Monday, April 25, 2016

How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia’s highway network

Originally published in The Conversation (Australia) on April 7, 2016 6.07am AEST
The next time you’re driving down a country road in outback Australia, consider there’s a good chance that very route was originally mapped out by Aboriginal people perhaps thousands of years before Europeans came to Australia.
And like today, they turned to the skies to aid their navigation. Except instead of using a GPS network, they used the stars above to help guide their travels.
Aboriginal people have rich astronomical traditions, but we know relatively little about their navigational abilities.
We do know that there was a very well established and extensive network of trade routes in operation before 1788. These were used by Aboriginal people for trading in goods and stories, and the trade routes covered vast distances across the Australian continent.

Star maps

I was researching the astronomical knowledge of the Euahlayi and Kamilaroi Aboriginal peoples of northwest New South Wales in 2013 when I became aware of “star maps” as a means of teaching navigation outside of one’s own local country.
My teacher of this knowledge was Ghillar Michael Anderson, a Euahlayi Culture Man from Goodooga, near the Queensland border. This is where the western plains and the star-filled night sky meet in a seamless and profound display.
Ghillar Michael Anderson and a possible waypoint. Author provided
One night, sitting under those stars in Goodooga, Michael pointed out a pattern of stars to the southeast, and said that they were used to teach Euahlayi travellers how to navigate outside their own country during the summer travel season.
As an astronomer, I immediately realised that those stars were not in the direction of travel that Michael was describing. And anyway, they wouldn’t be visible in the summer, let alone during the day when people would have been travelling.
Michael said that they weren’t used as a map as such, but were used as a memory aid. And in the Aboriginal manner of teaching, he asked me to research this and come back to see if “I had gotten it”.
I did some research, and looked at a route from Goodooga to the Bunya Mountains northwest of Brisbane, where an Aboriginal Bunya nut festival was held every three years until disrupted by European invasion.
It turned out the pattern of stars showed the “waypoints” on the route. These waypoints were usually waterholes or turning places on the landscape. These waypoints were used in a very similar way to navigating with a GPS, where waypoints are also used as stopping or turning points.
Star map route to the Bunya Mountains. Starry Night Education

Stars to songlines

Further discussion revealed the reasons and methods of this technique. In the winter camp, when the summer travel was being planned in August or September, a person who had travelled the intended route was tasked with teaching others, who had not made this journey, how to navigate to the intended destination.
The pattern of stars (the “star map”) was used as a memory aid in teaching the route and the waypoints to the destination. After more research I asked Michael if the method of teaching and memorising was by song, as I was aware that songs are known to be an effective way of memorising a sequence in the oral transmission of knowledge.
Michael said, “you got it!”, and I then understood that the very process of creating, then teaching, such a route resulted in what is known as a songline. A songline is a story that travels over the landscape, which is then imprinted with the song (Aboriginal people will say that the landscape imprints the song).
I then learned that there were many routes/songlines from Goodooga to destinations as far as 700km away, which might end up in a ceremonial place, or possibly a trade “fair”.
One such route to Quilpie, in Queensland, led to a ceremonial place where Arrernte people from north of Alice Springs met the Euahlayi for joint ceremonies.
Their route of travel was more than 1,500km, crossing the Simpson Desert in summer, and I was told that they would have their own star map/songline for learning that route. The implication of this is that the use of star maps for teaching travel may have been common across Australia.
Star map route to the Carnarvon Gorge. Starry Night Education


Another surprising result of this knowledge came about when I was looking at the star map routes from Goodooga to the Bunya Mountains and Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland. When the star map routes were overlaid over the modern road map, there was a significant overlap with major roads in use today.
After some reflection, the reason for this became clear. The first explorers in this region, such as Thomas Mitchell, who explored here in 1845-1846, used Aboriginal people as guides and interpreters, who were likely given directions by local Aborigines.
Carnarvon Gorge and Bunya Mts star maps overlaid on road map. Google Earth
These directions would no doubt reflect the easiest routes to traverse, and these were probably routes already established as songlines. Drovers and settlers coming into the region would have used the same routes, and eventually these became tracks and finally highways.
In a sense, the Aboriginal people of Australia had a big part in the layout of the modern Australian road network. And in some cases, such as the Kamilaroi Highway running from the Hunter Valley to Bourke in NSW, this has been recognised in the name.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Star Stories of the Dreaming: a Documentary (Trailer)

TRAILER to the ground-breaking documentary ... coming soon

Euahlayi Lawman and Knowledge Holder, Ghillar Michael Anderson shares some of the ancient wisdoms of his Peoples' connection to the universe. He also speaks with a leading astrophysicist, Professor Ray Norris, as they compare the similarities between astrophysics and Stories older than time itself. Based on research by Robert Fuller.

Location northwest NSW - north of Goodooga.

