Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Exploring Astronomical Knowledge and Traditions in the Torres Strait: A Project Supported by the Australian Research Council

In previous posts, we explored aspects of cultural astronomy in the Torres Strait. The indigenous people of these islands have a culture based on astronomy, yet the last major work on Islander astronomy was published in 1907. And even then the author clarified that his study was grossly incomplete. In the 1993 book "Stars of Tagai" by Nonie Sharp (Aboriginal Studies Press), she explained how Islander people were guided by Tagai - who is seen as a large constellation stretching from the Southern Cross to Corvus, down to Scorpius. Although the book contains important astronomical information, it is not about Islander astronomy and it does not shed light on Islander knowledge relating to the Milky Way, Magellanic Clouds, sun, moon, any of the planets, or other astronomical phenomena.

The constellation of Tagai, on which Torres Strait Islander culture is based.
Image credit: Nonie Sharp, 'Stars of Tagai: The Torres Strait Islanders', based
upon a watercolour by Lieut.G.Tobin, Mitchell Library, and drawings of the
Tagai Constellation by Gizu and Mariget of Mabuiag. 

This left a gap in our knowledge about cultural astronomy in the Torres Strait. Dr Duane Hamacher, a Lecturer in the Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit at the University of New South Wales, realised the importance of this work and the fact that Islander staff at Nura Gili have close connections with their home country. In March 2013, he applied for a research grant through the Australian Research Council called the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA). This highly competitive grant is designed to support researchers who are in the early stages of their academic careers (within 5 years of being awarded a PhD).

Dr Hamacher was successful and was awarded a DECRA to study Islander astronomy. The grant, worth $350,000, will cover the project over a period of three years.

Project Description: The astronomical knowledge of Indigenous people across the world has gained much significance as scientists continue to unravel the embedded knowledge in material culture and oral traditions. As social scientists gain a stronger role in emerging scholarship on Indigenous astronomy, growing evidence of celestial knowledge is being rediscovered in artefacts, iconography, document archives, literature, folklore, music, language and performances. This project seeks to investigate an underexplored area of astronomical knowledge in Australia. It will be the first comprehensive study of the astronomical traditions of Torres Strait Islanders and will add to the growing body of knowledge regarding Indigenous astronomy.

This project will involve surveying over 1500 published documents on Islander culture, exploring archival documents in libraries, studying artefacts and artworks in museums across Australia and Europe, and conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the Torres Strait. This is where Dr Hamacher will live with Islander communities to learn firsthand from elders about their astronomical knowledge and practices. See the video below about current efforts to explore and record Islander astronomy in the Torres Strait.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Special Event: Corroboree Sydney

Four days of Indigenous cultural experience and interactions, including a talk on Aboriginal Astronomy by Professor Ray Norris.

Date: 16 November 2013 to 19 November 2013
Location: Australian Museum, Indigenous Australians: Australia’s First Peoples gallery

We're hosting four days of Indigenous cultural experience and interactions in our Indigenous Australians gallery. Our program aims to engage and educate audiences about Aboriginal heritage and culture, particularly in regards to NSW.
Come along for an opportunity to interact with Indigenous artists and cultural practitioners as they interpret objects and share insights into their cultures.


$20 each (bookings essential – click the links below)We're hosting four talks on Indigenous Australian culture, beliefs, heritage and history:

See more at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/event/corroboree#sthash.D4XHdgoB.dpuf

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Aurorae in Australian Aboriginal Traditions

The Aurora Australis is seen by many Aboriginal groups as an omen of bushfires in the spirit world, according to a new study of traditional Indigenous oral culture.

The research found most traditional teachings associated the reddish hues of the Aurora Australis or southern lights, with blood, fire and death.

"That's very different from the more festive stories associated with the Aurora Borealis or northern lights, in the traditional cultures of Canada, Siberia and Northern Europe, says the paper's author Dr Duane Hamacher of the University of New South Wales.

Aurorae Australis over the oceans south of Victoria, Australia. Image by Alex Cherney

Read the rest of the story here.

