Monday, March 31, 2014

The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Emu in the Sky

The concept of the Emu in the Sky exists in different Aboriginal groups across Australia. These stories have different meanings, from indicators of resources (when to collect emu eggs) to that of culture heroes. The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples, who live in the north and northwest of New South Wales, also have traditions of an Emu in the Sky, which differed from many of the other accounts. For the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi, the celestial Emu represents different things at different times of the year. The Emu first becomes visible in March. When it is fully visible in the Milky Way during April and May, it assumes the form of a running emu (Figure 1). This represents a female emu chasing the males during the mating season. Because emus begin laying their eggs at this time, this appearance of the celestial Emu is a reminder that the emu eggs are available for collection.

Figure 1

In June and July, the appearance of the Emu changes, as the legs disappear. The Emu, which is now male, is sitting on its nest, incubating the eggs (Figure 2). The eggs are still available for collection as a resource at this time.

Figure 2

The Kamilaroi and the Euahlayi have in common their male initiation ceremony, called the bora. The preferred time for the bora ceremony is during the summer, but the planning for the ceremonies, and possibly the layout of the bora site, may take place in August and September. There is a strong connection between the bora ceremony and the Milky Way, where the culture hero Baiame lives, and to whom the ceremony is dedicated. There is also evidence that the Emu is connected to the ceremony: as male emus rear the young, so male Aboriginal elders nurture the young initiates into manhood.

The bora ceremonial site usually consists of two circles, one large, and one small, connected by a pathway. In August and September, the Emu once again changes appearance to that of two circles in the sky, vertically aligned above the south-southwest horizon (Figure 3). This is the direction to which most bora sites are aligned (from large circle to small circle).

Figure 3

Later in the year, around November, the Emu once again changes appearance and becomes Gawarrgay/Gawarghoo, a featherless Emu that travels to waterholes and looks after everything that lives there. The Emu is now low on the horizon in the evening, so it appears only as the “body” of the Emu. The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi say this is because the Emu is sitting in a waterhole (Figure 4). As a consequence, the waterholes in country are full (which is often the case in November).

Figure 4

Later in the summer, the Milky Way and the Emu dip below the horizon. This signifies that the Emu has left the waterholes, which dries up the waterholes.

The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples have a complete story of the Emu in the Sky, and this reflects their belief that, at one time, the sky and everything in it was “down here”, and what is now “down here” was in the sky. This explains the connection between the Emu in the Sky, and the emu bird on the ground, and the connections to resource management and the ceremonial aspects of the male initiation ceremony.


This post is based on research conducted by Robert Fuller, Michael Anderson, Ray Norris, and Michelle Trudgett with Kamilaroi and Euahlayi elders and custodians. Their paper, “The Emu SkyKnowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples will appear in the July 2014 issue of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage (Volume 17, Issue 2). You can read a preprint of the paper here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Indigenous Astronomy @ UNSW

Australia’s Indigenous people have rich and ancient traditions relating to the stars, which informed social practices, sacred law, and ceremony, and were used for navigation, calendars, hunting, fishing, and gathering.

The Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit at the University of New South Wales in Sydney is the national leader in teaching and research in this area and our program is dedicated to increasing our understanding of the intricate and complex ways in which astronomical knowledge is encoded in oral traditions and material culture. We have staff, students, and educators teaching, researching, and sharing various aspects of Indigenous astronomical knowledge with the public.

[Updated 13 December 2014]

Our Teaching

Dr Duane Hamacher developed new undergraduate courses on Indigenous Science and Indigenous astronomy for Nura Gili. The units are part of the Indigenous Studies major and are available to all UNSW students as General Education units. Both courses are taught by Dr Hamacher in Semester 1 of each year. International exchange and study abroad students from any academic background are encouraged to enroll.

  • ATSI 2015: The Science of Indigenous Knowledge: Explore the various ways in which scientific information is encoded within traditional Indigenous knowledge systems, including astronomy, weather and climate, ecology, bush medicines, mathematical systems, geological events, and fire practices. Guest speakers, including academics and elders, bring a unique perspective the course, which uses an interactive "inverted classroom" approach.
  • ATSI 3006: The Astronomy of Indigenous Australians: Learn about the ways in which Indigenous understood and utilised the stars in an interactive classroom environment, develop your knowledge of naked-eye astronomy in Sydney Observatory's digital planetarium. and conduct original research and use your findings to create a planetarium show, curate an exhibit, produce educational materials, or film a documentary.

