Aboriginal Astronomy


When Captain James Cook first sailed up the east coast of New Holland (what is now Australia) in 1770, he encountered native people who had little interest in their strange visitors and none whatsoever in trading—people who surprised him by being generally unclothed, constructing little in the way of shelter around their camp fires, and even sleeping in the open. Yet their lifestyle, while short of so many of the conveniences viewed by Europeans as essential, also seemed free from many of the cares that accompanied them. As Cook saw it, the earth and sea satisfied all their needs.

As we now know, the Aboriginal way of life had gradually developed over many thousands, and indeed tens of thousands, of years. Australia’s first inhabitants traveled to the continent more than 50,000 years ago from Asia, via the islands of what is now Indonesia. Despite lower sea levels at that time, the journey still involved crossing straits as wide as eighty kilometers (fifty miles) or more. During the long history of the Aboriginal peoples, factors such as climate change almost certainly caused significant upheavals, but by the time the Europeans arrived, Aboriginal groups were to be found in all corners of this vast and largely arid continent. Their lifestyle had become well adapted to an environment that, from a European perspective, was immensely inhospitable. Never settling for long in one place, they lived by gathering food, hunting, and (for people in the coastal fringes) fishing. This hunter-gatherer style of subsistence had never been superseded by agriculture, let alone affected by technological innovation such as metallurgy.

Since Aboriginal culture and tradition had developed independently of the rest of the world for millennia, it is tragic that much of it was utterly destroyed in such a short time after the arrival of the Europeans. It is estimated that at the time of contact there were more than 750 different Aboriginal languages, few of which now survive. Though our knowledge of the ways in which different native Australians viewed the world in pre-contact times is extremely fragmentary, there was clearly considerable diversity between different groups. Yet it is evident that certain fundamental concepts and principles underlay most Aboriginal systems of thought. The most important of these is the Dreamtime or Dreaming. The Dreamtime is sometimes portrayed as a sort of parallel, more fundamental reality in which ancestor spirits created the world and continue to exist within it. Certain places and paths through the landscape have deep significance within the Dreamtime. The actions of ancestors are re-enacted in many aspects of life, and oftentimes these re-enactments involve being at certain places and following certain paths.

Aboriginal engraving at America Track, Kuringai Chase National Park, New South Wales, showing the head and neck of the culture hero Daramulan.

Aboriginal engraving at America Track, Kuringai Chase National Park, New South Wales, showing the head and neck of the culture hero Daramulan.

Aboriginal peoples identified strongly with the landscape. Some of the places charged with sacred power were natural, such as distinctive rocks, termite mounds, or water-holes. Others were created, such as “ringed” eucalyptus trees (branches growing apart were trained together again until they rejoined, forming a ring in the trunk). In some locations, “stone configurations”—constructed arrangements of rocks and boulders—also appear to mark sacred places in the landscape, especially in regions devoid of other prominent natural landmarks.

However, to see the Dreaming as something in the Aboriginal mind that is superimposed upon the physical world is a quintessentially Western view of things. From an Aboriginal perspective, the motions and actions of the ancestors are an integral part of the world and can be perceived in places, in the objects that are found there, in the pathways between them, and in events that are constantly happening (“signs,” which must be perpetually watched for). Living people also leave their mark by their passage and conduct, not necessarily in a way that a Westerner would recognize as “physical,” but by ascribing new meanings to places and pathways in the world. Naturally that world includes the sky. The actions of the ancestors can also be perceived in the appearance and motions of the sun, moon, and stars: sky events affect people, and people affect sky events.

Celestial mythology features extensively in the surviving Aboriginal cultural heritage. A wealth of stories relate to sky objects, including Orion, the Pleiades, the Southern Cross and Pointers, and the Magellanic Clouds. A recent collaboration between ethnographer Hugh Cairns and Yidumduma (Bill Harney), a senior elder of the Wardaman community in Northern Territory, has shown how the night sky acts as a repository of ancient traditions and learning in this community. This learning was taught using song lines that cross through the constellations just as the so-called dreaming paths pass through the earthly landscape below.