Read the published paper here.

TEDx NorthernSydneyInstitute: Look Up! There's an Emu in the Sky

Dr Duane Hamacher, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Monday, September 23, 2013

Australian Space Sciences Conference

The Australian Space Sciences Conference is having their annual meeting at the University of New South Wales this year from 30 September to 2 October 2013.

On Wednesday, 2 October, the ASSC will feature a plenary talk and a dedicated session to Indigenous Sky Knowledge. The papers presented at the meeting will be combined and published as a free eBook early next year.

Talks include:

Plenary Talk (9:00-9:30 am)

John Goldsmith:      The "Ilgarijiri- Things Belonging to the Sky" project: Collaboration between 
                                  Aboriginal communities and radio astronomy in Australia.

ISK Session (10:30-11:00 am)

Les Bursill:               Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome

Hugh Cairns:           An Ancient Aboriginal Astronomy from the Northern Territory

Trevor Leaman:      Ooldea Nights: Daisy Bates and the Aboriginal Sky Knowledge of the Great 
                                  Victoria Desert, South Australia

Robert Fuller:          The Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi People and Their Neighbours

David Pross:             Sky Knowledge and Rock Art in the Sydney Basin

Duane Hamacher:   Are Supernovae Recorded in the Astronomical Traditions of Aboriginal 

Geoff Wyatt:            Star wheel and signals: Sydney Observatory's Shared Sky
                                  education program

Alice Gorman:         Beyond the Morning Star: the Voyager spacecraft and Australian Aboriginal 

Ragbir Bhathal:      Perspectives on Aboriginal Sky Knowledge

A full program can be viewed here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Shark in the Stars: Astronomy and Culture in the Torres Strait

Originally published in The Conversation10 July 2013, 6.36 am EST

Tagai by Glen Mackie
Technology has, without doubt, expanded our understanding of space. The Voyager 1 space probe is on the brink of leaving our solar system. Massive telescopes have discovered blasts of fast radio bursts from 10 billion light years away. And after a decade on Mars, a Rover recently found evidence for an early ocean on the Red Planet.
But with every new advance, it’s also important to remember the science of astronomy has existed for thousands of years and forms a vital part of Indigenous Australian culture, even today. As an example, lets explore the astronomy of the Torres Strait Islanders, an Indigenous Australian people living between the tip of Cape York and Papua New Guinea.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Stories Under Tagai: Traditional Stories from the Torres Strait


Presented at the 2012 MyLanguage Conference held at the State Library of Queensland in August. It tells the story of the Indigenous Knowledge Centres' (IKC) of the Torres Strait and explores the work in gathering and retelling community stories. Produced by the State Library of Queensland.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Baidam – The Shark Constellation

Baidam painting by Dennis Nona.

In the astronomical traditions of Torres Strait Islanders, Baidam is a shark. The shark constellation consists of seven stars. The stars of Baidam were used for navigation and provided knowledge about the seasons and for gardening fruit and vegetables. In about July/August Baidam will level itself across the horizon of New Guinea [to the north]. At seven or eight o'clock you will see it parallel to New Guinea. At this time the wind drops. Around this time we begin planting vegetables and fruit: Cassava, Dawai (banana), Guru (sugar cane), Taro/Urrgubau (sweet potato). Those are the main ones planted when the shark lies across the horizon. When it becomes calm in the Torres Strait, around this time, a grease forms on the surface of the sea. I have shown this in the artwork. The grease is called "Baidam aw id" - "when the shark liver has melted on the sea". At this time it is also shark mating season: a dangerous time in the sea. The shark constellation rotates throughout the year. In February, when you see the stars beginning to shine, that's the shark. (Account by Dennis Nona)

Baidam artwork by Brian Robinson.

