Australian Aboriginal astronomy

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Australian Aboriginal astronomy is a name given to indigenous Australian culture relating to astronomical subjects – such as the Sun and Moon, the stars, planets, and the Milky Way, and their motions on the sky. [1]

Astronomy Universe events since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It uses mathematics, physics, and chemistry in order to explain their origin and evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets. Relevant phenomena include supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, astronomy studies everything that originates outside Earth's atmosphere. Cosmology is a branch of astronomy. It studies the Universe as a whole.

Sun Star at the center of the Solar System

The Sun, or Sol, is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, with internal convective motion that generates a magnetic field via a dynamo process. It is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Its diameter is about 1.39 million kilometers, or 109 times that of Earth, and its mass is about 330,000 times that of Earth. It accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Roughly three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen (~73%); the rest is mostly helium (~25%), with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.

Moon Earths natural satellite

The Moon, occasionally distinguished as Luna, is an astronomical body that orbits the Earth as its only permanent natural satellite. It is the fifth-largest satellite in the Solar System, and the largest among planetary satellites relative to the size of the planet that it orbits. The Moon is, after Jupiter's satellite Io, the second-densest satellite in the Solar System among those whose densities are known.


One of the earliest records of indigenous astronomy was made by William Edward Stanbridge, an Englishman who emigrated to Australia in 1841 and befriended the local Boorong people. [2] A recent comprehensive review [3] summarises all published research on Aboriginal Astronomy up to 2016.

Wergaia or Werrigia is an indigenous Australian language group in the Wimmera region of north-Western Victoria. Twenty clans made up the Wergaia people. The Wergaia language was apparently a dialect of the Wemba Wemba language. The people were known as the Maligundidj, which means the people belonging to the mali (mallee) eucalypt bushland which covers much of their territory.

Some Aboriginal groups use the motions of celestial bodies for calendar purposes. Many attribute religious or mythological meanings to celestial bodies and phenomena. There is a diversity of astronomical traditions in Australia, each with its own particular expression of cosmology. However, there appear to be common themes and systems between the groups. Due to the long history of Australian Aboriginal astronomy, the Aboriginal peoples have been described as "world's first astronomers" on several occasions. [4] [5] [6]

Calendar system of organizing days for social, religious, commercial, or administrative purposes.

A calendar is a system of organizing days for social, religious, commercial or administrative purposes. This is done by giving names to periods of time, typically days, weeks, months and years. A date is the designation of a single, specific day within such a system. A calendar is also a physical record of such a system. A calendar can also mean a list of planned events, such as a court calendar or a partly or fully chronological list of documents, such as a calendar of wills.

Cosmology Universe events since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago

Cosmology is a branch of astronomy concerned with the studies of the origin and evolution of the universe, from the Big Bang to today and on into the future. It is the scientific study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. Physical cosmology is the scientific study of the universe's origin, its large-scale structures and dynamics, and its ultimate fate, as well as the laws of science that govern these areas.

Interpreting the sky

Emu in the Sky

The Aboriginal "Emu in the sky". In Western astronomy terms, the Southern Cross is on the right, and Scorpius on the left; the head of the emu is the Coalsack. Emu public.jpg
The Aboriginal "Emu in the sky". In Western astronomy terms, the Southern Cross is on the right, and Scorpius on the left; the head of the emu is the Coalsack.

A constellation used in Aboriginal culture in Australia is the "Emu in the Sky", a 'constellation' that is defined by dark nebulae (opaque clouds of dust and gas in outer space) that are visible against the Milky Way background, rather than by stars. [7] The Emu's head is the very dark Coalsack nebula, next to the Southern Cross; the body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way to Scorpius. [7]

Emu Large flightless bird endemic to Australia

The emu is the second-largest living bird by height, after its ratite relative, the ostrich. It is endemic to Australia where it is the largest native bird and the only extant member of the genus Dromaius. The emu's range covers most of mainland Australia, but the Tasmanian, Kangaroo Island and King Island subspecies became extinct after the European settlement of Australia in 1788. The bird is sufficiently common for it to be rated as a least-concern species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Constellation Group of stars

A constellation is a group of stars that forms an imaginary outline or pattern on the celestial sphere, typically representing an animal, mythological person or creature, a god, or an inanimate object.

