradjuri Astronomical Traditions of Central New South Wales.

To learn more about Indigenous astronomy in Australia, Filling Space asked some questions of Dr. Duane Hamacher, an astronomer and Senior Research Fellow at the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre in Melbourne and an Adjunct Fellow in the Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland.

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How can Indigenous cultures contribute to humanity’s shared understanding of the cosmos?

Indigenous people are the world’s first astronomers, and Aboriginal people of Australia are among the oldest. They have been observing the positions and properties of the Sun, Moon, and stars for millennia. This collective knowledge contains important information about how the land connects with the sky. This can be applied to navigation, predicting plant and animal behavior, seasonal change, and weather. But close observations of star properties also tell us that Aboriginal people long ago discovered phenomena that Western scientists only understood in the 19th century, such as the variable nature of red giant stars. Aboriginal traditions also speak about the appearance of bright new stars in the sky, which can aid astronomers in searching for younger supernovae remnants.

Traditional knowledge about the movements of planets, the variability of stars, the fall of large meteorites, the passing of comets, and the visibility of aurorae can assist modern astrophysicists in better understanding astronomical phenomena, the ages of celestial events, and where to point telescopes in their search for answers to some of astronomy’s pressing questions.

But this knowledge also changes and evolves in the face of climate changes, human and animal migration, and natural destructive events. By working closely with elders, we can better understand how this knowledge changes. We can also see how this knowledge can be applied to education, public outreach, heritage management, urban design, and environmental practices. It is an excellent way to link humanity to the stars and inspire future generations of astronomers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

You have mentioned that “decolonizing space” is important. What does decolonizing space mean and why is it important?

Traditionally, Indigenous people and their knowledge have simply been dismissed as “myth and legend” by Western science and not given any recognition or due credit. This is a product of ongoing colonization, where the people are debased from their land and knowledge and viewed as inferior using pseudoscientific views of Social Darwinism and the concept of “progress” in the history of science. Thus, recognizing the value of Indigenous Knowledge stands in stark contrast to colonial goals of subjugation, de-humanization, exploitation, and assimilation. For this reason, the star knowledge of Indigenous Australians was long regarded by the colonial majority as little more than fairy tales with no real benefit or importance to Western science. It was simply dismissed or chastised.

Another problem is the stern importance Western civilization maintains regarding the strong emphasis on the written word. Since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are oral in nature, their knowledge is committed to memory and passed down through narrative, song, dance, and material culture. Indigenous Knowledge has a strong scientific component, but is integrated in a holistic manner with social laws and humanistic lessons. Generally speaking, scientists have long ignored this, but this is changing today.

To decolonize this space, we need to genuinely recognize the importance, depth, complexity, and benefit of Indigenous Knowledge to Indigenous people and their connection to land and culture. We need to break down barriers preventing Indigenous students from pursuing studies in this area and stop the exploitation of Indigenous Knowledge for the political, financial, or other benefits of the colonial governmental system and non-Indigenous people. It also means that non-Indigenous people need to take a step back so Indigenous people can lead the field and make contributions that integrate Western and Indigenous ways of knowing.

Your current research focus is the astronomical knowledge of Torres Strait Islanders. What is one finding you would like to share with a general audience?

The astronomical knowledge of Torres Strait Islanders is rich and complex. Islanders navigate by the stars, observe how stars twinkle to predict weather and seasonal change, and watch when stars rise and set at dusk and dawn to inform themselves about the behavior of animals and when to plant gardens. Properties of the Moon can tell people about rainfall, and lunar phases are used to determine the best time to go fishing. The position of the setting Sun throughout the year – such as the solstices – is used to inform seasonal change. Transient phenomena, like bright meteors, have special social meaning, telling the people that someone important has died or is about to pass.

The complex layers of star knowledge are encoded in story, song, and dance. Many dances describe and emulate the movements of stars, serving as a memory aid for recalling important information. Although the knowledge is maintained by elders, everyone from children to adults know the knowledge and can recount the stories and dances. The knowledge is contemporary and strong, not relegated to the distant past. Children sing songs about the twinkling stars, sharks in the sky, and the phases of the Moon. Traditionally, Torres Strait Islanders even had their own astronomers! This was a person whose job it was to keep track of everything in the sky, watching for subtle changes in the positions and properties of stars to inform the people about holding ceremony, hunting, fishing, gardening, travelling, and all aspects of daily life. Knowledge was passed down to new generations through a university-like education system.

We are currently working on a range of projects that will educate the public about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomy, including museum exhibitions, education programs, animations, commemorative coins, and urban design. A new generation of Aboriginal astrophysicists and students are already leading the way, including Dr. Stacy Mader (CSIRO), Karlie Noon (ANU), Kirsten Banks (UNSW), Krystal De Napoli (Monash), and John South (WSU). You can learn more at www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au.