People find common ground in looking to the stars. Many cultures use the sun, moon and stars to tell stories, share knowledge and understand the world around them.
For long distance voyagers such as Captain James Cook, knowledge of the stars was essential in charting a course to distant lands and to sail back home again. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the sun, moon, stars and planets were used to explain the relationships between people, nature and the sky for thousands of years.
The first astronomers
As the holders of the oldest continuous living culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders may have been the first astronomers in the world.
Knowledge of astronomy was passed down through stories, song and dance for tens of thousands of years—long before the Babylonians, Greeks, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
European settlers first wrote about Indigenous Australian astronomy knowledge and practice in 1857. When William Stanbridge, an Englishman, became friends with the Boorong people of Victoria, he wrote about how they used astronomy to understand seasons.
Astronomy’s many uses
The science of astronomy has had many uses throughout time.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities used their knowledge of astronomy to help understand the environment around them—the changing seasons, weather patterns and the behaviour of plants and animals.
For some, one way to know that the seasons are changing is through a particular star’s heliacal rising—when a star rises in the sky before the sun, making it visible just before sunrise.
The rising of the malleefowl constellation (Lyra) in March tells the Boorong people of Victoria that the malleefowl birds are about to build their nests. When Lyra disappears in October, the Boorong people know the eggs are laid and ready to be collected.
For others in north-east Arnhem Land, the Yolngu peoples knew that when Scorpius appeared the Macassan fisherman would soon arrive to fish for sea cucumber and bring goods to trade.
In the Torres Strait group of Islands, people used the constellation of Tagai to develop a calendar of the seasons. This organised their cycle of fishing and farming, as well as their rituals and social activities. The appearance of the Pleiades constellation told the Torres Strait Islanders that it was turtle-mating season, time for travelling and to prepare for planting before the rainy season.
The stars were not only used for understanding changes in animals and the environment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander travellers used the night sky to help them find their way across the country—similar to the way the navigators on board the Endeavour used the stars.
Beliefs in the stars and the moon
The night sky is interpreted and deciphered in different ways by different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—although some beliefs are similar.
A common belief is the sun is a woman and the moon is a man—describing the sun woman chasing the moon man across the sky, occasionally meeting during an eclipse.
In Arnhem Land, each morning the sun wakes up and lights a fire at her camp in the east. She then gets up and carries a torch across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. The Yolngu call her Walu, and believe that at sunrise and sunset her ochre body paint is brushed onto the clouds. At night, she is said to travel underground back to her camp in the east.
Similar stories are used to explain the phases of the moon. The Kuwema people from the Northern Territory say that at each full moon, the moon man grows fat by eating the spirits of those who are disobedient. Coastal peoples, such as the Yolngu, saw connection between the moon and the ocean tides.
However, possibly the most well-known belief, and Aboriginal astronomical constellation, is the Emu in the Sky, which has been part of Aboriginal storytelling for thousands of years. Where the Emu is located in the night sky is used to know when it is time to go looking for emu eggs.
A well-known set of rock engravings north of Sydney includes an Emu. In autumn, the Emu in the sky will stand directly over her portrait on the rock, indicating to the Kuring-gai people that it is time to gather the emu eggs.
Similarities with non-Indigenous astronomy
There were some similarities between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non‑Indigenous practice and beliefs surrounding astronomy.
Rare and unexpected events, such as the appearance of a comet or eclipse, sometimes caused fear for both.
Events where items from space collide with the Earth (impact events) are spoken about in both cultures. For example, Western Aranda senior custodian Mavis Malbunka, tells the story of the creation of Gosse's Bluff (an impact crater)— that was formed by a baby's cradle that fell from the sky.
Interpretations by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of the Orion and Pleiades constellations are very similar to those in Greek mythology. The seven stars of Pleiades are usually seen as young women for both cultures. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the stars of Orion are widely associated with young men—usually fishermen or hunters—just like the Greek mythology that Orion was a hunter. For example, the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales see the creation ancestor, Baiame, in the sky in the same way as the ancient Greeks saw Orion.
250 years after the Endeavour’s voyage, we can understand the shared interest in tracking the movement of the stars of those on board and the people they encountered. Now, we can continue the sharing of culture that started in 1770 with learning the names for the sun and the moon.