Dark nebula Type of interstellar cloud

A dark nebula or absorption nebula is a type of interstellar cloud that is so dense that it obscures the visible wavelengths of light from objects behind it, such as background stars and emission or reflection nebulae. The extinction of the light is caused by interstellar dust grains located in the coldest, densest parts of larger molecular clouds. Clusters and large complexes of dark nebulae are associated with Giant Molecular Clouds. Isolated small dark nebulae are called Bok globules. Like other interstellar dust or material, things it obscures are only visible using radio waves in radio astronomy or infrared in infrared astronomy.

In Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, north of Sydney, are extensive rock engravings of the Guringai people who lived there, including representations of the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife. An engraving near the Elvina Track [8] shows an emu in the same pose and orientation as the Emu in the Sky constellation. This Emu in the sky is known all around the worl

Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park Protected area in New South Wales, Australia

Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is a national park on the northern side of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. The 14,977-hectare (37,010-acre) park is 25 kilometres (16 mi) north of the Sydney Central Business District and generally comprises the land east of the Sydney-Newcastle Expressway, south of the Hawkesbury River, west of Pittwater and north of Mona Vale Road. It includes Barrenjoey Headland on the eastern side of Pittwater.

To the Wardaman, however, the Coalsack is the head of a lawman. [9]

The Wardaman people are a small group of Indigenous Australians living about 145 km South-West of Katherine on Menngen Aboriginal Land Trust in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Canoe in Orion

The Yolngu people of northern Australia say that the constellation of Orion, which they call Julpan (or Djulpan), is a canoe. They tell the story of three brothers who went fishing, and one of them ate a sawfish that was forbidden under their law. Seeing this, the Sun-woman, Walu, made a waterspout that carried him and his two brothers and their canoe up into the sky. The three suns that line in the constellation's centre, which form Orion's Belt in Western mythology, are the three brothers; the Orion Nebula above them is the forbidden fish; and the bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are the bow and stern of the canoe. This is an example of astronomical legends underpinning the ethical and social codes that people use on Earth. [10]


The Pleiades also figures in the Dreamings of several language groups. For example, in the central desert region, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion. The close resemblance of this to Greek mythology is believed to be coincidental — there is no evidence of any cultural connection. [10]

The Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation explain them in the Karatgurk story. Another story involves seven sisters, the Maya-Mayi who were so beautiful that a warrior, Warrumma, kidnaps two of them. They eventually escape by climbing a pine tree that continually grows up into the sky where they join their other sisters. [11]

However, stars were commonly used to measure time and the seasons and to regulate daily activities before written culture, and long after in some cultures. The myths of the Australian Aboriginal people are, as around the world, to do with moral lessons and various reminders such as when to eat certain types of food, which is itself a cultural connection in the general form of the stories. Therefore, the study of the stars is probably the oldest knowledge on earth, such that it remains an intriguing possibility that aboriginal star knowledge does contain some fragments of a much older original culture. Aboriginal people came to Australia from Asia 50,000 years ago (well before Greek culture formed 3,000–4,000 years ago), and presumably the Aboriginal people originally came from Africa. While there is no hard evidence of a cultural connection, the possibility should not be written off, and the door is open to research to construct models of older human cultures, through the tracing of these narratives and other means such as linguistics. [12]

The Milky Way

The Yolngu people believe that when they die, they are taken by a mystical canoe, Larrpan, to the spirit-island Baralku in the sky, where their camp-fires can be seen burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way. The canoe is sent back to Earth as a shooting star, letting their family on Earth know that they have arrived safely in the spirit-land. Aboriginals also thought that god was the canoe. [10]

The Boorong people see in the Southern Cross a possum in a tree. [10]

Sun and Moon

Many traditions have stories of a female Sun and a male Moon.

The Yolngu say that Walu, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn. [13] She paints herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the sunrise. She then lights a torch and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. At the end of her journey, as she descends from the sky, some of her ochre paints again rubs off onto the clouds, creating the sunset. She then puts out her torch, and throughout the night travels underground back to her starting camp in the east. [10] Other Aboriginals of the Northern Territory call her Wuriupranili. [14] Other stories about the Sun involve Wala, Yhi, and Gnowee.

