Select Page

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for Studying astronomy in culture should be simple. There’s only so much that is visible by the naked eye, and it follows predictable patterns. Modern astronomy means that we can reconstruct what was visible anywhere in the world in human history, within certain boundaries for errors. If we know what happens when, then studying a culture should just be a case of taking a shopping list of astronomical phenomena and seeing what a culture does with them. And some bad histories of astronomy read like the author is awarding marks to cultures for astronomical achievements.

There’s various things that don’t work with that plan, but the biggest is that you supposedly are examining culture and are fitting a study to a very specific view of astronomy, a modern western view. It’s awkward because we live in a culture where a modern Platonic view of science is rarely challenged. There’s a good reason for that. Our view of science makes sense within our culture. But if we don’t acknowledge that science is a social construct then we don’t fully understand other cultures. Reality is the same for all of us, but not our way of making sense of it. An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy by Philip A. Clarke in Archaeoastronomy is a good paper that helps show the difference between understanding the use of astronomy in a culture and comparing an indigenous astronomy with ours to see how much they got right.

The paper starts at the very best place to start, as after a brief introduction it considers the sources of the data. It’s a key point because if the source data is full of leading questions and preconceived notions then you’ll only get the answers you were looking for.

Clarke then looks at how Aboriginal peoples saw their world. If you’re going to examine the sky, it helps to know how the people describing it saw it in relation to the rest of the world. A common feature of aboriginal cosmology is that the sky was seen as connected to the land. Clarke refers to the sky as the “Land of the Dead” or the “Land to the West”, because spirits are thought to travel to the west to enter the sky. The methods of getting there varied. Tasmanians saw their foot tracks in the forest as leading to the Milky Way. This reminds me a bit of the Greenlandic idea that the shaman could walk to the moon. In the far north the moon can roll across the horizon, so that it has a visible connection to the Earth. From that view the idea that the Milky Way is a foot track connected to the Earth where it meets the horizon makes sense. Others have the idea that birds could transport people to the Skyworld, which again matches observations of birds being between land and sky. Still more say that you can reach the Skyworld by climbing tall trees and getting help from a passing tornado.

The aboriginal Skyworld seems to be a very richly described place. The aboriginals have no truck with celestial spheres. Their Skyworld has topography, trees and inhabitants. The Skyworld is where the ancestors live, and so it’s a handy place to visit if you’re in need of a bit of ancient wisdom. They should be easy enough to find as some of the ancestors are thought to be visible as stars.

The identification of ancestors in the sky brings a whole series of further factors. Kinship is important in aboriginal society and the same is true for the ancestors. Antares is Butt Kuee Tuukuung in southwest Victoria, and the fainter close stars are his wives. Brightness and location explains a lot of the other relationships that Clarke lists. Time is also an issue. In northern Queensland the Evening Star is Dog and the Morning Star is Bitch. All these features are categorised in clans and sections just like the rest of the aboriginal world including animals and plants on the land.

Opinion is divided on how the Sun and Moon return from the west to the east. For some people this is through a path in the underworld. The people of Arnhem land have a tale the Sun becomes a great fish and swims under the land through the ocean. That appeals to me at a narrative level. Other regions have other tales and some include the passage of stars beneath the earth as well as the Sun and Moon.

One of the interesting features that comes out of this paper is that the Aboriginal people seem to have a concept of stars, but not so much of stick-figure constellations. Clarke mentions a survey by Haynes that finds evidence of some faint stars being Unwala the Crab Ancestor [PDF], but not bothering with Procyon and Regulus – two much brighter stars close by. My reaction was that maybe this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. If a bright star is an ancestor then it’s an individual not part of a larger figure. There are already kinship connections between stars so the idea of Greco-Roman style constellations is probably a bit too confusing. Another factor is that because the Milky Way is so visible, there are already plenty of dark-cloud constellations that actually look like things. For example one patch of nebula in the Milky Way blots out the stars making the silhouette of an emu in the sky. That makes drawing stick figures between stars an unconvincing alternative for constellations. But there are other better reasons too.

