Everything is written twice – on the ground and in the sky

Indigenous Australians have interpreted objects and shapes in the night sky for tens of thousands of years. Whether they were the world’s first astronomers remains open to debate, but there’s a strong possibility that indeed they were.

In Australia, the evidence suggests early Aboriginal people observed the stars and composed stories handed down by their ancestors through songs and dance and images of the sky recorded on bark and rocks. The more accurately they knew the position and movement of the Sun, Moon and stars, the better they could predict when to hunt, harvest and come together.

“The heavens, equally with the earth, are of the Dreamtime drama, where stars are allotted tribal classifications and are personified as mythological characters,” according to the late Perth Observatory honorary historian Muriel Utting in her 1991 ‘Windows to the Southern Skies’. Utting quotes B.G. Maegraith, whose 1932 book, The Astronomy of the Aranda and Luritja tribes, described two great “camps” separated by the Milky Way, which is a great river or creek.

“The Aborigine has gone beyond the stage of merely mapping out the stars into groups and painting fantastic stories in the sky,” Maegraith says. “In a way, he may be said to have tried to analyse the physical features of the stars and to have noted such attributes as their motion and degree of magnitude.”

This is why astronomers in Australia are so interested in indigenous stories of the night sky. Art provides a rich source of information, according to CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris.

Professor Norris’ research into indigenous astronomy has uncovered artworks which depict astronomical concepts and objects important to 21st century scientists. One of the art pieces he refers to is a “star map” from Arnhem Land which he says shows Orion and Scorpius in a straight line.

”It is not a literal picture of the sky,” he says. “It is a symbolic map – the stars are all there but they are straightened to fit the painting.”

He says in areas such as Sydney and Perth “the culture has been badly damaged”. “We can look at their art and, with local communities, maybe resurrect some of the culture that has been lost.”

Professor Norris said many sites have been recorded, but few have been reliably surveyed, with most records consisting of no more than a hand sketch. He says an unbiased, comprehensive photographic study was needed, particularly for future generations who may never see many of the astronomical sites now exposed to erosion and damage.

“Soon after the British arrived, many of those people (people with knowledge of the sky) died mainly because their food sources were taken away or were excluded from where they hunted, in some cases there was deliberate killing,” he says.

The other part of the project is to study the artefacts of Aboriginal cultures whose culture was badly damaged by the arrival of Europeans more than 200 years ago. Professor Norris said one of the goals of any investigation was to find evidence to confirm that indigenous astronomers in Australia were the world’s first astronomers.

Perth astrophotographer John Goldsmith explored this forgotten knowledge as part of a Ph.D. project to better understand the indigenous view of the night sky. Mr Goldsmith’s study includes detailed video interviews with community elders and time-lapse photography to capture the night sky through indigenous eyes.

The research is a collaboration between the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Gingin Observatory and the CSIRO Scientists in Schools program.
Professor Norris says Aboriginal astronomy offers a way for scientists to view the depth and richness of one of the world’s oldest stargazing cultures.

THE night sky exists as a distinct ‘Skyworld’ that obeys the same laws as those on earth. Its existence is echoed in the words of Yamaji artist David Prior, whose painting Celebrations depicts the moment when the land and sky worlds meet. “Greeting and celebrations of the sky spirits as they welcome the great rainbow serpent into their sky space, as it entered the sky world,” he says of his work.

South Australian Museum researcher Philip Clarke has found in many parts of the country where the impact of European settlement was greatest, the accounts of Aboriginal astronomical beliefs were based mostly on early 19th century sources.

Unfortunately, this information was unreliable and compiled by observers unfamiliar with indigenous relationships with the southern sky. But the existence of the ‘heavens’ as an image of the terrestrial landscape was common. In central Australia, Dr Clarke notes tribal and linguistic boundaries are reflected in a cosmic landscape where the ancestors of living people dwell – linking astronomical objects to the Aboriginal kinship system.


Celebrations by David Prior, Yamaji Arts Geraldton

“The Skyworld was perceived as a place where great knowledge could be attained,” he says. “Aboriginal ‘doctors’ and ‘sorcerers’ in the early years of European settlement frequently claimed to have visited the Skyworld, often by climbing a tree or a large hill.” The skyworld is no more or less sacred than the earth.