The Yolngu tell that Ngalindi, the Moon-man, was once young and slim (the waxing Moon), but grew fat and lazy (the full Moon). His wives chopped bits off him with their axes (the waning Moon); to escape them he climbed a tall tree towards the Sun, but died from the wounds (the new Moon). After remaining dead for three days, he rose again to repeat the cycle, and continues doing so till this day. [10] The Kuwema people in the Northern Territory say that he grows fat at each full Moon by devouring the spirits of those who disobey the tribal laws. [10] [13] [15] Another story by the Aboriginals of Cape York involves the making of a giant boomerang that is thrown into the sky and becomes the Moon. [16]

A story from Southern Victoria concerns a beautiful woman who is forced to live by herself in the sky after a number of scandalous affairs. [16]

The Yolngu also associated the Moon with the tides. [10]


The Warlpiri people explain a solar eclipse as being the Sun-woman being hidden by the Moon-man as he makes love to her. [10] This explanation is shared by other groups, such as the Wirangu.

In the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park there are a number of engravings showing a crescent shape, with sharp horns pointing down, and below it a drawing of a man in front of a woman. While the crescent shape has been assumed by most researchers to represent a boomerang, some argue that it is more easily interpreted as a solar eclipse, with the mythical man-and-woman explanation depicted below it. [10]


The rising of Venus marks an important ceremony of the Yolngu, who call it Barnumbirr ("Morning Star and Evening Star") They gather after sunset to await the rising of the planet. As she approaches, in the early hours before dawn, the Yolngu say that she draws behind her a rope of light attached to the island of Baralku on Earth, and along this rope, with the aid of a richly decorated "Morning Star Pole", the people are able to communicate with their dead loved ones, showing that they still love and remember them. [10]


The Dja Dja Wurrung call Jupiter "Bunjil's campfire". The planet features in the Djae Djae Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation logo, as a symbol of the Creator Spirit [17]

Eta Carinae

In 2010, astronomers Duane Hamacher and David Frew from Macquarie University in Sydney showed that the Boorong Aboriginal people of northwestern Victoria, Australia, witnessed the outburst of Eta Carinae in the 1840s and incorporated it into their oral traditions as Collowgulloric War, the wife of War (Canopus, the Crow wɑː). [18] This is the only definitive indigenous record of Eta Carinae's outburst identified in the literature to date.

Astronomical calendars

Aboriginal calendars tend differ from European calendars: many groups in northern Australia use a calendar with six seasons, and some groups mark the seasons by the stars which are visible during them. [10] For the Pitjantjatjara, for example, the rising of the Pleiades at dawn (in May) marks the start of winter. [10] [19]

Many stories exist where the heliacal rising or setting of stars or constellations are used to tell Aboriginal Australians when it is time to move to a new place and/or look for a new food source. [10]

The Boorong people in Victoria know that when the Malleefowl constellation (Lyra) disappears in October, to "sit with the Sun", it is time to start gathering her eggs on Earth. Other groups know that when Orion first appears in the sky, the dingo puppies are about to be born. [10] When Scorpius appears, the Yolngu know that the Macassan fisherman would soon arrive to fish for trepang. [10]

It is not known to what extent Aboriginal people were interested in the precise motion of the sun, moon, planets or stars. However, it has been suggested that some of the stone arrangements in Victoria such as Wurdi Youang near Little River, Victoria may have been used to track the equinoxes and/or solstices. The arrangement is aligned with the setting sun at the solstices and equinox, but its age is unknown. [20]

There are rock engravings by the Nganguraku people at Ngaut Ngaut which, according to oral tradition, represent lunar cycles. Unfortunately, most of the Nganguraku culture (including their language) has been lost because of the banning of such things by Christian missionaries over a hundred years ago. [10]

In contemporary culture

A great deal of contemporary Aboriginal art has an astronomical theme, reflecting the astronomical elements of the artists' cultures. Prominent examples are Gulumbu Yunupingu, Bill Yidumduma Harney, and Nami Maymuru, all of whom have won awards or been finalists in the Telstra Indigenous Art Awards. In 2009 an exhibition of Indigenous Astronomical Art from WA, named Ilgarijiri was launched at AIATSIS in Canberra in conjunction with a Symposium on Aboriginal Astronomy. [21]

Other contemporary painters include the daughters of the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who have the seven sisters as one of their Dreamings. Gabriella Possum and Michelle Possum paint the Seven Sisters Dreaming in their paintings. They inherited this Dreaming through their maternal line.

