Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ngadjuri Astronomy, South Australia

By Paul Curnow

Australian night skies by world standards are still quite good. Regrettably today, in heavily populated countries the light pollution combined with industrial pollution has lead towards a good deal of our galaxy being obscured from our eyes. However, although Australia still has many regions that offer naked eye astronomers great views of the heavens, these views would on many occasions likely pale in comparison to what Aboriginal Australians would have seen in the past.

One such group is the Ngadjuri People from the mid-north region of South Australia. The Ngadjuri territory stretches up through Freeling, Kapunda, Tarlee, Riverton, and Clare then all the way up towards Quorn, then inland in an easterly direction towards Bimbowrie, back down south through Ketchowla, Burra, Eudunda and Truro. The Ngadjuri had lived in this region for thousands of years before Europeans first started arriving on South Australian shores in the mid 1800’s. However, through brutal government policies and the invasion of the region by European settlers in the mid 1800’s most Ngadjuri People were eventually forced off their traditional homelands, or became victims of the deadly pathogens that the Anglo-Saxons had brought with them.

Figure 1: Turtle petroglyph located at Ketchowla.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that in the past the Ngadjuri Peoples once lived in larger populations around the mid-north when it was much wetter. For example, 18,000 years ago South Australia was still in the grips of an ice age and evidence suggests that the region would have been far less arid than today with a more plentiful supply of fresh drinking water. In addition, the region is home to many ancient petroglyphs that suggest human occupation has existed in the region for aeons.

Little has been recorded or passed down about the stellar beliefs of the Ngadjuri People; however, a number of snippets of how they viewed the nightly ballet of stars above have survived. Additionally, there is some crossover in the ways the skies were seen between bordering groups such as the Kaurna on the Adelaide Plains to the south and the Adnyamathanha in the Flinders Ranges to the north.

Figure 2: The beautiful Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

For example, the Ngadjuri People see the Southern Cross as the footprint of majestic Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila Audax. Eagles and other Australian Birds feature strongly in many stories told by Indigenous Australians and the Ngadjuri called the Southern Cross Wildu. This belief corresponds with the Adnyamathanha view of this area of sky, which they also called Wildu. The Lutheran missionaries Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann who arrived in the Adelaide colony in 1838 had recorded that the Kaurna People also have an eagle in the sky, which Schürmann and Teichelmann spelt as Wilto.

Figure 3: Lutheran missionary Christian Teichelmann.  Source: Lutheran Archives.

In the Dreaming of the Ngadjuri People there was once a camp in the Orroroo district when it was believed that animals were human beings. According to Ngadjuri Elder Barney Warrior (1873-1948), Wildu had been out hunting with the crow one day. When they returned from their hunt Wildu had not given the crow a fair share of the food they had collected, so the crow became angry and set a trap so that the eagle would injure his foot by stepping on a sharpened kangaroo bone. The eagle had tried to pursue the crow but never caught up with him. The word for crow is Wakala and it is conceivable based on other Aboriginal names around Australia that this may have been the star Canopus in the constellation of Carina. For example, the Boorong name War, and the Boandik Wa or Wah.

"Why do Aboriginals argue so much over the correct way of spelling of their ancient words and language? It's not the way that you spell it that counts, it's the way ya correctly pronounce it that matters...." - Marvyn McKenzie (1964 - ) - Adnyamathanha Man

Our galaxy contains approximately 300,000 million stars and we still call it the Milky Way, after the Ancient Greek belief that the goddess Hera had squirted breast milk across the heavens to create the galaxy. To the Ngadjuri People the band of the Milky Way was known as Wali’bari and like the Kaurna and Ramindjeri Peoples to the south, it was seen as a river stretching across the sky (Wali or Wadli = hut, Bari = river or creek). Strewn along the banks of this celestial river are a number of bark huts or as they are commonly referred to throughout Australia 'wurlies'.

Additionally, the stars of the constellation of the Southern Triangle are known as Winda’gudna. When translated Winda’gudna literally means ‘large owl droppings’ (Winda = owl, Gudna = excreta). The term for ‘star’ in the Ngadjuri language is Budli. Furthermore, prominent in southern skies during summer is the Pleiades Cluster. The Pleiades are an open cluster of stars, which are believed to have formed approximately 50-60 million years ago, and are located some 378 light years away from our sun. The Ngadjuri called these stars Bulali.

Figure 4: The open star cluster the Pleiades, located within the constellation of Taurus.

In addition, the nightly motion of the stars and the moon were used as a calendar to monitor the seasons. This was paramount to survival in Aboriginal society to assure that they would know which bush foods were available throughout the year based on the seasonal changes of constellations in the sky. It was also of spiritual importance to ensure that ceremonies and other cultural practices were performed at the correct time. The Ngadjuri People knew the moon as Bera and the sun was known as Jandu or Djendu.

The Ngadjuri People, like other Aboriginal Groups of Australia shared an intimate relationship with their environment and the natural world for 45,000+ years. Today we are left with just a taste of the incredibly complex knowledge and understandings that groups like the Ngadjuri People and other Indigenous Peoples of Australia have developed over these thousands of years. This early drive to identify with the night sky still fires the enthusiasm of many contemporary astronomers. Optimistically, efforts will continue to safeguard these remaining snippets of stellar knowledge for future generations of Indigenous descendants and night sky enthusiasts. 

Amery, R. (2000). Warrabarna Kaurna: Reclaiming an Australian Language, Swets & Zeitlinger Publishers, Netherlands.

Clarke, P. (1990).  Adelaide Aboriginal Cosmology, Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, Adelaide.

Knight, F. (personal communication).

Pring, A., Warrior, F., Knight, F. & Anderson, S. (2005).  Ngadjuri: Aboriginal People of the Mid North Region of South Australia, SASOSE Council Inc.

Pring, A. (2002).  Astronomy and Australian Indigenous People (draft), DETE, Adelaide.

Ridpath, I. & Tirion, W.  (2000). Collins Guide to the Stars and Planets 3rd Edition, Collins, London.

Willis, R. (1995). The Hutchinson: Dictionary of World Myth, Helicon & Duncan Baird Publishers, Oxford.

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