VICE Weekends Presented by Weis

Stargazing in the Southern Night Sky

The stars don’t just light the night sky, they tell stories of people, traditions, culture and history.​
January 21, 2017, 3:27pm

This article is part of our VICE Weekends summer series, presented by Weis

Aboriginal astronomy weaves science with storytelling to understand, explain and help predict the world we live in. Australia's stars have held great significance for tens of thousands of years, making it one of the world's oldest stargazing cultures.

The sky's secrets can be used to navigate the Australian landscape and take advantage of seasonal food. Astronomy also plays a significant role in traditions, and in gathering and listening to Aboriginal knowledge of the night sky its stories can offer a gateway to Aboriginal culture.

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There's a lot to know and appreciate, which is why we sought out Professor Ray Norris, an astrophysicist well known for his work on Aboriginal astronomy, to find out a little bit more.

VICE: Were Aboriginal people the world's first astronomers?
Ray Norris: We don't know. It's plausible, as they have had a continuous culture in Australia for 50,000 years, which predated Stonehenge and all other known prehistoric astronomy sites, and were certainly doing astronomy in recent centuries. But we don't actually have any reliable dating that would establish them as the world's first astronomers.

What astronomical arrangements or patterns in the sky are important to understand?
Astrophysically, the patterns are not important. Constellations are not telling us anything about how the Universe works, they're just patterns that the human brain makes out of randomly arranged stars. Culturally, on the other hand, they are incredibly important in almost all human cultures and are often interpreted as telling us a higher truth or a pathway to the gods. In Aboriginal culture, the sky is seen as a mirror of the Earth, and there are stories about constellations, stars, and planets that describe the events in The Dreaming, including stories that are used to record a law or rules of life. The stars are always there as a reminder of these stories and laws, and are used to illustrate the stories when telling them.

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What's one of your favourite Aboriginal stories about the night sky?
In most Aboriginal cultures, Orion is a young man or a group of your men, or hunters. The Pleiades is a group of young girls called the Seven Sisters. Just as in the Greek stories, Orion is chasing the girls in the Pleiades. There are many variations of these stories, some of which you will find in my article Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation.

Do different cultures ever arrive at the same conclusions?
Yes. I am fascinated by the fact that the story of Orion and the Seven Sisters is so similar to the Greek story, even though there was no contact between Australia and Europe, suggesting this is a very old story dating back to about 100,000 BC when humans came out of Africa.

And are there different versions of these stories, depending on where you are in Australia?  
Yes, there are about 300 different Aboriginal cultures, each of which will have different versions of these stories.

The 'Emu in the Sky' is one of the best known Aboriginal constellations. Could you describe how we might see it when looking up at the Milky Way? 
To see the Emu you need to be in the Southern Hemisphere. You need to go out into the bush, well away of street lights, in winter or autumn. The head of the Emu can be seen in the southern sky next to the Southern Cross, and then you can follow the neck down along the Milky Way to the giant body. Two things to remember: the Emu is made of the dark shapes in-between the stars, not the stars themselves, and it is enormous, stretching right across the sky. Not like the dinky little European constellations.

How are astronomical events used for practical applications like navigation or harvesting?
In many Aboriginal cultures, the stars are used to regulate the calendar, which in a traditional hunter-gatherer society determines when you move camp to take advantage of seasonal food. For example, the first appearance of Scorpius each year in the north of Australia signals the arrival of winter, and also signals the arrival of the Macassans who used to visit the Northern shores of Australia to fish for Trepang. The stars are also used for navigation in two quite different ways. First, if you know the sky, then you have a compass above you every night. Second, the stars are used to help memorise the longlines, which are mortal maps for navigating large distances across Australia. In this regard, the stars function rather like a memory palace.

In what ways can Aboriginal astronomy help us think differently about the world?
Ever since the occupation of Australia by the British in 1788, Australian culture has been regarded by Europeans as impoverished compared to the rich cultures that gave us Shakespeare and Mozart. This is partly because the Aboriginal cultures are so different from European cultures that some Europeans have difficulty recognising the culture. For example, early British occupiers thought the Aboriginal people must be stupid because there was no Aboriginal religion. There was a very rich religion, but it was spot different from the British religion that few recognised it as such. Even now, Europeans sometimes find Aboriginal culture difficult to understand because it's so different from their own. Astronomy can act as a bridge between the cultures, a common point of reference. People understand the Aboriginal astronomy stories because they are superficially like the European ones, but as one hears more of the details, one starts to understand the richness and complexity of the culture underlying it. So Aboriginal astronomy can act as a gateway to Aboriginal culture.

This article is presented by Weis