Saturday, May 30, 2015

Identifying Seasonal Stars in Kaurna Astronomical Traditions

By Duane W. Hamacher

Early ethnographers and missionaries recorded Aboriginal languages and oral traditions across Australia. Their general lack of astronomical training resulted in misidentifications, transcription errors and omissions in these records. In western Victoria and southeast South Australia many astronomical traditions were recorded but, curiously, some of the brightest stars in the sky were omitted. Scholars claimed these stars did not feature in Aboriginal traditions. This continues to be repeated in the literature, but current research shows that these stars may in fact feature in Aboriginal traditions and could be seasonal calendar markers. This paper uses established techniques to identify seasonal stars in the traditions of the Kaurna Aboriginal people of the Adelaide Plains, South Australia.

This paper was published in the
Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 18(1), pp. 39–52 (2015)

Aboriginal languages could reveal scientific clues to Australia’s unique past

By Robin Whitlock (with some edits by Duane Hamacher for accuracy)
The loss of Australian aboriginal languages could obstruct access to unique scientific information regarding Australia’s ancient geological history, according to a story reported this week by BBC News.
Ancient Australian Aboriginal legends passed down over millennia appear to verify recent scientific discoveries regarding Australia’s ancient past, including a previously untapped record of natural history among the stars. Investigation of such a resource could reveal memories of ancient meteor strikes from thousands of years ago according to research at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).
Intriguing Aboriginal rock art depicting Wandjinas, the supreme spirit beings and creators of the land and people
Intriguing Aboriginal rock art depicting Wandjinas, the supreme spirit beings and creators of the land and people
Dr Duane Hamacher of UNSW’s Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit has been able to match Aboriginal stories to impact craters dating from 4,700 years ago. One such location, at Henbury in Australia’s Northern Territory, is reflected in local oral traditions that have been passed down across the generations.
Henbury Meteorites Conservation Reserve, located 145 kilometers south west of Alice Springs, is estimated to have hit the earth’s surface 4,700 years ago, it contains 12 craters in total.
Henbury Meteorites Conservation Reserve, located 145 kilometers south west of Alice Springs, is estimated to have hit the earth’s surface < 4,700 years ago, it contains 14 craters in total. 2006, Photo by W & S Roddom. (Wikimedia Commons)
Indigenous Australian history is believed to span a period of between 40,000 to 45,000 years with some estimates indicating an Aboriginal presence in Australia some 80,000 years before the arrival of the first Europeans. The number of Aboriginal groups could amount to several hundred, many of which date to well before the colonization of Australia by the British in 1788. The largest of the groups in existence today is the Pitjantjatjara people who live around Uluru (Ayers Rock) and extend into the Anangu/Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara in South Australia.
It is thought that at the time of the first European settlement in Australia, some 250 distinct languages were spoken among Aboriginal peoples. Given that many of these languages would also have had their own dialects, the number of potential linguistic forms could extend to several hundred, according to authors Michael Walsh and Colin Yallop.
Map of Australia showing the distribution of different Aboriginal languages
Map of Australia showing the distribution of different Aboriginal languages (David R Horton, creator, Credit: Aboriginal Studies Press)
Researchers have fortunately been able to revive one of these ancient languages, previously suppressed by European colonization. The Kaurna language was once spoken by Aboriginal peoples around the present city of Adelaide but it began to disappear from South Australia from the early 1860’s.
According to the stories of the Luritja people, a fire-devil arrived on the Earth seeking vengeance for the breaking of sacred laws. The story was handed down across more than 200 generations before the site of this event was finally identified in 1931.
The Henbury Meteorite Conservation Reserve was previously regarded as a taboo ‘no-go’ area by the Luritja. Scientists have now been able to establish that the ‘fire devil’ was actually an ancient meteorite that blasted several impact craters into the red-colored sand with an atomic level of power.
Meteoric iron, found in Henbury, Australia, 1931 - Higgins Armory Museum, 2011.
Meteoritic iron, found in Henbury, Australia, 1931 - Higgins Armory Museum, 2011. Photo by Daderot (Wikimedia Commons)
“Aboriginal oral traditions contain detailed knowledge about the natural world” said Dr Hamacher, who leads a group of nine researchers in Nura Gili's Indigenous Astronomy Group. “By merging scientific data with descriptions in oral tradition we can show that many of the stories are accounts of real-life events. So Aboriginal stories could lead us to places where natural disasters occurred.”
The dozen or so craters created by the meteorite and its fragments have diameters of up to 180 meters across. When scientists first entered the area in 1931, the Aboriginal guide they had brought with them refused to go any further. Luritja elders later told a local resident that the ‘fire devil’ will burn and eat anyone who breaks the sacred law.
Aboriginal peoples hold other stories of ancient natural disasters that have now been shown to be authentic by modern investigation. The Gunditjmara people for instance, tell of a giant wave that swept inland and killed everyone who hadn’t gone up to the mountains.
When Dr Hamacher travelled to Victoria with tsunami expert Professor James Goff, also of UNSW, he found a layer of sediment 1.5 to 2 meters deep at a number of different locations between 500 meters and 1 kilometre inland, suggesting an ancient tsunami had swept over the area hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ago.
These and other Indigenous stories could be of great benefit to researchers investigating Australia’s history and geology. They also reveal an understanding of the universe among ancient societies, the existence of which wasn’t widely accepted before.
If Aboriginal languages and dialects, that are currently at risk, can be protected and revived, who knows what else they may have to offer?
This article appeared on the Ancient Origins website, which was a rewrite of the original BBC article.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fire in the sky: The southern lights in Indigenous oral traditions