Editor's note: Some of the accounts identify the seven stars in question as the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades). This seven stars of Baidam are actually the seven bright stars of the "Big Dipper" (the brightest stars of the Western constellation Ursa Major - the Big Bear). From the Torres Strait, these stars appear low on the horizon to the north and coincide precisely with the description above. Because the Pleiades are commonly associated with seven stars, they are sometimes conflated with Baidam. It doesn't help that when scaled to the same size, the Pleiades and the Big Dipper look very similar! (See below.)  In Torres Strait traditions, the Pleiades star cluster is called Usiam. - Duane Hamacher

Pleiades                                            Big Dipper

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mullyangah the Morning Star

As recorded by Katie Langloh Parker (1897)

From the Eulayhi people of northwestern New South Wales.

Mullyan, the eagle hawk, built himself a home high in a yaraan tree. There he lived apart from his tribe, with Moodai the possum, his wife, and Moodai the possum, his mother-in-law. With them too was Buttergah, a daughter of the Buggoo or flying squirrel tribe. Buttergah was a friend of Moodai, the wife of Mullyan, and a distant cousin to the Moodai tribe.

Mullyan the eagle hawk was a cannibal. That was the reason of his living apart from the other people. In order to satisfy his cannibal cravings, he used to sally forth with a big spear, a spear about four times as big as an ordinary spear. If he found a blackfellow hunting alone, he would kill him and take his body up to the house in the tree. There the Moodai and Buttergab would cook it, and all of them would eat the flesh; for the women as well as Mullyan were cannibals. This went on for some time, until at last so many blackfellows were slain that their friends determined to find out what became of them, and they tracked the last one they missed. They tracked him to where he had evidently been slain; they took up the tracks of his slayer, and followed them right to the foot of the yaraan tree, in which was built the home of Mullyan. They tried to climb the tree, but it was high and straight, and they gave up the attempt after many efforts. In their despair at their failure they thought of the Bibbees, a tribe noted for its climbing powers. They summoned two young Bibbees to their aid. One came, bringing with him his friend Murrawondah of the climbing-rat tribe.

Mullyan - an eaglehawk. Image from www.wildlifepark.com.au

Having heard what the people wanted them to do, these famous climbers went to the yaraan tree and made a start at once. There was only light enough that first night for them to see to reach a fork in the tree about half-way up. There they camped, watched Mullyan away in the morning, and then climbed on. At last they reached the home of Mullyan. They watched their chance and then sneaked into his humpy.

When they were safely inside, they hastened to secrete a smouldering stick in one end of the humpy, taking care they were not seen by any of the women. Then they went quietly down again, no one the wiser of their coming or going. During the day the women heard sometimes a crackling noise, as of burning, but looking round they saw nothing, and as their own fire was safe, they took no notice, thinking it might have been caused by some grass having fallen into their fire.

After their descent from having hidden the smouldering fire stick, Bibbee and Murrawondah found the people and told them what they had done. Hearing that the plan was to burn out Mullyan, and fearing that the tree might fall, they all moved to some little distance, there to watch and wait for the end. Great was their joy at the thought that at last their enemy was circumvented. And proud were Bibbee and Murrawondah as the blackfellows praised their prowess.

After dinner-time Mullyan came back. When he reached the entrance to his house he put down his big spear outside. Then he went in and threw himself down to rest, for long had he walked and little had he gained. In a few minutes he heard his big spear fall down. He jumped up and stuck it in its place again. He had no sooner thrown himself down, than again he heard it fall. Once more be rose and replaced it. As he reached his resting-place again, out burst a flame of fire from the end of his humpy. He called out to the three women, who were cooking, and they rushed to help him extinguish the flames. But in spite of their efforts the fire only blazed the brighter. Mullyan's arm was burnt off. The Moodai had their feet burnt, and Buttergah was badly burnt too. Seeing they were helpless against the fire, they turned to leave the humpy to its fate, and make good their own escape. But they had left it too late. As they turned to descend the tree, the roof of the humpy fell on them. And all that remained when the fire ceased, were the charred bones of the dwellers in the yaraan tree. That was all that the people found of their enemies; but their legend says that Mullyan the eagle hawk lives in the sky as Mullyangah the morning star, on one side of which is a little star, which is his one arm; on the other a larger star, which is Moodai the possum, his wife.

