Astronomy and Australian indigenous people

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Astronomy and Australian indigenous people

Research and written by Adele Pring, Department for Education and Child Development, in consultation with Aboriginal informants and teachers with a passion for astronomy.

Why teach about Astronomy and Australian Indigenous people?

Knowledge of the sky world from Australian Indigenous perspectives is useful for the following reasons:

• finding directions: a survival strategy if lost
• telling the time at night without a clock
• a weather forecaster
• hearing and reading fascinating creation stories
• placing relevant Australian meanings on the southern hemisphere sky
• a calendar for the changing seasons
• learning about Aboriginal law
• learning about the diversity of Indigenous peoples in Australia

background information

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, have many stories about the night sky, the moon and sun. Their ancestors have observed the night sky for more than 40,000 years and many of their traditional stories tell of events, eg eruption of volcanoes, dated to thousands of years ago.

Different colours and intensities are observed as well as seasonal and nightly movement in the night skies. It was known that planets had separate orbits.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people applied knowledge of particular stars and constellations for many purposes including:

• a calendar for the changing seasons indicating changes in weather, availability of particular foods and time for particular ceremonies

• a survival strategy if lost by being able to tell the time, predict weather and find directions at night, a sensible time for travelling if living in a hot, dry desert area or in cold areas if there was no access to fire

• hearing and reading fascinating stories which explain the creation of the earth and sky worlds through the actions of spirit ancestors which remain in the environment

• learning about Aboriginal law: reinforcing the teaching of law including how to behave and punishments for breaking laws by referring to spirit ancestors in the sky world (not so different to Christianity and other religions)
• placing relevant Australian meanings on the southern hemisphere sky as opposed to constellation stories from the northern hemisphere which in Australia appear upside down
Examples of each of the above are included in the following pages.

Diversity within indigenous Australia
It is estimated that around 1788 when the British colonised the east coast of Australia, there were between 300-600 different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language or dialect speaking groups, with a total population between 300,000 to 1,000,000 or more. Each group had their own land, sites and stories, though some stories were shared and some land boundaries overlapped.
The information in this document represents information from several Indigenous Australian groups and this is only a fraction of the whole.
Aboriginal people and Dreaming stories
Each Aboriginal group has their own spiritual beliefs, laws and explanations for how their environment was created and these were passed down through storytelling and ceremony in what is generally referred to in English as the Dreaming.
Torres Strait Islander peoples are related culturally to those of Melanesia in New Guinea. Their islands are between Cape York in north Queensland and New Guinea. Their stories, which they call legends, traditionally divide ownership of particular lands, seas and winds as well as sections of the sky amongst various clans.

People within each group are custodians of particular stories which are associated with particular sites. Some stories are men's only, some are women's only and some are public, ie for everybody.

Some stories cross Australia and are like maps for traditional trade routes crossing from Spencer Gulf in South Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria and from Broome in Western Australia to Eucla on the coast of South Australia. Many stories are linked with the night sky.
rade routes followed Dreaming paths across Australia. Items highly valued for trade throughout Australia included micaceous red ochre from the Flinders Ranges; pitjuri, bush tobacco, high in nicotine, from south west Queensland; stone axes from volcanic rock in Victoria; pearl shells from Broome; and wooden artefacts.
Do Aboriginal people have better vision of the night sky or are there other explanations?
Dame Mary Gilmour, a non-indigenous Australian born in the mid 19th century wrote about how Aboriginal children she knew in New South Wales counted stars as a pastime by using groups.
She also said Aboriginal stockmen counted by threes, fours and fives and were faster and more accurate in counting cattle than non-Aboriginal stockmen because of the skill learnt from counting stars.
Further, Aboriginal people were very familiar with the changing night sky, knowing that planets came and went differently to other constellations and their ability to see faint stars was far greater than non-Aboriginal people she knew. 1
Fred Hollows said that Aboriginal peoples’ vision is much sharper than other Australians and that there are physiological reasons for this.

Questions for teachers
What do you think? Could it be that Aboriginal people have better vision? Could people train their vision of the night sky to be better?

Scientific understanding of the universe is constantly expanding but does the average citizen of the world now know more or less about the night sky than people in the past?

Pronouncing Aboriginal words

Aboriginal languages have been written using a range of orthographies. The best way to learn to say words from a different language is to listen to and copy a speaker of that language, however, the following rules can be generally applied to many Aboriginal languages (though there will be many exceptions). Place the emphasis on the first syllable of each word.

