Monday, March 28, 2011

Impact Craters in Aboriginal Dreamings, Part 2: Tnorala (Gosses Bluff)

By Duane Hamacher

Updated April 2016

Notice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:  This article contains the names of people that have died.

In the previous post, I discussed Arrernte oral traditions relating to the Henbury crater field in the Central Desert. As I said, Henbury is not the only impact crater in Arrernte country with an associated Dreaming. Let us now travel 175 km west of Alice Springs, where we find a 5 km-wide ring-shaped mountain range that stands 150 metres above the desert, representing the remnant central uplift of an eroded 22 km-wide complex crater (Figure 1). The scientific explanation is that this structure formed from a comet impact some 142.5±0.8 million years ago. The ground has eroded down nearly 2 km from its original level. Differential erosion lead to the ring shaped mountain range we see today. Rocks from within the crater feature prominent shatter cones - a geological feature only created in large cosmic impacts. The site was confirmed as a giant crater in the 1960s.

The name colonists gave the site is "Gosses Bluff" but the Western Arrente call this place Tnorala and consider it sacred. Arrernte Elder Mavis Malbunka (Figure 2), wife of Herman Malbunka, the Traditional Custodian of Tnorala from Ntaria (Hermannsburg), explains the origin of Tnorala in Arrernte traditions:

Figure 1: Gosse's Bluff, called Tnorala by the Western Arrernte.
Image by Georg Gerster. 

In the Dreaming, a group of sky-women danced as stars in the Milky Way.  One of the women, who was carrying a baby, placed her baby in a wooden basket (coolamon). As the women continued dancing, the coolamon fell and the baby plunged into the earth. The baby struck the ground and was covered by the coolamon, the force of which drove the rocks upward, forming the circular mountain range we see today. The baby's mother, the evening star, and father, the morning star, continue to search for their baby to this day.

Figure 2: Arrernte Elder Mavis Malbunka talking about Tnorala.  
Aired 19 July 2009 on ABC's Message Stick.  Click here to see the video clip.

She continues:  "We tell the children don't look at the evening star or the morning star, they will make you sick because these two stars are still looking for their little baby that they lost during the dance up there in the sky, the way our women are still dancing.  That coolamon, the one the baby fell out of, is still there. It shows up every winter."  

The coolamon (Figure 3) is formed by the stars in the constellation Corona Australis ("Southern Crown"), which looks similar in shape to a coolamon. It is seen in the region bordering the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius and is prominent in the winter night skies, resembling a coolamon falling from the Milky Way (see Figure 4). 

Figure 3:  A coolamon from Central Australia.
Image from

Mavis warns: "Be careful at night. These two stars are looking for their child, Tnorala." Still today, that evening star comes at night with big lights. The white man call it Min Min light, but we know it as the bright light of the mother looking for her child”.  

The famous Min-Min lights, which are an unexplained atmospheric phenomenon or probably an optical illusion, are frequently reputed to be the baby’s parents. "We were chased by a bright light, and the old man, my husband, realised what it was and said that it's from the Dreamtime and it's still looking for the child. The mother must have thought that she had found her little child. Then we saw the star go up to the heavens”.  Although they are identified as the “morning star” and “evening star”, they are not explicitly identified as Venus.  Mavis notes “that was the last we saw of it, but with this big summer, we might get to see the two stars again. They don't show themselves all the time. No! Only every now and then.”

There is a long history to Tnorala that goes well beyond the stars. Cosmic impacts, murders and land rights are a component of Tnorala’s turbulent past.   To learn more, watch the full video, which you can purchase from the CAAMA.

Recently, Tnorala featured on the National Geographic Channel documentary "The Story of God with Morgan Freeman" (Episode 4: Creation). I joined traditional custodian, country music singer, and Arrernte man Warren H. Williams to learn more about the site. He says that shooting stars are family members searching for the lost child.

Part 3 (Kandimalal: Wolfe Creek Crater) will be the topic of a future post by John Goldsmith, who recently visited Wolfe Creek and collected stories from Indigenous elders.  We'll give John a little time to collate his findings first.

We respectfully acknowledge the Arrernte people and the caretakers of the Tnorala story, 
Herman and Mavis Malbunka.

NOTE: This was updated on 10 September 2012 to correct the identity of the celestial turna.
- Duane Hamacher

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Impact Craters in Aboriginal Dreamings, Part 1: Henbury

Notice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
This article contains information from the book "Nomads of the Australian Desert" by Charles Mountford, which was banned from sale in the Northern Territory for revealing secret information of the Pitjantjatjarra.  This article contains no information about the Pitjantjatjarra from that book.

