The skies have been used for millennia to encode Indigenous knowledge systems, serving as a library for oral cultures, and inform many Aboriginal cultural and scientific practices. Indigenous astronomy is a field that exemplifies the interconnected nature of Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledge systems as a whole. Each field of knowledge is tightly interwoven, and this section will go on to demonstrate how even features in the sky are connected to features with us on the ground.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait School Curriculum has 14 different topics for lessons that might give you insight into teaching in this area. Three key external resources are referred to above in the highlight box and we will also link back to these resources below.
This page is further divided into
Indigenous astronomical oral traditions can inform us about changes in the land. Through the movement of stars and constellations, or the appearance or disappearance of various atmospheric phenomena, inferences can be made/ we can predict these changes in weather. We can also use the land to establish rock sites relating to astronomical phenomena – forming traditional observatories. There are several instances of this in Indigenous astronomy. The Kuing-gai Emu tracks the Emu in the Sky constellation highlighting an important phase of the Emu’s calendar/cycle.
Animals – Vital to the survival of Australia’s first peoples was an understanding of everything around them. As a food source, an integral part of the ecosystem and as a source of materials for everyday life, animals were very important. The resources below give a good introduction to the connection between animals and the sky.
- Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions From Ooldea, South Australia, Part 2: Animals in the Ooldean Sky – Indigenous celestial calendars to describe cycles in animal behaviour.
- Fuller, R.S., Anderson, M.G., Norris, R.P., and Trudgett, M.M. (2014). The emu sky knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 17(2), pp. 171–179. Fuller, R.S., Norris, R.P., and Trudgett, M.M. (2014). The Astronomy of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples and Their Neighbours. Australian Aboriginal Studies, Vol. 2014(2), pp. 3-27.
- Hamacher, D.W. and Norris, R.P. (2011). “Bridging the gap” through Australian cultural astronomy. Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: building bridges between cultures, edited by Clive Ruggles. Cambridge University Press, pp. 282-290.
- Morieson, J. (1999). The Astronomy of the Boorong. Australian Journal of Indigenous Issues, Vol. 2(4), pp. 19-28. Tindale, N.B. (1983). Celestial lore of some Australian Aboriginal tribes. Archaeoastronomy, Vol. 12/13, pp. 258-379.
Landscape – As was demonstrated by the struggle of the first European settlers in Australia, if you didn’t understand the land, it was an almost impossibly tough life. However, Australia’s first people understood their land. Each Nation saw themselves deeply connected to their land. Given the importance of the land, it of course intersected with the sky, not just visually but in Lore. Aboriginalastronomy.com.au is a curation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems relating to the intersection of the landscape with the skyscape. A Methodology for Testing Horizon Astronomy in Australian Aboriginal Cultural Sites: A Case Study describes a methodology for approaching Indigenous astronomical sites with an analytical lens. See below to hear from Karlie Noon, a Kamilaroi women and Astrophysicist talking about Indigenous astronomy and her journey.
Plants – This webpage at Aboriginalastronomy.com.au is a curation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems relating to plants within astronomy. The Aboriginal Australian Cosmic Landscape. Part 1: The Ethnobotany of the Skyworld by Philip A. Clarke provides insight into how the study of ethnoastronomy can provide insights into the Indigenous understanding and utilisation of plants. The Aboriginal Australian Cosmic Landscape. Part 2: Plant Connections with the Skyworld (by the same author) describes the links between the flora present in the Aboriginal Skyworld and its connection to the plants on the ground.
Stone arrangements – Orientations of Linear Stone Arrangements in New South Wales is an article published in Australian Archaeology by Duane W. Hamacher, Robert S. Fuller, and Ray P. Norris. It details an analytical methodology for verifying the significance of the orientation of Indigenous stone arrangements. Many more sites exist but are often kept secret or largely secret in order to protect them from either deliberate or accidental damage.
Weather/Climate – One of the Australian National Curriculum examples is stellar scintillation, the twinkling of starlight dependent on weather. It incorporates resources and lesson plans to explain the understanding of stellar scintillation in Indigenous astronomy, and how this can be used to inform about weather patterns. Donna Green, Jack Billy and Alo Tapim explore Indigenous understanding of weather systems while highlighting the value of Indigenous knowledge systems in understanding regional climate change in “Indigenous Australians’ knowledge of weather and climate“.
The Bureau of Meteorology has a long history of working with Indigenous communities to understand their local climate/weather knowledge. This webpage from the Bureau of Meteorology is a searchable database of Aboriginal weather knowledge. Watch above as Mandy explains the six seasons in the Kakadu/Arnhem land region.
Indigenous astronomers tend to encode meteor and comet knowledge and sightings into oral traditions in the form of stories. As meteors and comets are frequently associated with death and bad omens in Indigenous astronomy, these stories tend to also educate Community on the moral values of its people, and in some communities, the physical meteorite rock may be used as tools of punishment or approval. See these pages for a collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems relating to comets and craters.