Aurora Australis as seen from Victoria. Alex Cherney, Terrastro GalleryAuthor provided
Parts of Australia have been privileged to see dazzling lights in the night sky as the Aurora Australis – known as the southern lights – puts on a show this year.
A recent surge in solar activity caused spectacular auroral displays across the world. While common over the polar regions, aurorae are rare over Australia and are typically restricted to far southern regions, such as Tasmania and Victoria.

But recently, aurorae have been visible over the whole southern half of Australia, seen as far north as Uluru and Brisbane.

Different cultures

It’s a phenomenon that has existed since the Earth’s formation and has been witnessed by cultures around the world. These cultures developed their own explanation for the lights in the sky – many of which are strikingly similar.
From a scientific point of view, aurora form when charged particles of solar wind are channelled to the polar regions by Earth’s magnetic field. These particles ionize oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere, creating light.
Auroral displays can show various colours, from white, to yellow, red, green, and blue. They can appear as a nebulous glowing arcs or curtains waving across the sky.
Aurorae are also reported to make strange sounds on rare occasions. Witnesses describe it as a crackling sound, like rustling grass or radio static.
In the Arctic, the Inuit say the noise is made by spirits playing a game or trying to communicate with the living.
In 1851, Aboriginal people near Hobart said an aurora made noise like “people snapping their fingers”. The cause of this noise is unknown.
Aurorae are significant in Australian Indigenous astronomical traditions. Aboriginal people associate aurorae with fire, death, blood, and omens, sharing many similarities with Native American communities. They are quite different from Inuit traditions of the Aurora Borealis, which are more festive.

Fire in the sky

Aboriginal people commonly saw aurorae as fires in the cosmos. To the Gunditjmara of western Victoria, they’re Puae buae (“ashes”). To the Gunai of eastern Victoria, they’re bushfires in the spirit world and an omen of a coming catastrophe.
The Dieri and Ngarrindjeri of South Australia see aurora as fires created by sky spirits.
As far north as southwestern Queensland, Aboriginal people saw the phenomenon as “feast fires” of the Oola Pikka —- ghostly beings who spoke to Elders through the aurora.
The Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand saw aurorae (Tahunui-a-rangi) as the campfires of ancestors reflected in the sky. These ancestors sailed southward in their canoes and settled on a land of ice in the far south.
The southern lights let people know they will one day return. This is similar to an Algonquin story from North America.

A warning to follow sacred law

Mungan Ngour, a powerful sky ancestor in Gunai traditions, set rules for male initiation and put his son, Tundun, in charge of the ceremonies. When people leaked secret information about these ceremonies, Mungan cast down a great fire to destroy the Earth. The people saw this as an aurora.
Near Uluru, a group of hunters broke Pitjantjatjara law by killing and cooking a sacred emu. They saw smoke rise to the south, towards the land of Tjura. This was the aurora, viewed as poisonous flames that signalled coming punishment.
The Dieri also believe an aurora is a warning that someone is being punished for breaking traditional laws, which causes great fear. The breaking of traditional laws would result in an armed party coming to kill the lawbreakers when they least expect it.
In this context, fear of an aurora was utilised to control behaviour and social standards.