See also

Related Research Articles

Antares red supergiant star in the constellation Scorpius

Antares, designated α Scorpii, is on average the fifteenth-brightest star in the night sky, and the brightest object in the constellation of Scorpius. Distinctly reddish when viewed with the naked eye, Antares is a slow irregular variable star that ranges in brightness from apparent magnitude +0.6 to +1.6. Often referred to as "the heart of the scorpion", Antares is flanked by σ Scorpii and τ Scorpii near the center of the constellation.

Corona Australis Constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere

Corona Australis is a constellation in the Southern Celestial Hemisphere. Its Latin name means "southern crown", and it is the southern counterpart of Corona Borealis, the northern crown. It is one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy, and it remains one of the 88 modern constellations. The Ancient Greeks saw Corona Australis as a wreath rather than a crown and associated it with Sagittarius or Centaurus. Other cultures have likened the pattern to a turtle, ostrich nest, a tent, or even a hut belonging to a rock hyrax.

Hydrus constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere

Hydrus is a small constellation in the deep southern sky. It was one of twelve constellations created by Petrus Plancius from the observations of Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman and it first appeared on a 35-cm (14 in) diameter celestial globe published in late 1597 in Amsterdam by Plancius and Jodocus Hondius. The first depiction of this constellation in a celestial atlas was in Johann Bayer's Uranometria of 1603. The French explorer and astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille charted the brighter stars and gave their Bayer designations in 1756. Its name means "male water snake", as opposed to Hydra, a much larger constellation that represents a female water snake. It remains below the horizon for most Northern Hemisphere observers.

Sirius Brightest star in the night sky

Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. Its name is derived from the Greek word Σείριος Seirios "glowing" or "scorching". With a visual apparent magnitude of −1.46, Sirius is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star. Sirius is a binary star consisting of a main-sequence star of spectral type A0 or A1, termed Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of spectral type DA2, termed Sirius B. The distance between the two varies between 8.2 and 31.5 astronomical units as they orbit every 50 years.

Sagitta Constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere

Sagitta is a dim but distinctive constellation in the northern sky. Its name is Latin for "arrow", and it should not be confused with the significantly larger constellation Sagittarius, the archer. Although Sagitta is an ancient constellation, it has no star brighter than 3rd magnitude and has the third-smallest area of all constellations. It was included among the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, and it remains one of the 88 modern constellations defined by the International Astronomical Union. Located to the north of the equator, Sagitta can be seen from every location on Earth except within the Antarctic circle.

Saiph star in the constellation of Orion

Saiph, designation Kappa Orionis and 53 Orionis, is the sixth-brightest star in the constellation of Orion. Of the four bright stars that compose Orion's main quadrangle, it is the star at the south-eastern corner. A northern-hemisphere observer facing south would see it at the lower left of Orion, and a southern-hemisphere observer facing north would see it at the upper right. Parallax measurements yield an estimated distance of 650 light-years (198 parsecs) from the Sun, which is about the same as Betelgeuse. It is smaller, less luminous but hotter at its surface than Rigel with an apparent visual magnitude of 2.1. The luminosity of this star changes slightly, varying by 0.04 magnitudes.

Ross 154 is a star in the southern zodiac constellation of Sagittarius. It has an apparent visual magnitude of 10.44, making it much too faint to be seen with the naked eye. At a minimum, viewing Ross 154 requires a telescope with an aperture of 6.5 cm (3 in) under ideal conditions. The distance to this star can be estimated from parallax measurements, which places it at 9.69 light-years away from Earth. It is the nearest star in the southern constellation Sagittarius, and one of the nearest stars to the Sun.

