This web site is dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Australians
who lost their lives after the British occupation of Australia in 1788.

Aboriginal Cultures



It is important to realise that Aboriginal Australians have not just one culture, but about 400 different cultures across Australia, each with its own language, laws, traditions, and stories. Some of the languages are as different from each other as English is from Swahili, whilst others can be closely related, like Spanish and Portugese. Some of the Aboriginal cultures are rich in stories and ceremonies tied to the night sky, while in others the sky doesn't seem to play such an important role. So it makes no sense to talk of "an Aboriginal constellation", or the "Aboriginal word for the Moon".

Nevertheless, there are some common threads running through many of the cultures. For example, most Aboriginal cultures are centred on the idea that the world was created in the "Dreaming" by ancestral spirits who have left their symbols all around us. If one can understand these symbols, then one has a complete understanding of the world, of the meaning of life, and of the rules by which one must live - a sort of user manual for existence. Naturally, the night sky is an important chapter of this manual. Specific examples of common threads across Aboriginal cultures include:

  • The "emu in the sky", shown at the top of this page, consisting of dark clouds in the Milky Way, stretching from Scorpius to the Southern Cross, features in many Aboriginal cultures right across Australia.
  • In many cultures (but certainly not all) the Moon is male and the Sun is female, and there are many different versions of stories, in different languages, in which the Moon-man falls ill (the waning Moon), lies dead for three nights (New Moon), and then resurrects on the third day (the waxing Moon).
  • There are said to be "song-lines", consisting of one song, telling one story, that stretch across Australia, following the sacred paths of Dreaming-spirits, and encompassing many different Aboriginal language groups and cultures. Each language group tells its own part of the story in its own way, and yet collectively they assemble to make a coherent whole which could only be understood in its entirety by an individual who spoke all the languages along its length.

A map showing the various aboriginal language groups can be found on the
AIATSIS site here.


Like any other cultural activity, it is impossible to understand how astronomy fits into Aboriginal cultures without first understanding the cultures themselves. Unfortunately, it is well beyond the scope of this web site to discuss them in any great detail. However, I hope that it may whet your appetite, and perhaps inspire you to learn more about them.

A good starting point is this wikipedia page, and another is "Australian Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History", by Jennifer Isaacs. Several other excellent books are recommended in "Further Reading".


Warning: Cultural Baggage!

Tiwi kids counting in a waterhole

An impediment to this study is the misinformation permeating the literature, dating from an era when racial prejudices were widespread even amongst academics. For example, one anthropology text book states categorically "No Australian Aboriginal language has a word for a number higher than four". Having watched Aboriginal children counting (in the photo above) in the Tiwi language to see who could hold their breath longest underwater, I very much doubt this. More importantly, complex Aboriginal number systems have since been well-documented in the literature (e.g. McRoberts, 1990; Tully, 1997). Such ingrained attitudes state equally misleadingly that Aboriginal people "don't measure things" or "don't ask questions", and so would not be interested in or capable of careful astronomical measurements. Rather than relying on such assertions, this project concentrates on exploring the available evidence.


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