Blood in the cosmos

The red hue of some aurorae is commonly associated with blood and death.
To Aboriginal communities across New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, auroral displays represented blood that was shed by warriors fighting a great battle in the sky, or by spirits of the dead rising to the heavens.
Celestial events that appear red are often linked to blood, including meteors and eclipses.
A total lunar eclipse turns the moon red (sometimes called a blood-moon), which was seen by some communities as the spirit of a dead man rising from his grave.
Rare astronomical events were viewed as bad omens by cultures around the world. Now imagine if two of these events overlap!
The moon turning red during an eclipse, also known as a blood moon. NASA
Click to enlarge
In 1859, Aboriginal people in South Australia witnessed an auroral display and a total lunar eclipse. This caused great fear an anxiety, signalling the arrival of dangerous spirit beings.
There could be a repeat of this astronomical double-act as a lunar eclipse will be visible across Australia on Saturday April 4, 2015.
Will the aurorae continue? Keep watch.
This article was originally published in The Conversation on 2 April 2015, 6.09am AEDT.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding meteorite impacts in Aboriginal oral tradition

Imagine going about your normal day when a brilliant light races across the sky. It explodes, showering the ground with small stones and sending a shock wave across the land. The accompanying boom is deafening and leaves people running and screaming.
This was the description of an incident that occurred over the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2013, one of the best recorded meteoritic events in history. This airburst was photographed and videoed by many people so we have a good record of what occurred, which helped explain the nature of the event.

But how do we find out about much older events when modern recordings were not available?
A century before Chelyabinsk, a similar event occurred on July 30, 1908, over the remote Siberian forest near Tunguska.
That explosion was even more powerful, flattening 80 million trees over an area of 2,000 square kilometres and sending a shock wave around the Earth – twice. It was 19 years before scientists reached the Tunguska site to study the effects of the blast.

Effects of the Tunguska blast 19 years after the event. Some of the trees flattened by the airburst can still be seen to this day. Leonid Kulik
Click to enlarge

The apparent lack of a meteorite fuelled speculation about how it formed, from sober suggestions of an exploding comet to more outlandish claims of mini-black holes and crashed alien spacecraft (research confirms it was an exploding meteorite).

Meteoric events in Indigenous oral tradition

In 1926, the ethnographer Innokenty Suslov interviewed the local Indigenous Evenk people, who still vividly remembered the Tunguska airburst.
At the time, a great feud persisted among Evenki clans. One clan called upon a shaman named Magankan to destroy their enemy. On the morning of July 30th, 1908, Magankan sent Agdy, the god of thunder, to demonstrate his power.

A carving of the thunder god Agdy at Tunguska. University of Bologna, Department of Physics.
Click to enlarge

Many Indigenous cultures attribute meteoritic events to the power of sky beings. The Wardaman people of northern Australia tell of Utdjungon, a being who lives in the Coalsack nebula by the Southern Cross.
He will cast a fiery star to the Earth if laws and traditions are not followed. The falling star will cause the earth to shake and the trees to topple.
Like the Evenki, it seems the Wardaman have faced Utdjungon’s wrath before.
The Luritja people of Central Australia also tell of an object that fell to Earth as punishment for breaking sacred law. And we can still see the scars of this event today.

A surviving meteorite impact legend

Around 4,700 years ago, a large nickel-iron meteoroid came blazing across the Central Australian sky. It broke apart before striking the ground 145km south of what is now Alice Springs.
The fragments carved out more than a dozen craters up to 180 meters across with the energy of a small nuclear explosion.
Today, we call this place the Henbury Meteorites Conservation Reserve.

A cluster of the largest craters at Henbury, as seen from the nearby Bacon Range. Duane Hamacher
Click to enlarge

Aboriginal people have inhabited the region for tens-of-thousands of years, and it’s almost certain they witnessed this dramatic event. But did an oral record of this event survive to modern times?
When scientists first visited Henbury in 1931, they brought with them an Aboriginal guide. When they ventured near the site, the guide would go no further.
He said his people were forbidden from going near the craters, as that was where the fire-devil ran down from the sun and set the land ablaze, killing people and forming the giant holes.
They were also forbidden from collecting water that pooled in the craters, as they feared the fire-devil would fill them with a piece of iron.
The following year, a local resident asked Luritja elders about the craters. The elders provided the same answer and said the fire-devil “will burn and eat” anyone who breaks sacred law, as he had done long ago.