Listen to an audio recording of this story here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Bahloo the Moon and the Daens

As recorded by Katie Langloh Parker (1897)

From the Eulayhi people of northwestern New South Wales.

Bahloo, the moon-man looked, down at the earth one night, when his light was shining quite brightly, to see if any one was moving. When the earth people were all asleep was the time he chose for playing with his three dogs. He called them dogs, but the earth people called them snakes, the death adder, the black snake, and the tiger snake.

As he looked down on to the earth, with his three dogs beside him, Bahloo saw about a dozen daens, or people, crossing a Creek. He called to them saying, "Stop! I want you to carry my dogs across that creek."

But the people, though they liked Bahloo well, did not like his dogs, for sometimes when he had brought these dogs to play on the earth, they had bitten not only the earth dogs but their masters; and the poison left by the bites had killed those bitten.

So the people said, "No, Bahloo, we are too frightened! Your dogs might bite us. They are not like our dogs, whose bite would not kill us."

Bahloo, the moon man. Image from scienceillustrated.com.au.

Bahloo said, "If you do what I ask you, when you die you shall come to life again, not die and stay always where you are put when you are dead. See this piece of bark. I throw it into the water."

And he threw a piece of bark into the creek. "See it comes to the top again and floats. That is what would happen to you if you would do what I ask you: first under when you die, then up again at once." 

"If you will not take my dogs over, you foolish daens, you will die like this," and he threw a stone into the creek, which sank to the bottom.

"You will be like that stone, never rise again, Wombah deans!"

But the people said, "We cannot do it, Bahloo. We are too frightened of your dogs."

"I will come down and carry them over myself to show you that they are quite safe and harmless."

And down he came, the black snake coiled round one arm, the tiger snake round the other, and the death adder on his shoulder, coiled towards his neck. He carried them over. 

When he had crossed the creek he picked up a big stone, and he threw it into the water, saying "Now, you cowardly daens, you would not do what I, Bahloo, asked you to do, and so forever you have lost the chance of rising again after you die. You will just stay where you are put, like that stone does under the water, and grow, as it does, to be part of the earth."

"If you had done what I asked you, you could have died as often as I die, and have come to life as often as I come to life. But now you will only be people while you live, and bones when you are dead."

Bahloo's "dogs" (snakes). Pictured is the death adder. Image from dangerous-snake-pics1.blogspot.com.au

Bahloo looked so cross, and the three snakes hissed so fiercely, that the people were very glad to see them disappear from their sight behind the trees.

The people had always been frightened of Bahloo's dogs, and now they hated them, and they said, "If we could get them away from Bahloo we would kill them."

And thenceforth, whenever they saw a snake alone they killed it.

But Babloo only sent more, for he said, "As long as there are people there shall be snakes to remind them that they would not do what I asked them."

Friday, May 3, 2013

Jangurna Story: Indigenous Astronomy in Western Australia

By Peter Morse

Taken from Peter Morse's blog at www.petermorse.com.au

Above is a 4 minute preview of the 20 minute ‘Jangurna Story’ – a fulldome movie exploring Indigenous stories of the night sky around the Gascoyne region of Western Australia. This story – concerning ‘Jangurna’ (The Emu) has been told by community elder Stella Tittums to the historian Mary Ann Jebb – the recording provides the narrative soundtrack.
The movie was shot during a 10,000 km 3 month voyage that took me and my film crew (Chris Henderson and Sally Hildred) from Hobart (Tasmania), across the Nullarbor, to Perth (Western Australia), and then around the Gascoyne, camping all the way. We filmed the night skies, dusks and dawns, amidst the magnificent arid landscapes of Carnarvon, Quobba, Exmouth, Ningaloo, Mandu Mandu and many others.
Read the remainder of the blog on Peter Morse's website.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Rock Art and Ancient Knowledge of Astronomy

Based on the article Orientations of linear stone arrangements in New South Wales iAustralian Archaeology No. 75 by Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris.