Current Research
Research at Nura Gili covers a range of projects on Indigenous astronomy. We work closely with Aboriginal and Islander communities, educators, and industry partners, and collaborate with researchers and teams at Macquarie UniversityCurtin University, and Griffith University. Some of our research projects are as follows:
Rediscovering Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge
Professor Martin Nakata and Dr Duane Hamacher are leading a collaboration with UNSW’s School of Computer Science & Engineering, Microsoft Research, and the State Library of New South Wales, to develop a public online repository for astronomical knowledge accessible to Indigenous communities worldwide, with additional information sourced from institutions and collections.  Martin is also working closely with UNSW’s College of Fine Arts (COFA) to produce cutting-edge visual technologies for presenting this knowledge.
Exploring Astronomical Knowledge and Traditions in the Torres Strait
Dr Duane Hamacher was awarded a major grant from the Australian Research Council to study Torres Strait Islander astronomy. The purpose of this study is to chart Torres Strait Islander customs and traditions with a deep connection to the sun, moon, and stars. A well-researched and documented library of astronomical knowledge will help Islanders continue longstanding traditions in developing knowledge about their place in the world.
Wiradjuri Skies: Aboriginal Astronomy in central NSW
Trevor Leaman is conducting his PhD research on the astronomical knowledge and traditions of the Wiradjuri people of NSW. This project will see Trevor conducting ethnographic research with communities across the Central West of NSW. The project will expand our knowledge of Wiradjuri astronomy and provide educational materials for the community.

Tracing Seven Sisters Dreaming Stories from Oral, to Analog, to Digital
Melissa Razuki is conducting her PhD research at RMIT (co-supervised by Dr Hamacher) charting the journey of Aboriginal Dreamings of the Seven Sisters, from their oral provenance, through their collection and capture by anthropologists and missionaries, to the manuscripts in repositories, to digitisation, and its potential repatriation back to its traditional custodians.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Astronomy
Michelle Gantevoort is researching the astronomy of Aboriginal communities in Tasmania for a BA(Honours) degree. Michelle will study ethnohistoric records, archival documents, and museum artefacts to better understand the role of astronomy in Tasmanian Aboriginal communities.
'Morning Star' Ceremonies

Imogen Casey is researching various Morning Star ceremonies and the role of Venus in the astronomical traditions of Aboriginal Australians for a BA(Honours) degree. Her research will also compare these ceremonies to Morning Star ceremonies in other Indigenous cultures using ethnohistoric records and archival documents.

Aboriginal Astronomy on Coastal NSW
Bob Fuller is a casual researcher studying the astronomical traditions of coastal Aboriginal communities in NSW, from the Worimi and Awabakal people of the Central Coast to the Dharawal and Yuin nations of the South Coast. This will involve archival and ethnographic research, working closely with Aboriginal elders and custodians.
ATSI 3006 Research Projects
Students enrolled in ATSI 3006 are undertaking small research projects on topics in Indigenous astronomy, including 

  • Aboriginal astronomy in the Sydney region
  • Aboriginal astronomy in the Melbourne region
  • Aboriginal astronomy in Tasmania
  • Cultural astronomy in the Torres Strait
  • Yuin Aboriginal astronomy (south coast NSW)
  • Music, culture, and astronomical traditions
  • Calendars and astronomy
  • Astronomical symbolism in material culture

Our Team [to be updated in mid-December 2014]
Dr Duane Hamacher
Lecturer and ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher
Duane is an American and earned degrees in astrophysics and Indigenous studies, with a PhD thesis on Aboriginal astronomy. He joined Nura Gili staff to develop teaching and research programs in Indigenous astronomy and was awarded an ARC grant to study the astronomy of Torres Strait Islanders. He is also a consultant curator and astronomy educator at Sydney Observatory.

Professor Martin Nakata
Professor and Director of Nura Gili

Martin is an Indigenous Torres Strait Islander and the first Islander to earn a PhD in Australia. He is a national leader in Indigenous education and Indigenous knowledge, and published the book Disciplining the Savages - Savaging the Disciplines. He leads a project with Microsoft Research and the Mitchell Library to capture and record Indigenous astronomy for the WorldWide Telescope.

Trevor Leaman
PhD Candidate (FASS – Environmental Humanities)

Trevor is researching the astronomy of the Wiradjuri people of central NSW under the supervision of Dr Hamacher. His Masters degree involved studying the astronomy of Aboriginal communities near Ooldea, South Australia. He earned degrees and diplomas in biology forestry, engineering, and astronomy, and is an astronomy educator at Sydney Observatory.

Tui Britton
Consultant Science Communicator
Tui is a Maori descendent of the Ngapuhi iwi of northern New Zealand. She was born in Christchurch and educated in Singapore, England, America, and Australia. She earned degrees in astrophysics and is finishing a PhD in radio astronomy. Tui produces educational units and writes popular articles and books on Indigenous astronomy and astrophysics. She is also an astronomy educator at Sydney Observatory

  • Melissa Razuki
  • Michelle Gantevoort
  • Imogen Casey
  • Bob Fuller

We welcome passionate students wishing to enrol in our undergraduate units or pursue research projects for an Honours, Masters, or Doctoral degree. Interested parties should contact Dr Duane Hamacher. A list of potential projects and degree information can be found here.