The longevity and benefits of oral tradition

The story of Henbury indicates a living memory of an event that occurred a few thousands of years ago. Might then we find accounts of events from tens of thousands of years ago?
Yes, it seems so.
Recent studies show that Aboriginal traditions accurately record sea level changes over the past 10,000 years.
Other studies suggest the volcanic eruptions that formed the Eacham, Euramo and Barrine crater lakes in northern Queensland more than 10,000 years ago are recorded in oral tradition.
In addition to demonstrating the longevity of Indigenous oral traditions, emerging research shows that these stories can lead to new scientific discoveries. Aboriginal stories about objects falling from the sky have led scientists to meteorite finds they would not have known about otherwise.
In New Zealand, geologists are also using Maori oral traditions to study earthquakes and tsunamis. New Zealand has a much more recent human history – compared to Australia – with the first Maori ancestors thought to have arrived around the 13th Century.
The arrival of the first Australians goes back at least 50,000 years. There is still much to learn, as Australia’s ancient landscape has been exposed to meteorite strikes that we don’t know about, some of which have probably occurred since humans arrived.
But given that Australia is home to the oldest continuing cultures on Earth, we are only just scratching the surface of the vast scientific knowledge contained in Indigenous oral traditions.
We anticipate that our work with Aboriginal elders to learn about Indigenous astronomy will lead to new knowledge and cultural insights about natural events and meteorite impacts in Australia.
This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Speaking with": Duane Hamacher on Indigenous astronomy

Duane Hamacher interviewed by Tamson Pietsch. Originally published on The Conversation on 19 December 2014, 11.35am AEDT.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people have between 40,000 and 60,000 years of pre-colonial history that includes stories of constellations they observed in the night sky and traditions that align with the stars and the moon. But until recently, these stories were largely dismissed by the scientific community.
Researchers are now finding that Indigenous oral traditions contain vast environmental and scientific knowledge. These complex knowledge systems have helped Indigenous people survive Australia for tens of thousands of years.
Tamson Pietsch speaks with cultural astronomer Duane Hamacher about Indigenous astronomy and its complex relationship to history, culture and applied scientific knowledge.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Studying Cultural Astronomy for a Career - a Guide

By Duane Hamacher

I am frequently asked how to go about studying cultural astronomy and pursuing a career in the field. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, knowing what to study and how to build a foundation in this area is not as straightforward as one might think.

This blog post will serve as a guide to studying cultural astronomy at the university level, from undergrad to PhD. I will also list some of the career options for graduates in this field. This is based on my knowledge and experience.

What is Cultural Astronomy?

Cultural astronomy is the academic study of the ways in which various cultures understood and utilized the celestial realm. It is a social science informed by the physical sciences. Since it involves human perception of the natural world, it is grounded in the social sciences. But as it utilises information and knowledge about the natural world, it is informed by the physical and natural sciences.

Cultural astronomy is generally divided into two sub-disciplines: archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy.

Archaeoastronomy is the study of the astronomical practices and beliefs of past cultures. It relies heavily on the archaeological record and has traditionally focused on alignments in monuments, structures, and stone arrangements. This approach relies heavily on archaeological surveys, precision measurements, and statistical analysis.

                    Archaeoastronomical studies at Chankillo in Peru.

Ethnoastronomy is the study of the astronomical practices and beliefs of contemporary cultures, with a focus on Indigenous peoples. It relies heavily on the the ethnographic and historical records and involves learning about human understanding of the sky directly from the people themselves, particularly Indigenous elders.

   Ethnoastronomical work with Aboriginal elder Bill Yidumduma Harney.

The study of astronomy in culture is a growing field of interest, and an increasing number of masters and doctoral degrees are being awarded with theses and dissertations in the field. The graph below shows the increase trend in graduate degrees with theses/dissertations in cultural astronomy being awarded between 1965 and 2004 (McCluskey, 2004).

Dissertations and Theses in Cultural Astronomy (1965-2004)

Cultural astronomy is highly interdisciplinary, so could consider a number of different majors and degree programs, depending on your personal interests. If you want to learn about astronomical alignments in temples, megalithic structures, or ancient cities, archaeoastronomy is your area and archaeology and classics are suitable fields of study. If you are interested in learning about contemporary Indigenous cultures, anthropology and sociology are a better option. If your interest lies in interpreting ancient texts, linguistics and languages would be a suitable option.