Achernar Star in the constellation Eridanus

Achernar is the primary component of the binary system designated Alpha Eridani, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Eridanus, and the tenth-brightest in the night sky. The two components are designated Alpha Eridani A and B. As determined by the Hipparcos astrometry satellite, it is approximately 139 light-years (43 pc) from the Sun.

Beta Centauri star system in the southern constellation of Centaurus

Beta Centauri, officially called Hadar, is a triple star system in the southern constellation of Centaurus. The system's combined apparent visual magnitude of 0.61 makes it the second-brightest object in Centaurus and one of the brightest stars in the night sky. According to parallax measurements from the astrometric Hipparcos satellite, the distance to this system is about 390 ± 20 light-years.

Horologium (constellation) constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere

Horologium is a faint constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere, one of twelve created in the 18th century by French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille and one of several depicting scientific instruments. It is one of the eighty-eight constellations designated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The constellation's brightest star – and only star brighter than apparent magnitude 4 – is Alpha Horologii, an ageing orange giant that has swollen to around 11 times the diameter of the Sun. R Horologii is a red giant Mira variable with one of the widest ranges in brightness known. Four star systems have exoplanets, with one – Gliese 1061 – containing one in the circumstellar habitable zone.

Pollux (star) star in the northern constellation of Gemini

Pollux, designated β Geminorum, is an orange-hued evolved giant star about 34 light-years from the Sun in the constellation of Gemini. It is the brightest star in Gemini and the closest giant star to the Sun.

Lambda Scorpii Star system in the constellation Scorpius

Lambda Scorpii, formally named Shaula, is, despite being designated "λ" (Lambda), the second-brightest star system in the constellation of Scorpius, and one of the brightest "stars" in the night sky.

Upsilon Scorpii Star in the constellation Scorpius

Upsilon Scorpii, formally named Lesath, is a star located in the "stinger" of the southern zodiac constellation of Scorpius, the scorpion. Based on parallax measurements obtained during the Hipparcos mission, it is approximately 580 light-years from the Sun. On the night sky it lies near the 1.6 magnitude star Lambda Scorpii, and the two form an optical pair that is sometimes called the "Cat's Eyes".

Sigma Scorpii variable star in the constellation Scorpius

Sigma Scorpii, is a multiple star system in the constellation of Scorpius, located near the red supergiant Antares, which outshines it. This system has a combined apparent visual magnitude of +2.88, making it one of the brighter members of the constellation. Based upon parallax measurements made during the Hipparcos mission, the distance to Sigma Scorpii is roughly 696 light-years (214 parsecs). North et al. (2007) computed a more accurate estimate of 568+75
 light years.

Tau Scorpii star

Tau Scorpii, formally known as Paikauhale, is a star in the southern zodiac constellation of Scorpius. The apparent visual magnitude of Tau Scorpii is +2.8, while parallax measurements yield a distance estimate of roughly 470 light-years (150 parsecs) from Earth.

Sigma Canis Majoris variable star in the constellation Canis Major

Sigma Canis Majoris, also named Unurgunite, is a variable star in the southern constellation of Canis Major. It is approximately 1,120 light-years from the Sun and has an average apparent visual magnitude of +3.41.

Lake Tyrrell lake in Australia

Lake Tyrrell is a shallow, salt-crusted depression in the Mallee district of north-west Victoria, in Australia. The word is derived from the local Wergaia word for 'sky', the Boorong Aboriginal people of the area being distinguished for their interest in star-lore. The Boorong people, with their astronomical traditions, told stories connected with constellations in the night sky.

Ray Norris (astrophysicist) Australian astronomer

Ray Norris is an astrophysicist and science communicator, based at the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, and is well known for his work on Aboriginal Astronomy.

Wurdi Youang mountain in Victoria, Australia

Wurdi Youang is an Aboriginal stone arrangement located off the Little River – Ripley Road at Mount Rothwell, near Little River, Victoria. The site was acquired by the Indigenous Land Corporation on 14 January 2000 and transferred to the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative on 17 August 2006.

Kirsten Banks Australian astrophysicist and science communicator

Kirsten Banks is an Australian astrophysicist and science communicator of Wiradjuri ancestry, known for her work in promoting mainstream and Aboriginal astronomy. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of New South Wales in 2018, and worked at the Sydney Observatory.


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Further reading