Most Aboriginal languages have more than one r sound. One is similar to the English sound in weary (retroflex r). A second is the rolled r used in the Scottish language. Another is a sound that is a mixture of r and d.

a as in but

e as in pet

i as in pin (in the middle of a word)

i as in happy (at the end of a word)

o as in pot

u as in push

tj is a sound similar to ch

th, dh are like English without the puff of air

p, b these sounds vary between the English p and b without a puff of air

t, d these sounds vary between the English t and d without a puff of air

ng is the sound in sing

ly is the sound in William

ny is the sound in news

Before you start

Access to the following resources will assist:

• star charts for each student or pair of students

• at least one globe

• a torch

• red cellophane (to cover torch)

• cardboard, broomsticks, gaffer tape

• overhead transparency projector

• overhead transparencies of Orion, the saucepan, Southern Cross and Pointers, Magellanic Clouds, Milky Way in winter, Pleiades

• arrange with the teacher librarian for access to any resources which the school might have which are listed in the reference list at the end of this document

• order a copy of the video Inside story: The Human race, ABC TV 27/5/97 57mins.

• order a copy of the video Bobtales: an animated series of 13 5 minute Aboriginal Dreamtime stories for young children, Film Australia, 13 x 5 mins 1977, also available from DECS Tape Services (see above)

Organise an astronomy night at the school (or on camp) when binoculars and telescopes are available. An evening when the moon is very new (or no moon) is preferable. Arrange , if possible, for an Aboriginal guest speaker who is confident to share knowledge of the night sky.
The orbits of planets and their moons can be role played by students on the school oval with the sun in the centre, planets is order and moons orbiting their respective planets and comets (represented by the most energetic students) orbiting across all.
If all the planets start in a straight line from the sun it won't be long before they're not, which is a good way to show how they are in reality, ie hardly ever lined up straight.
Jointly plan with schools in the region to have a visit from the Stardome, available from The Investigator Science and Technology Centre. The Stardome enables participants to view a virtual night sky albeit minus planets, moon, Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds. It allows an excellent opportunity to observe the changes in the night sky daily and over the seasons and prepares students will for looking at the actual night sky.

Find out what students already know and think about the night sky
Find out from students which constellations or other features of the night sky they know. Once you have this knowledge you can build on what most students know and value the knowledge of those who already know more.
Most students will know the 'saucepan' and the 'Southern Cross' and some will know the Milky Way and will have watched satellites moving differently to stars in the sky. Relatively few students will know more unless they have studied this topic before.
Nearly all students will know their star sign but hardly any will know how to find it in the night sky. They may however be keen to find it once they start learning more.

See more notes about suggestions for teaching activities at the end of this booklet.

Student survey
Complete the following survey form. Your work will not be graded according to the accuracy of answers.
Draw or explain in words the following:
• where the sun rises and where it sets

• whether this changes through the year and if so how

• the path of the moon through the sky

• what phase the moon is in

• where to find the Southern Cross and what it looks like

• how the Southern Cross can be used to show the south direction

• where and when to find the 'saucepan' and what it looks like

• where and when to find Pleiades and what it looks like

• what colour Mars is

• where the Magellanic clouds are and what they look like

• where the Milky Way is and what it looks like

• how you learnt what you know

Write down why you think some people know more than others.
How long you need to be away from unnatural light to have your best night vision?
Most Indigenous Australian children today live in houses and go to school whereas last century most lived much of their time outside. How might this affect their vision and knowledge of the night sky?
Where do the names Orion, Moon, Southern Cross, Pleiades, Mars, Magellanic Clouds and the Milky Way come from?

The Sun

There are many Aboriginal stories about the sun. One story is that the Sun woman carries her firestick across the sky each day and sets up camp each evening.

The Boorong of north west Victoria believe the Pupperrimbul, the little bird with the red patch above the tail (probably one of two varieties of firetail finch), made Gnowee, the Sun, by throwing a prepared emu egg into space. Before this the earth was in darkness. Others say that the egg was prepared by Berm-berm-gle, two large stars in Centaurus who represent brothers and the egg was carried into space by Penmen, a different small bird.

If the Pupperrimbul were to be killed there would be a fearful fall of rain. The Pupperrimbul and other creatures are spiritual representations on earth of old spirits.