Original article written for the Australian Archaeological Association Blog

When we think about early astronomy, people like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and other famous scientists of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries tend to spring to mind. What most people do not realise is that astronomy – the study of celestial objects (planets, stars, galaxies etc) – is the oldest of the natural sciences.

Ancient cultures worldwide observed and considered the objects visible in both the day and night skies and constructed interpretations for their presence and change during the year. Indigenous Australians were one of these considering cultures, and over thousands of years constructed a significant understanding of how the natural world worked. This knowledge was used for various day-to-day and season-to-season activities, such as when it was time to gather certain foods, when the tides would be at their lowest (or highest) and shellfish could be safely collected or islands reached, when were the best times of year to travel and when and how to navigate across this enormous country of ours.

Stone arrangements studied by Duane Hamacher and colleagues: (left) A large stone arrangement complex near Armidale, NSW; (right) Ray Norris at the Wurdi Youang stone arrangement in Victoria. This latter arrangement marks the setting position of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. Where Ray is standing marks the setting sun at the equinox (photographs courtesy of Duane Hamacher).

This accumulated knowledge was passed on to the next generation, not only through oral history, but also through artworks including rock art. In previous research, Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris studied astronomical knowledge and symbolism in Australian Aboriginal rock art and were able to show that Indigenous Australians had a solid understanding of the astronomical realities of our planet and its place in the solar system far back into prehistory.

Read the rest of the article on the Australian Archaeology Association Blog.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Mystery of Parna

In the Adelaide region of South Australia, the arrival of autumn was signalled by the heliacal rising of a star the local Aboriginal people called Parna. The appearance of Parna just before sunrise warned the Aboriginal people that the annual autumn rains (Figure 1) would soon arrive and that they needed to build large, waterproof huts. Local place names illustrate this: a hilltop campsite south of Adelaide was named Parnangga, which meant “autumn rains" and referred to the appearance of Parna in the morning sky. The identity of Parna has remained a mystery, as the identity of the star in Western terms was never given.

Figure 1: Autumn thunderstorm over Adelaide. Image from bom.gov.au
But if we do a little research, we can figure out the most likely candidate for Parna. First, we look at the autumn rains. The autumn rains occur around the end of March and beginning of April. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the average monthly rainfall in the period from 1977 to 2010 increased from 19.9mm during the summer months (December-February) to 40.9mm in April, after which it surpasses the monthly average of 45 mm and increases throughout the winter to reach a peak of 79.7mm in June (see Figure 2). The March average (24.9mm) is just above the summer average (19.9mm), showing that the increase in rainfall during April rises significantly from that in March. This suggests that Parna would rise just before dawn in mid-March.

Figure 2: The average rainfall for Adelaide between 1977-2010. Taken from Hamacher (2012).
Therefore, Parna is most likely a bright star (probably 1st or 2nd order magnitude) that rises just prior to sunrise in mid-March in the southeastern sky. This leaves only one obvious candidate.

The bright star Fomalhaut, in the constellation Piscis Austrinus, rises at dawn on 15 March. At sunrise, it is ~ 22 degrees above the horizon at an azimuth of ~ 112 degrees, corresponding to the southeasterly direction. The star Fomalhaut is the best candidate for the star Parna as it meets the criteria set out and is the only bright star in that region of the sky visible at sunrise (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: The star Fomalhaut visible in the southeastern skies of Adelaide
just before sunrise. Image from Stellarium Astronomical Software.


Hamacher, D.W. (2012). On the Astronomical Knowledge and Traditions of Aboriginal Australians. PhD Thesis, Department of Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University, pp. 79-82.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Arcturus: Food and Seasonal Change

Aboriginal people have been using the stars as indicators of seasonal change for thousands of years.  In the following series of blog posts, I will show you how this was done in some depth. Today, we begin with the brightest star in the constellation Bootis, a red giant called Arcturus.

