Amongst the 400 indigenous cultures in Australia, each with its distinct mythology, ceremonies, and art forms, threads a strong interest in the night sky. Since Aboriginal cultures stretch back unbroken for 50,000 years or more, it has been suggested (e.g. Haynes 1992) that the Australian Aboriginal people were the world's first astronomers. This argument rests upon two hypotheses: one is that the Aboriginal people were practicing astronomy, and the second is that these practices stretch back 50,000 years. The project described here aims to test the first hypothesis in a systematic way.
   The word "astronomy" implies more than a passing interest in the phenomena in the sky, or recognising a few stars or their patterns. It implies a quest to understand the sky, to ask questions about the motion of the Sun and Moon, to ponder what would cause phenomena like eclipses or comets, and to ask whether events in the sky are connected to those on Earth. So the aim of this project is to explore whether there exists evidence for such a deep interest amongst traditional Aboriginal people. The project has two key components.
   In some parts of Australia, such as Arnhem Land in the North of Australia, these cultures are flourishing. For example, Yolngu people still maintain traditional aspects of their lifestyle, and continue to conduct initiation ceremonies, at which much of the traditional lore is passed from generation to generation. The first thread of the project aims to record their stories and ceremonies, and as much of the astronomical lore as might be told to an uninitiated white person.
   In other parts of Australia, the Aboriginal culture was badly damaged by the arrival of Europeans some 200 years ago. For example, the Aboriginal people around Sydney disappeared within a few years of the arrival of Europeans, due to a combination of introduced disease, exclusion from their sources of food and water, and even deliberate genocide. In these regions, little is known of the original culture of the Aboriginal people, but we can study it by examining their art and artefacts. Thus the second thread of the project focuses on surveying and recording the rock engravings of the Sydney basin region and the stone arrangements of Victoria. 
   Aboriginal astronomy was first described by Stanbridge (1857), and subsequent important works include those by Mountford (1976), Haynes (1992), Johnson (1998), and Cairns & Harney (2003). Most of these works focus on how objects in the night sky represent events or characters in Dreaming stories, and only touch briefly on practical applications or on interpretation of the motion of the sky.
   For example, several Aboriginal groups tell how the Pleiades are a group of sisters chased by a young man in the constellation of Orion. Although this similarity between Aboriginal and Greek stories suggests early cultural contact between Aboriginal and European people, it is unlikely that such contact took place. It is more likely that the Aboriginal people independently devised the stories in a sort of cultural convergent evolution. But more interesting to this project is the report by Harney (1959) that the Kuwema people used the heliacal rising of Orion to tell them when to harvest dingo puppies, which were an important food source.



All material on this page © Ray Norris 2007 except where otherwise indicated.