Filmed by Ellie Gilbert
Researcher: Robert Fuller
Starring: Ghillar Michael Anderson and Ray Norris

Mauna a Wakea: Hawai'i’s sacred mountain and the contentious Thirty Meter Telescope

By Duane W. Hamacher (University of New South Wales) and Tui R. Britton (Macquarie University)

This article was originally published in The Conversation on September 21, 2015 6.09am AEST.

Hawaii's Thirty Metre Telescope (artists tic design)

Plans to build a new telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i have led to months of protests and arrests, including several earlier this month. The ongoing protest pitches astronomers against Hawaiians wanting to protect their sacred site.
Conflict between Indigenous and Western interests are part of a long history of colonisation and exploitation. In the Amazon, indigenous communities are fighting governments that exploit the rain forest for natural resources. In the United States and Canada, First Nations people are battling mining and oil interests.
In Western Australia, Aboriginal people are finding their 30,000 year old rock art sites being deregistered as sacred because they must be “devoted to a religious use” rather than be “a place subject to mythological story, song, or belief”. Many of these sites are in areas of industrial expansion.
If the traditional custodians of the land reject proposals for development, they might face aggressive legal action. “No” is rarely a good enough answer for those exploiting the land, and seeking permission from indigenous people often smacks of tokenism rather than a real attempt to address the wrongs of the past.

The mountain of Wakea

Unfortunately, it is not just economic interests that put pressure on indigenous communities. Scientific interests prove another challenge to indigenous land rights. One such case is the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawai'i.
On Hawai'i’s Big Island stands Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano towering 4,200 meters above sea level. Its high elevation and excellent atmospheric conditions make it an ideal place for astronomers to observe the stars. Mauna Kea is named for the god Wakea, the “sky father” – Mauna a Wakea. It is Hawai'i’s most sacred place.
It is important to note here that only people of Indigenous Polynesian Hawaiian heritage are called “Hawaiian”. Non-Indigenous people born in Hawai'i are called “Kama'aina” meaning “child of the land”, or “people of Hawaii” in general conversation.
Hawaiian reverence for Wakea meant that in ancient traditions only the Ali'i (high chiefs) were allowed to climb to its summit, where their most sacred ancestors are buried. It is here that astronomers plan to build a US$1.5-billion telescope with a primary mirror measuring 30 meters across.

Some of the telescopes currently atop Mauna Kea. Flickr/CucombreLibreCC BY

The TMT offers potential scientific discoveries as well as economic benefits for the island. Currently there are 13 telescopes atop Mauna Kea but many Hawaiians are angry about the push to add more telescopes to the mountain, insisting enough is enough.
A resurgence of Hawaiian culture and language has led to the reclamation of sacred sites, including Mauna Kea, as areas of high cultural significance. Hawaiians wanting to preserve their cultural heritage are now clashing with proponents of the TMT. In recent months, protesters have blocked access to the mountain, halting development of the telescope.

An ongoing concern

Should astronomers be allowed to build the TMT on Mauna Kea? This question raises concerns that we, as practising astronomers, see as a reoccurring issue within the scientific community.
It is disheartening and frustrating to witness fellow scientists dismiss the connections indigenous people have to their land. We cannot simply disregard these connections as myths and legends, and comparing TMT protesters to Biblical Creationists is disappointing.
This is not a battle between religion and science. Hawaiians are not anti-science; they are not trying to push their traditional beliefs on others nor are they trying to stifle scientific and economic advancement. They simply oppose construction of yet another telescope on their sacred mountain.
We need to recognise and respect the close connection Hawaiians have to sacred sites like Mauna Kea and not misappropriate Hawaiian astronomical traditions for the benefit of astronomers.
The TMT demonstrates a microcosm of the challenges indigenous people face when their traditions are dismissed by Western interests for intellectual or economic gain.

Moving forward together

We acknowledge that some Hawaiians do in fact support the TMT, while others are calling for the removal of all telescopes. Governor David Ige offered one compromise: the removal of a quarter of the existing telescopes before building of the TMT commences.
We do not have a convenient solution to this issue. So how do we move forward together?
We can look at successful collaborations between scientists and indigenous people on other projects for guidance. The development of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in Western Australia was a result of close collaboration and ongoing consultation between astronomers and the traditional owners of the land.
We can take inspiration from the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Hoku'lea – the Hawaiian voyaging canoe. By working closely with artisans, navigators, astronomers, and historians, Hawaiians are reclaiming their ancient knowledge and in turn are sharing this with the world.
These two examples suggest nurturing mutually respectful relationships is the key to overcoming conflict.
This is a highly complex issue. We astronomers need to acknowledge that we do not have an inherent right to develop Mauna Kea. And if a consensus cannot be reached we must be willing to consider a different home for the TMT.

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.