Yolngu - Arnhem Land

Our first example comes from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land.  When the star Arcturus appears in the dawn sky (just before sunrise), the Yolngu people begin harvesting the corms of the spike-rush. The spike-rush (Eleocharis dulcis), also called the rakia, water chestnut, or gulach (Figure 1), is a grass-like sedge with an edible tuber, which can grow to a height of over 1.5 m and is found across northern Australia. The plant had numerous uses for Aboriginal people, which included making baskets or fish-traps from the grass-reeds or eating the carbohydrate-rich tubers. The growth rate of the spike-rush is dependent on the level of rainfall, with the tubers growing when the water saturates the top several centimeters of soil. Because Arnhem Land has a monsoonal climate with wet and dry seasons, the tubers are generally harvested during the wet season when the rains have provided sucient rain for the growth of the tubers.

Figure 2: The spike rush, also called the rakia. 
Image form www.oocities.org
Approximately 90% of the annual rainfall in northern Australia (~0.9-1.2 m) occurs during the summer months of November to April. Therefore, the tubers of the spike-rush are harvested after the start of the wet season, roughly in late November when Arcturus is about 10 degrees above the horizon at sunrise.

One of the interesting aspects about linking calendars with the stars is that the stars are gradually moving over time.  Stars move with respect to each other as they orbit the centre of our galaxy (which we call stellar proper motion). As they orbit, their distances to us change, which affects their brightness. Stars also change their position with respect to the horizon as the earth wobbles on its axis due to precession.  This means that the rising and setting positions of the stars at certain times of the year will gradually change over time.  Because of the effects of precession, Arcturus would not have been a useful indicator star for the harvesting of the spike-rush over 7,000 years ago.  This means that prior to that time, Aboriginal people would have used a different star.  We do not know what star they used, but prior to 7,000 years ago, the bright star Antares in the constellation Scorpius would have been suitable. This is an example of predictive cultural astronomy.

Wergaia - Western Victoria

Our second example comes from the Wergaia people of western Victoria. In Wergaia traditions, Marpeankurrk was a woman who lived in the mallee scrub.  One day, she was in the bush looking for her food. Her people were starving. It had not rained for a long, long time. Rivers and billabongs had disappeared - the bul-rushes had shrivelled up and died! She lifted up logs but could find no lizards or snakes. She looked around and saw that there were also no grass seeds or fruit to eat.

After walking for many hours she saw a wood ant's nest. So desperate was she that she went to it and opened up the nest with her digging stick. In the nest she saw thousands of larvae. She put one in her mouth and ate it. The larvae were delicious! She collected all that she could and hurried back to her people. The larvae of the wood ant saved the people. It soon became their favourite food. When Marpeankurrk died she went up into the sky and became the star Arcturus.
When Marpeankurrk appears in the northern evening sky, the Wergaia people begin collecting the larvae of the bittur (wood ant).  The larvae (Figure 2) were an essential food source during the winter months of August and September.

Figure 2: The wood ant and larvae. 
Image form www.alexanderwild.com

When Arcturus sets just after the sun, the larvae are gone and summer (Cotchi) begins. Arcturus is ~30 degrees above the northern horizon at sunset as seen from this region at the beginning of August and sets just after sunset by the beginning of October - the beginning of the summer months. The northerly position of Arcturus in the Victorian sky (due to the higher latitude of Victoria) means that Arcturus remains relatively low, never exceeding 33 degrees above the horizon.  Because of this, Arcturus will rise and set over the course of 10 hours, less than a full winter's night.  But as with the Yolngu, Arcturus would not have been a useful star for denoting this period more than 7,000 years ago.

This shows us that Aboriginal sky knowledge gradually changes as the cosmos evolves.

Next: Capella and the Beehive Cluster


Hamacher, D.W. (2012). On the Astronomical Knowledge and Traditions of Aboriginal Australians. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Department of Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, pp. 76-78.

A Celestial Calendar: Questacon