How Aboriginal Australians Saw the Stars

First Australians tracked and predicted interstellar movements in highly sophisticated ways, looking up at the night with eyes intriguingly different to our own.

Indigenous Australia is the longest living continuous culture on earth, but modern researchers have just started to look at the wisdom that comes with 50,000 years of residency—and that's especially true of astronomy. First Australians tracked and predicted interstellar movements in highly sophisticated ways, looking up at the night with eyes intriguingly different to our own. To hear some examples of things that they could teach us, I met with Swinburne University's Dr. Alan Duffy, who specializes in indigenous astronomy.

Alan Duffy in his Swinburne office. Photo by David Allegretti

It's an unusually cold summer afternoon in Melbourne when I meet the 31-year-old astrophysicist. I start by asking about the evidence for pre-European astronomy.

"There are stone arrangements all over Australia which accurately align with known astronomical directions called cardinal points," says Duffy. Most interesting is the accuracy with which they're placed. Duffy says this indicates that First Australians recognized celestial cycles over decades, and aligned the stones in a surprisingly accurate way. "I was shocked to learn this too," he says enthusiastically. "And I'm supposed to know a little about astronomy. I mean, I don't think most people these days could point out east or west—we've become so used to having GPS and phones."

He pulls up another photo on his laptop and explains the way Indigenous Australians imagined their constellations. While Westerners make out shapes from stars and bright points, kind of like a join-the-dots puzzle, indigenous Australians saw pictures in the dark areas as well. Duffy points to an image on the screen as an example. It's a smudgy brown nebula with a line of black running down the middle. In that black line Aboriginal people saw an emu, while to Western astronomy most of the arrangement is called the Coalsack Nebula. "So you end up with the same sky seen in a completely different way."

He goes on to describe how for Aboriginals, there was a also practical aspect to their constellations. The Emu was only visible in late April and early May, which is also when emus lay their eggs. "So in essence it was a calendar," he says, "a guide for dinnertime, to go out and get this incredibly valuable protein."

The Magellanic Clouds. Notice the shape of the river with the small smudges to the right. Image via NASA

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that indigenous Australians managed to seamlessly weave social lessons into their astronomy stories. Duffy points to a star cluster called the Magellanic Clouds, which is a fog of nearby galaxies. There are stars grouped around a black streak, which forms something like the shape of a river. Then, away from the main group, are two smaller sets of stars. People in Arnhem Land see this arrangement as campfires along a river, while the stars further away are an elderly couple who were too frail to complete the journey.

"So the young people actually come across and look after the elderly. Every time you looked up at the night sky you'd be reminded of your duties as a society—look after the old," says Duffy with a smile.

The same stars but from an Australian perspective—Djulpan. Image via Professor Ray Norris

Next he points to the Orion constellation on his laptop monitor. He explains that when seen from an Australian vantage point, Orion is upside down, so the Yolngu people of northeastern Arnhem Land saw three brothers and a canoe. They called this Djulpan, which is a prominent Aboriginal legend.

One day, three brothers decided to go fishing against the advice of their elders. It was storm season and far too dangerous. The three brothers ignored the warning and went anyway. They found themselves sitting in a canoe for hours catching nothing but kingfish, which is a problem as it's the totemic animal for their tribe. To eat it would be akin to cannibalism.

Eventually one of the brothers cracked and ate one, causing Walu, the Sun Woman, to become furious. Walu took the storm clouds and turned them into a whirlwind that lifted the boat up and cast the brothers into the sky where they remain today.

This story is an excellent example of the moral lessons engrained in astronomy storytelling. There's both a lesson about keeping sacred law, and paying heed to the words of elders. Not only that, but there's also a practical application. Djulpan is only visible from February to March, which is when the monsoon begins. That tells you it's no longer safe to go out and fish.

The Pleiades Cluster. Image via NASA, Palomar Observatory

Finally, bringing up an image of the Pleiades cluster, Duffy explains his favorite quirk of indigenous astronomy. "In a lot of cultures this is called the Seven Sisters," he says. "They lie just below Orion the Hunter so as the night sky wheels over, the seven sisters are fleeing from Orion." He then goes on to tell me there are similar stories of a hunter or fishermen pursuing seven women in Australia too, originating at a time when there was no contact between the Greeks and the Aborigines. "So the idea is that we told this story around campfires in Africa, and in the last 40,000 years we've been telling that same story as we spread out across the earth, which I absolutely love and I'm willing to buy into."

As we finish up, the conversation takes on a more somber tone. Looking up at the stars on a clear night sky is a beautiful and humbling experience, and it seems Duffy shares this sentiment. The issue is that we're losing our stars to light pollution, and this means we're also losing some of mankind's oldest stories. Duffy ruminates on this for a moment. "I think if everyone turned the lights off so they could see what they're missing, I don't think we'd turn the lights back on. And if we did, maybe we wouldn't turn on as many."

Follow David on Twitter.