Extrapolating back in time is much more difficult. Among the few tangible remains from earlier epochs, the most ubiquitous are the rock art sites found in several parts of Australia: over 100,000 such sites have been recorded. Their dates are generally indeterminable within wide bounds, although some may be several thousand or even tens of thousands of years old. Some include what are clearly depictions of ancestor spirits, people, animals, and activities such as hunting and dancing, while others are more abstract. To what extent modern practices can inform us about the meaning and use of art in the past is a contentious issue. Some contemporary bark paintings certainly include depictions of the sun, moon, Venus, various constellations, the Milky Way, or the Magellanic Clouds, although in many cases it would be impossible to recognize them for what they are if we did not have informants to tell us. In some cases we know something of the stories to which they relate and the context in which they were used to tell those stories. Rock art, on the other hand, is tied to a particular place. For Yidumduma, rock art sites are places (but by no means the only places) where ancestor spirits reside, and the significance of each is revealed in the context of the whole Wardaman creation story. The sky is an intimate part of this story:

Dreaming for the cosmos, the land and sky together for people that travel. The Creation routes connected to the people on the wall of the rock, and the connection up on the top, on the sky, down the bottom, and how everything is changing in this country. All the animal[s] and . . . the ceremony of the people in the rock . . . and all these other ones divided from the bottom and up to the top in the sky, with all the stars all part of human life from the sky. (Cairns and Yidumduma 2003, p. 31)

Taken out of context, as this example shows, the complexity of the connections between the content of rock art, its location, and the sky would be quite unfathomable to an archaeologist without an informant to interpret them.

Can more direct links between rock art and the sky sometimes be evident, even where we lack “the big picture”? A number of rock art sites contain inexplicable groupings of round holes or cup marks, which have not, it seems, arisen naturally; and some of these, it has been suggested, could represent constellations. However, it is disconcertingly easy to fit random collections of cup marks with patterns of stars in the sky if one is prepared to be sufficiently flexible in one’s selection criteria, so the case remains unproven. There is little other evidence of direct relationships between rock art motifs and the appearance of celestial objects, although it has been suggested that the stylized forms of emu on some panels reflect the shape of the emu in the sky, a conglomeration of dark clouds in the Milky Way recognized as such in a number of places across Australia. John Morieson, an Australian archaeoas-tronomer, has suggested that a number of stone configurations in northwestern Victoria related directly to the rising or setting sun and incorporated deliberate alignments toward sunrise or sunset in particular seasons in the year.

There is certainly evidence that a number of different Aboriginal groups took note of the annual changes in the position of certain stars or constellations as indicators of seasonal events that affected their food supply. Arc-turus is the fourth brightest star in the sky. For the Boorong people of northern Victoria, this star was Marpeankurrk, the ancestor who discovered bittur, or termite larvae, a delicious and valuable source of protein available at a time of year (August and September) when other food sources were scarce. Every year Marpeankurrk taught the living people when to find the bittur by appearing in the north during the evening. But night by night she appeared for a shorter and shorter time until she disappeared completely— and so did the bittur.

Although this is one of many similar examples, there is no evidence of any Aboriginal group having reckoned time using a calendar based, for example, on the phase cycle of the moon. Another curious feature of Aboriginal astronomy—at least, as far as we can tell from the available evidence— is that, despite living in wide open landscapes and having an intimate knowledge of the skies, Aboriginal peoples do not seem to have used the stars to navigate at night. Their astronomical knowledge, and their knowledge of the world in general, was qualitative rather than quantitative. It consisted of a rich network of associations confirmed in myth and tied to places and pathways both in the land and in the sky. Their worldview integrated land, sky, and social structure and kept human action intimately in tune with the cosmos.

Despite our fragmentary knowledge of Aboriginal astronomy, it is of great importance in showing how sky knowledge among hunter-gatherers can be rich and complex, despite leaving little or no trace in the material record. This fact has implications for how we interpret what extremely fragmentary archaeological evidence we have pertaining to astronomical knowledge in Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic times.

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