According to Dr Clarke’s ethno-astronomy studies, the Milky Way dominates the sky; a great river filled with fish and lily “sky people”, its banks lined by their ancestors’ fires. The Pleiades or seven sisters collected roots and vegetables that grow around it. Gaps in the constellations also were thought to harbour waterholes, lagoons and billabongs where dangerous ‘beings’, or demons, dwell.

According to Albert Calvert’s ‘The Aborigines of Western Australia, 1894’, “Mullion” is a wicked being who lives in a big tree and seizes ‘black fellows’ to eat in the Milky Way. People of the Warburton Ranges in WA saw in a long line of dark patches along the Milky Way between Alpha Centauri and Alpha Cygnu, a great totem board made by two ancestral heroes, the Wati Kutjara, while accompanying the seven sisters.

According to Albert Calvert’s ‘The Aborigines of Western Australia, 1894’, “Mullion” is a wicked being who lives in a big tree and seizes ‘black fellows’ to eat in the Milky Way. People of the Warburton Ranges in WA saw in a long line of dark patches along the Milky Way between Alpha Centauri and Alpha Cygnu, a great totem board made by two ancestral heroes, the Wati Kutjara, while accompanying the seven sisters.

Around Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, people tell of the legend of two brothers who drown while canoeing, their bodies representing the two dark patches in the Milky Way in the constellations of Serpens and Sagittarius. The canoe is a line of four stars near Antares. Colour, too, was important. The Aranda people of central Australia distinguish red stars from white, blue and yellow stars.

In eastern NSW, the red star Aldebaran represents the story of a man who stole another man’s wife and hid in a tree that the angry husband set fire to. The flames carried the adulterer into the sky where he still burns red.
Studies of Indigenous astronomy offer great insights into important ceremonial cycles and the mythological beliefs of Aboriginal people.

The land and sky are one, according to Geraldton artist Charmaine Green. She said the land and sky are connected in many ways which all connect back to the culture of Yamaji people. “My mother and aunties taught us kids about the sky and how we can read it to tell us about bush tucker, especially when emu nesting time was near. “Our families would then go out from Mullewa for the day. On these trips my mother’s brother (my uncle) would lead all us smaller kids and teach everyone (girls and boys) how to track the emu for eggs.

“As we got older we were expected to hand this information on through the generations. I paint to keep these stories alive and to remind everyone of the responsibilities we have in this changing world towards our cultural knowledge.”

The late Kimberley elder David Bungal Mowaljarlai said everything is written twice – on the ground and in the sky. Aborigines made no measurements of space and time nor, researchers believe, did they apply any mathematical calculations. Though the sun and the feel of the wind were used for directions, the stars were not. They almost universally represent totemic ancestral beings, with the knowledge of their existence passed on by the ‘old men’ of a tribe.

Women were outside this knowledge.

For Australia’s early stargazers, patterns were more important than brightness, often identifying a small cluster of obscure stars while ignoring more prominent stars.

South Australian astronomer Paul Curnow, who teaches and lectures on ‘Australian starlore’, says Aboriginal people used the night sky as a storyboard, reinforcing tribal laws and legends.

“Indigenous Australians prefer the term ‘Dreaming’ because the word ‘Dreamtime’ often implies a set time in the past, however, to Aboriginal people there is no set time in the Dreaming, it is an ongoing process,” he says. The Dreaming exists in the present as well as the past, so that land, sky, animals, plants and humans are united spiritually through the presence of their stellar ancestors.

University of New South Wales English Professor Roslynn Haynes has found that traditional Aboriginal culture paid no attention to the two basic Western concepts of numeracy and temporality. They were not interested in positional astronomy, “their understanding of the constellations was relational rather than mathematically based”. For example, Venus is the sister of the sun and wife of Jupiter. Other groups call Venus the ‘Laughing Star’, an old man who once said something improper and has been laughing at his joke ever since.

Professor Haynes, author of ‘Explorers of the Southern Sky’, a history of Australian astronomy, says Aboriginal people were, “as close to them as the surrounding earthly environment”. Modern astronomy has only one creation story of the universe, the Big Bang, while Aboriginal people have many stories of how the universe formed. The Wandjina figures of WA’s Kimberley region made the universe, including the fauna, flora, rain and rivers, before they disappeared from the world. They left an imprint of themselves on the walls of caves.

Carmelo Amalfi

All images on this website belong to the Yamatji people who have given permission for their works to be published.

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