Very few universities have any structured programs in cultural astronomy, and only a handful offer courses on the subject (a list of such courses will be the focus of a future post). So do not expect to find a university where you can complete a full program in cultural astronomy... you'll have to build your own.

What should I study at the Undergraduate Level?

Regardless of which area of cultural astronomy you choose to pursue, you need a grounding in the social sciences, and a working knowledge of astronomy. Basic knowledge in other sciences, such as geology, ecology, and biology, are also useful. Skills such as surveying, computer programming, and statistics are also highly valuable. Majors or fields of study for each sub-discipline are given below. This is not an exhaustive list. It only serves as a general guide.

Archaeoastronomy: Archaeology, Anthropology, Ancient History, Classics, History & Philosophy of Science, Cultural Heritage Management. Noteknowledge of statistics and surveying are essential.

Ethnoastronomy: Anthropology, Sociology, Indigenous Studies, History & Philosophy of Science, Environmental Humanities, Religious Studies.

You would be best suited to take either a Major in a social science and a Minor in astronomy/physics, or double Major in both social science and astronomy/physics. A single major in the social sciences will not generally provide you with the scientific foundation necessary to work in the field, and vice versa for a major in the sciences. A dual Major or double degree will be very intensive but is the best overall option. A dual BA would be easiest (e.g. BA Anthropology/BA Astronomy). However, a BA/BS provides the widest breadth and opens up the most opportunities (e.g. BA Anthropology/BS Astronomy).

[A colleague at Macquarie University in Sydney completed a dual degree to pursue his interests in Egyptian astronomy. He completed a BA in Ancient History and a BS in Astrophysics, with an Honours year studying Egyptology. It was hard work, but he's glad he did it!]

What should I study at the Graduate/Postgraduate Level?

If you want to pursue a career in cultural astronomy, you will need to complete a PhD.

You will be best suited in a social science or humanities program. It is very important to carefully choose a university and department that will support the research, and a knowledgeable, able, and supportive supervisor. You also much carefully choose the field of study in which the degree will be awarded. "Studies" programs tend to be more broad, while "traditional" programs (e.g. anthropology, archaeology) are more narrowly focused.

PhDs in the sciences with a cultural astronomy thesis topic are rare. A study in 2004 showed that of 79 masters and doctoral degrees awarded with theses in some area of cultural astronomy, only 3 were awarded through physics/astronomy departments. This means you will be far more likely to be accepted into a PhD program through the social sciences than the physical sciences.

Graduate degrees awarded with theses in cultural astronomy, divided into disciplines (1965-2004).

Career Opportunities

It should be made very clear that cultural astronomy is a tiny academic field - only a handful of people in the world have managed to carve out a career in this discipline - and the chances of getting a job in that area are incredibly slim. That is the advice my supervisors gave me. But it is possible to study cultural astronomy and make a career out of it… I did. You simply have to carve a niche, strategise your career, and maximize your opportunities. Just remember that nothing is guaranteed and academia is brutally competitive.

There are numerous employment opportunities that will utilize your skills and knowledge set, although the job may not entail further cultural astronomy research. These include:

  • Research and/or Teaching Academic
  • TAFE/Community College Instructor
  • Cultural Heritage Management
  • Archaeological and Anthropological Consultant
  • Education and Curriculum Developer
  • Museum or Gallery Curator
  • Outreach Officer
  • Astronomy Educator
  • Tour Guide
  • Tourism Consultant
  • Media and Communication
  • Journalism
  • Policy Development
  • Journal/Magazine Editor
  • School Teacher
  • Administration
  • Park Ranger
  • Technical Writer
  • Analyst (for those with high maths/stats skills)

So if this is a subject you wish to pursue... go for it. But be warned that the chances of landing a career in the discipline are very small. But it is a very exciting field in which to work and provides you with broad skills that can be used in a number of careers.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Stories from the sky: astronomy in Indigenous knowledge

by Duane Hamacher (University of New South Wales)
Indigenous Australian practices, developed and honed over thousands of years, weave science with storytelling. In this Indigenous science series, we’ll look at different aspects of First Australians' traditional life and uncover the knowledge behind them – starting today with astronomy.