Clarke makes the point that colour is very important in aboriginal cosmologies. One example he gives are the Arrente people of Central Australia who give more importance to reddish or white stars than yellow or blue stars. It won’t surprise you the same people value red ochres and white clays as symbols of power. Colour becomes more complicated when you examine the Sun or Moon, which are red at the horizon but change colour as they climb and fall. A red Sun seems to a particular problem as it’s a feminine symbol and red is a powerful colour. One tradition describes it as a kangaroo skin dress that is given to her by men who spend the night with her. The mottled face of the Moon seems to be explained by scars of conflict, but the exact nature of the fight varies from region to region.

Clarke covers timekeeping, especially seasonality in depth. The only thing I’ve found missing here is when the day starts. Some cultures see it starting at sunrise, others at sunset but I’ve no idea if there’s a shared day concept in Aboriginal culture. The Pleiades seem to be particularly important in the turning of the seasons [PDF]. Clarke notes that Tindale has fifty different versions of Pleiades mythology connecting them to changing of the seasons. That might indicate a lot of disagreement, but the fact that so many aboriginal cultures over such a large area are using the same general idea and disagreeing on the details points to interconnection between peoples.

The saddest section is The Collapse and Rebirth of the Cosmos. Aboriginals did not passively sit waiting for white settlement and news of the Europeans preceded their arrival in many places. Clarke can show this is reflected in their cosmology. The British arrived in the east and thanks to smallpox brought death with them. Visions of the Aurora Australis and meteors were interpreted as omens of dire times. Given the results it’s easy to see how the arrival of the British could be seen as a cosmic apocalypse.

The common theme in this paper, apart from sheer variety and otherness of aboriginal astronomy is that this is also a continuing tradition. I’m acutely aware I may have mixed up tenses in the description because some of these ways of life have gone, while others are still alive. This life isn’t simply a rut that people return to, but a tradition that can adapt can appropriate new ideas, like Aboriginal beliefs about UFOs, or scientific discoveries. Clarke mentions the meteorite strike that created the Wolfe Creek Crater has been woven into tales of the Dreamtime.

Astronomically inspired indigenous art at the Ilgarijiri exhibition on display in Geraldton. Photo (cc) AstroMeg.
Astronomically inspired indigenous art at the Ilgarijiri exhibition on display in Geraldton. Photo (cc) AstroMeg.

Good writing can transport you to strange new places. Sometimes its an evocative geographical description, but it can also show you the universe in a new light. Astronomy can show the majesty of the cosmos and the sheer scale of creation. At the opposite end of the scale you can go on safari with microscopic bacteria far too small to be seen by the human eye. In the case of work like Clarke’s, it can be a guide to show how special the apparently mundane is. The night sky we see is more or less the same as seen by the aboriginal peoples of Australia, allowing for some effects of latitude of the observer.

What I like about this paper is that at each step Clarke is linking back to the culture that the astronomy is in. The fact that aboriginal astronomers are interested in the colours of stars is, by itself, a foible. Because Clarke makes that point that colour is connected to all sorts of terrestrial symbolism and meaning then the connections between sky and society become much more meaningful. Likewise the lack of constellations might be taken as a sign that Aboriginal peoples aren’t that interested in many stars. Knowing about the kinship system shows how mistaken that is, and that statements about the Skyworld are also strong political statements about life in the world below.

The many pages of references at the end of the article are the icing on the cake, because this paper is very much an overview. Any single section of the paper is a gateway to many many more articles researching aboriginal astronomy and culture. You never want to take one author’s work as the last word on a subject, but if you’re interested in Australian indigenous astronomy you could do a lot worse than take Clarke’s article as the starting point.

ResearchBlogging.orgClarke, P.A. (2007). An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Ethnoastronomy Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, XXI, 39-58 (Mendeley link)