Craters – In the following article Duane W. Hamacher and Craig O’Neill uses a case study of a specific meteorite impact event to illustrate how Indigenous astronomy has been historically overlooked in Western science. The Discovery and History of the Dalgaranga Meteorite Crater, Western Australia. Further work (with John Goldsmith) showcases examples of impacts described in oral traditions and how stories and science are tightly interwoven in Aboriginal culture through meteoritic examples.
Meteors – Meteors were culturally significant for Indigenous Australians all over Australia. For general resources, this webpage at Aboriginalastronomy.com.au is a curation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems relating to meteors. Duane Hamacher’s work here describes the recordings and understanding of meteor events in Aboriginal astronomy. Meteor may have been used in tool making and the stories can demonstrate the longevity of oral traditions.
The moon is often described as a man in Indigenous astronomical traditions.
It can be used to inform Community about changes in the weather and environment. Moon halos are used as an indicator of wet weather forming due to the presence of ice crystals in the atmosphere.
The phases of the moon correlate with changes in tidal conditions, allowed Torres Strait Islander astronomers to coordinate their fishing expeditions. The angle of the moon cusps tilt, otherwise known as the crescent phases of the moon, is used as a seasonal calendar to indicate impending wet seasons. Aboriginalastronomy.com.au has a good summary of lunar and solar eclipses.
Australia’s first people understood the motions and influences of the Sun-Earth-Moon system on eclipses and tides. This known relationship between the lunar phases and the oceanic tides that is utilised by Indigenous astronomers and fishermen has been built into a lesson plans for students. as part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curriculum project. While this example is a lesson for year eights, it is a great example to start with when planning lessons for older students. More resources can be found on the Moon page of Aboriginalastronomy.com.au.
The planets have always been a point of mystery for astronomers worldwide. On the surface, they appear to be stars. However, after a period of observation, it becomes evident that these ‘stars’ do not behave like traditional stars. There are some key characteristics of planets that differentiate them from typical stars. They scintillate differently, they move irregularly when compared to other stars, and they also have a peculiar characteristic of retrograde motion – phenomenon where they appear to be heading backwards.
There are 5 planets that tend to be observable by the naked eye and all 5 appear frequently in Aboriginal oral traditions – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
The Planets in Aboriginal Australia by Hamarcher and Banks gives a comprehensive overview of the interpretations of the observable planets in Indigenous astronomy for Indigenous communities across the continent. The significance of the morning star (Venus) is captured in the video below and is accompanied by a teaching resource. Once again this is for a high school level but these examples can be used to understand what can work.
Stars & Constellations
The way we view the night sky in the Southern hemisphere differs from that of the Northern hemisphere. Due to the Southern hemisphere’s optimal view of the Milky Way, Indigenous astronomy features Dark Sky constellations – constellations formed within the dark regions of the sky, within the dust lanes of the galaxy.
Within the stars we find many constellations that can be used as calendars for various environmental phenomena. The star’s positions can inform us of incoming changes in animal, plant, and climate behaviour. The stars are also used in aiding long distance travel – being used as stellar maps to navigate from coast to coast, and forming the basis of modern-day highways.
Indigenous Australians all around Australia use(d) constellations (Duane Hamacher) just like the ancient Greeks did but they also use(d) dark constellations. This dark sky story of Baiami and the Emu Chase comes from the Wiradjuri Dreaming.
Navigation – The first Australian’s had a wealth of knowledge relating to starmaps. A couple of these examples now feature in the Australian curriculum including lesson plans. In navigation, Songlines are very important for Indigenous astronomers as oral maps used to navigate from coast to coast with the assistance of the night sky. The stars are used to supplement Songlines in long distance navigation too.
Supernovae and variable stars – Want to know whether Supernovae Recorded in Indigenous Astronomical Traditions? Or just want to know more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems relating to supernovae? There’s also this useful article around the observations of red-giant variable stars by Aboriginal Australians.
The Sun is an important object in Indigenous astronomy and has a different role for various groups across the continent. Most commonly, the Sun is depicted as a woman bringing day to the land, often paving her way along the Great Ancestral path in the sky – the ecliptic.
The ecliptic is significant due to the fact that most of the unique planetary bodies follow its trajectory across the sky. These other bodies are our moon and our neighbouring planets.
The Sun features in astronomical traditions describing eclipses, parhelia (a bright spot on one or both sides of the sun), and the solstices. Find out about Aboriginal astronomical traditions, and their understanding of the motions and influences of the Sun-Earth-Moon system on eclipses and tides in this article by Hamacher and Norris.
Did Aboriginal Astronomers Record a Simultaneous Eclipse and Aurora in their Oral Traditions? This article by Robert S. Fuller and Duane W. Hamacher demonstrates methods of dating back Indigenous recordings of ancient astronomical events. A very important and useful capability for those wanting to further understand oral histories or communicate the lengths of knowledge.