Using a model to learn about seasonal changes in the path of the sun
Have students stand and face north and raise their west hand. They may need a while to work this out. Give them clues linked to local topography, eg the Mt Lofty Ranges are to your east and the coastline is to the west.
Students will probably copy a leader. If they are unsure, give them clues such as which side of the bus or car the sun shines through in the morning or afternoon to work out east or west.
Explain to students that an Aboriginal baby born in the middle of Australia until recently (and maybe even now) would learn these directions possibly before learning to talk and walk as a survival skill necessary in adulthood.
Make a large cardboard sun (approx. 45cm diameter) and attach it to a stick approx. 1.5m .
Students can volunteer or be asked to carry the 'sun' across the 'classroom' sky showing direction of apparent travel and to show the seasonal changes.
Start with the sun showing that it is almost overhead at midday in summer but closer to 45 degrees in mid-winter. In mid summer it rises well south of east and sets well south of west. In mid winter it rises north of east and sets north of west.
Use a globe and a torch, to represent the sun, to show how the sun rises south of east and sets south of west.
Stone arrangements or carvings for use as a calendar and compass

John Morieson is researching Aboriginal stone arrangement sites in Victoria and is finding that some indicate cardinal points as well as where the sun rises and sets at the equinox and solstices. His work is not complete and is as yet unpublished.

Student activity

A class could plan and possibly make a stone arrangement in the school grounds or engravings on stone or wood to show where the sun rises and sets at the solstices and equinoxes and to show the cardinal points.

Using the sketch following as a starting point, students could make predictions about where the sun might rise and set during the solstices and during equinoxes.

The appropriate dates could be written on to a class calendar so that observations could be made using relevant equipment, eg compasses and results could be checked with predictions. Models could be made to explain the relationships.

Stone, paving brick or painted signs could indicate the points.
Talk with students about how knowledge of the above could help with planning large gatherings of people for ceremonies.
Hypothesise about which direction the openings of traditional Aboriginal shelters might have been facing in particular seasons and why.
Traditional shelters built by Aboriginal people took advantage of the position of the sun as well as the prevailing wind. Talk to students about how architecture students have to take into account the position of the sun in the sky when designing energy efficient buildings in much the same way as traditional Aboriginal people.
Talk to students about the energy efficiency of placing the large windows of a house facing the north or south (which allows the light but not the heat of the midday sun in during summer and lets the heat in during winter), rather than east and west (which lets the hot morning and afternoon sun in during summer). Explain to students that builders still build energy inefficient houses with the large windows facing the street rather than facing north.

Students could make models to compare an energy efficient building today and a traditional wiltja of the past with an inefficient building today.

finding directions during the day and night
A survival skill

Larry Higgins, Aboriginal man from Port Lincoln says "When you go fishing, for your life and safety it’s important not only to learn to read maps and charts but also the stars. Before technology came along the old people learnt to navigate by the stars. If you’re not in sight of the land and you haven’t got access to satellite navigation (GPS Global Positioning System) or a compass, both of which can break down, you should make sure you can rely on finding directions from the stars.

I learnt it from Grandfather Hirschausen when I was a child. We grew up at the family farm at Poonindie just north of Port Lincoln. Later on I was working as a fisherman over our way around Port Lincoln and I would use my knowledge to line up the Southern Cross and Pointers to find south. You could also tell west from the evening star (Venus) because its the first star you see at night if its in the sky. If you saw it in the morning it would be in the east.
If I had the chance over again I’d listen to what my grandfather was trying to say to us in terms of safety at sea instead of just day dreaming and taking things for granted."
Finding directions during the day

Aboriginal people living in the (apparently) featureless desert landscape in parts of Central Australia were asked how they knew their way without compasses.

They were asked if it was the path of the sun, the night sky or something else and they replied that they just knew in their heads. When asked by a teacher what they did when they got lost they had trouble understanding the question but finally replied ‘We go home!’

Very young children in this area are trained to learn their people's names for cardinal points. Instances have been noted of toddlers, too young to speak, demonstrating their knowledge by looking in particular directions (to cardinal points) when instructed. There are of course different names for directions according to the different language groups.2

A woman in a clinic is asked by the doctor which leg hurts as she replies "My 'west' leg". The use of cardinal points is practised continually in this way, reinforcing the knowledge. Compare this to 'left' and 'right'.
It is possible that knowledge of directions is learnt at such a young age that people cannot articulate how they know. In the daytime, it is quite likely a combination of knowledge factors including:

• path of the sun

• prevailing winds,

• features in the landscape such as hills

• changes to tracks by wind

• colour of bark of north of tree trunks compared to south

• position of flowers on a plant
In some areas, Aboriginal people were buried in positions facing east. In the Flinders Ranges, the Adnyamathanha people built a semi-circular wind break around the head (south) end of graves to provide protection from the south wind.
Student activity

Students could practice referring to cardinal points instead of left and right, for example, my east hand or my south west foot or the north whiteboard.