This article contains the names of Aboriginal people who have passed away.
Night sky over Lake Tyrrel in Western Victoria – home of the Wergaia people. Alex CherneyCC BY-NC-ND

Indigenous Australians have been developing complex knowledge systems for tens of thousands of years. These knowledge systems - which seek to understand, explain, and predict nature - are passed to successive generations through oral tradition.
As Ngarinyin elder David Bungal Mowaljarlai explains: “Everything under creation […] is represented in the ground and in the sky.” For this reason, astronomy plays a significant role in these traditions.
Western science and Indigenous knowledge systems both try to make sense of the world around us but tend to be conceptualised rather differently. The origin of a natural feature may be explained the same in Indigenous knowledge systems and Western science, but are couched in very different languages.
A story recounted by Aunty Mavis Malbunka, a custodian of the Western Arrernte people of the Central Desert, tells how long ago in the Dreaming, a group of women took the form of stars and danced a corroboree (ceremony) in the Milky Way.
One of the women put her baby in a wooden basket (coolamon) and placed him on the edge of the Milky Way. As the women danced, the baby slipped off and came tumbling to Earth. When the baby and coolamon fell, they hit the ground, driving the rocks upward. The coolamon covered the baby, hiding him forever, and the baby’s parents – the Morning and Evening Stars – continue to search for their lost child today.
If you look at the evening winter sky, you will see the falling coolamon in the sky, below the Milky Way, as the arch of stars in the Western constellation Corona Australis – the Southern Crown.
The place where the baby fell is a ring-shaped mountain range 5km wide and 150m high. The Arrernte people call it Tnorala. It is the remnant of a giant crater that formed 142 million years ago, when a comet or asteroid struck the Earth, driving the rocks upward.
Tnorala (Gosses Bluff crater). Dementia/FlickrCC BY-SA
Click to enlarge

Predicting seasonal change

When the Pleiades star cluster rises just before the morning sun, it signifies the start of winter to the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Desert and tells them that dingoes are breeding and will soon be giving birth to pups.
The evening appearance of the celestial shark, Baidam traced out by the stars of the Big Dipper (in Ursa Major) tells Torres Strait Islanders that they need to plant their gardens with sugarcane, sweet potato and banana.
When the nose of Baidam touches the horizon just after sunset, the shark breeding season has begun and people should stay out of the water as it is very dangerous!
Torres Strait Islanders use constellations, such as the shark ‘Baidam’ pictured here, for practical purposes. Brian Robinson
Torres Strait Islanders' close attention to the night sky is further demonstrated in their use of stellar scintillation (twinkling), which enables them to determine the amount of moisture and turbulence in the atmosphere. This allows them to predict weather patterns and seasonal change. Islanders distinguish planets from stars because planets do not twinkle.
In Wergaia traditions of western Victoria, the people once faced a drought and food was scarce. Facing starvation, a woman named Marpeankurric set out in search of tucker for the group. After searching high and low, she found an ant nest and dug up thousands of nutritious ant larvae, called bittur.
This sustained the people through the winter drought. When she passed away, she ascended to the heavens and became the star Arcturus. When Marpeankurric rises in the evening, she tells the people when to harvest the ant larvae.
Arcturus (Marpeankurric – on the lower left) and the Milky Way over Lake Hart. Alex Cherney
Click to enlarge
In each case, Indigenous astronomical knowledge was used to predict changing seasons and the availability of food sources. Behind each of these brief accounts is a complex oral tradition that denotes a moral charter and informs sacred law.
An important thing to consider is that small changes in star positions due to stellar proper motion(rate of angular change in position over time) and precession (change in the orientation of Earth’s rotational axis) means that a few thousand years ago, these sky/season relationships would have been out of sync.
This means knowledge systems had to evolve over time to accommodate a changing sky. This shows us that what we know about Indigenous astronomical knowledge today is only a tiny fraction of the total knowledge developed in Australia over the past 50,000-plus years.

Moving forward

As we increase our understanding of Indigenous knowledge systems, we see that Indigenous people did develop a form of science, which is used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people today.
Students in Albury/Wodonga learning about Indigenous astronomy through the Charcoal Nights initiative. Murray Arts
Traditional fire practices are used across the country, bush medicines are being used to treat disease, and astronomical knowledge is revealing an intellectual complexity in Indigenous traditions that has gone largely unrecognised.
It is time we show our appreciation for Indigenous knowledge and celebrate the many ways we can all learn from this vast accumulation of traditional wisdom.

Duane is speaking at The Edges of Astronomy symposiumat the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra on December 4, 2014.