Observe nature in the school yard to try to work out signs for directions using some of the factors above.
Using the Milky Way, Southern Cross and other stars to find directions at night

Particular stars and constellations are linked to Dreaming stories which themselves are used for direction finding.

The video Inside story: the human race shows Jack, an Aboriginal man in his 70s in a 500 km walking race against younger men in northern WA. Jack chooses to walk at night with the stars as his guide. An excellent video to show Jack's cleverness and knowledge of his country and the night sky. His home country is near the Great Sandy Desert and the Bungle Bungles in the Kimberley region in northern Western Australia.

In very hot environments it makes sense to walk longer distances during the night rather than the day to prevent dehydration and exposure.
Barney Lindsay, a Ngarrindjeri man from the Riverland in South Australia says "In summer the Milky Way goes from this way (south) across here (to the north) but in winter its across the other way (east, west)."
Leroy Richards, an Adnyamathanha / Wailpi man from the Wilpena Pound area in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia says ‘When I was working as a stockman all around the north, Frome Downs, Innaminka, Gidgealpa, Balcanoona, we would drive the cattle or sheep at night when it was hot. This is called moonlighting the stock. The non-Aboriginal stockmen would say “We have to head off this way”. I’d say “You go that way if you want but I’m going this way”. I would go and soon I’d hear them following. I never once got lost. We grew up knowing the country and the sky. I’m forgetting now I sleep under a roof.”’ 3
Using the Southern Cross for telling the time
Evelyn Crawford used the Southern Cross for telling the time when working in cattle camps as a drover. ‘You’d say ...”Wake me up when the Cross turns over ... Wake me when the tail’s this way ... or that way ... or when the bright star’s over ‘ere...” and you’d draw it on the ground. You could tell every two hours by it.
We learnt to identify all the stars by their Aboriginal names. They had meaning for us, and there were stories about them all. I learnt the white man’s names later.’ 4
Student activity

Make a model of the Southern Cross and Pointers to show how their position changes during the night as well as how they are low in the south sky during summer and high during winter.

Use a star chart to plot how you would see the Southern Cross and Pointers at two hour intervals on the night of your birthday. Indicate south on each drawing by use of lines and an S. Compare the angles to those on a clock.








Finding south from the Southern Cross

The Southern Cross can only be seen in the Southern hemisphere. It is quite close to the 'celestial pole', an imaginary point which extends from the Earth's 'pole'.

Students can work out where south is by drawing an imaginary line through the long axis of the Southern Cross and another from the mid point of the Pointers. Where the two lines intersect is the 'celestial south pole'. The celestial pole can also be located by the mid-point between the Cross and Achernar.
Read more in the section about the Southern Cross.
Ancient rock engravings - are they maps of stars?

Sydney, the largest city in Australia, was once home to many groups of Aboriginal people including the Dharug (Daruk), Awabagal, Eora and Tharawal.

Dr. David Branagan of Sydney University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics believes that ‘Aboriginal rock engravings might be ancient star maps and that patterns of holes in rock platforms appeared to be maps of constellations including the Southern Cross and Orion.’ ‘The one-centimeter holes appear in platforms of sandstone in the Ku-ring-gai National Park, north of Sydney, and along the Hawkesbury River, on the NSW central coast.’ ... There was even evidence that some of the carvings were maps of the lunar cycle.’ 5

Fraser Farrell of the South Australian Astronomical Society says that he has seen a rock engraving in the Gibson Desert recording a super nova seen centuries ago. Its location in the engraving is as recorded also by Chinese. 6

The Southern Cross
The Southern Cross was named by Europeans who sailed and 'explored' parts of the southern hemisphere. This constellation already had many far older names.

The Southern Cross and Pointers as a stingray and sharks

To the Ngarrindjeri people, the dark shape of `the Southern Cross is the stingray Nunganari 7 and the Pointers are sharks Ngarakani. Perhaps only the fins can be seen. The sharks are a ngatji (or totem) of Ramindjeri people of King's Point near Encounter Bay in South Australia and are not hunted by them. If the shark killed a person it could not be prevented.

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