The day probably began like any other in the Central Desert of Australia some 4,200 years ago... the men hunted kangaroo in the desert plains while women collected seeds and roots.  Or perhaps families were gathered around a campfire while Elders recounted Dreaming stories to wide-eyed children.  Suddenly, a brilliant flash lit up the sky and a deafening roar reverberated across the desert.  An object a few tens-of-metres in diameter travelling at ~20 km per second (over 60 times faster than a bullet) broke apart in the atmosphere and struck the earth, excavating a dozen craters scattered over a square kilometre with an energy equivalent to several millions of tons of TNT and scattering iron meteorite fragments across the area (Figure 1).  The impact would have been felt across the region and would have caused grievous harm or death to anyone within several kilometres of the impact site.  So did anyone witness the impact? (perhaps someone far enough away to see it but not close enough for them to have been harmed).  The relatively young age of the crater-field combined with the fact that Aboriginal people have inhabited the area for tens-of-thousands of years suggests that, yes... they did.  But has the memory of the event survived into modern times?  Let's explore...

Figure 1: Top - The author at the Henbury craters, Photo by T.R. Britton.  
Bottom - The largest of the Henbury craters, photo by D.W. Hamacher.

The first European to find the crater field was a manager of a nearby cattle station in 1899, which was run by a family from Henbury, England.  In 1932, A.R. Alderman published a paper identifying the structures as meteorite craters, which was named the Henbury Crater Field.  An excursion to the site with a local Aboriginal man revealed some interesting details about the crater field.  The man Alderman took with him explained that Aboriginal people would not camp within a couple miles of the site (which he called "Chindu chinna waru chingi yaku" which roughly translates to "Sun walk fire devil rock"), nor would they venture nearby or drink water that collected in the craters (see Figure 2) in fear that the "fire-devil" would fill them with iron.  The man explained that his paternal grandfather had seen the fire-devil and that it had come from the sun, suggesting a cosmic origin.

Figure 2: Rainwater that collected in one of the smaller craters.  Photo by David McKinnon.

Charles P. Mountford collected Dreaming stories from the Henbury craters in the mid-20th century, but their formation was instead attributed to a lizard-woman.  In the 1990s, oral traditions about the crater field were collected, but many are sacred and secret to outsiders.  The Arrernte people called the crater-field Tatyeye Kepmwere (Tatjakapara), and according to Parks & Wildlife of the Northern Territory, "some of the mythologies for the area are known but will only be used for interpretation purposes after agreement by the Aboriginal custodians of the site."

The account from the Aboriginal man who accompanied Alderman reveals that this site was long known as an unusual and significant place to the local Aboriginal people.  It also indicates that the memory of this event has survived for thousands of years in oral tradition.  However, Henbury is not the only impact crater in Arrernte country with associated Dreamings... but that is a story for our next post :-)

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Enigmatic Eta Carinae and Boorong Astronomy

By Duane Hamacher

Imagine sitting under the stars in the dry Mallee country of northwestern Victoria in the 1840s with two Aboriginal men explaining their oral traditions of the sky.  No light pollution, no airplanes, no mobile phones, no cars… just peace, serenity, and the light of millions of stars shining above.

This is exactly what William Edward Stanbridge (Figure 1) experienced when two men of the Boorong clan (of the Wergaia language group, claiming to have the best knowledge of astronomy of all  Aboriginal groups in that region) taught him their star lore, reciting the stories as they pointed out the stars overhead.  Stanbridge, an educated and wealthy British colonist, sat attentively, writing down the Boorong stars and their equivalent Western names using a star atlas.  Berm-berm-gle… Alpha Centauri.  Djuit… Antares.  War… Canopus.  When the men pointed to Collowgullouric War (the wife of War, the Crow, pronounced “Wahh”), he could not identify the bright star.  Using his chart, he simply writes “Large red star in Robur Carol, marked 966.  All the small stars around her are her children”, and continued to record the remaining stars (see Figure 2).

Figure 1: One of the few extant photos of William Edward Stanbridge, probably ca. 1880s.

Stanbridge read his 4-page paper on Boorong astronomy before the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in Melbourne on September 30th, 1857.  Unfortunately, the institute’s office burned down a couple years later, so Stanbridge wrote a lengthier version including more non-astronomical information in 1861.  His work was re-analysed in 1881 by Peter MacPherson, then again in 1996 by John Morieson, who completed an MA thesis on Boorong astronomy at the University of Melbourne.

Figure 2: An excerpt from Stanbridge's paper, describing Collowgullouric War.

For nearly 150 years, the identification of Collowgullouric War remained a mystery.  In 2011, Dr David Frew and myself published a paper in the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage where we identified that particular star.  This was no ordinary star... it is one of the most massive stars known, called Eta Carinae.  This enigmatic star is actually a binary, has a combined mass of more than 100 suns, and is 4 million times more luminous than our little home star.  The larger star of Eta Car is unstable and undergoes occasional violent outbursts, where it sheds material from its outer shells, making it exceptionally bright.  During the 1840s, Eta Car went through such an outburst where it shed 20 solar masses of its outer shell and became the second brightest star in the night sky, after Sirius, before fading from view a few years later.  This event, commonly called a “supernova-impostor” event, has been deemed the “Great Eruption of Eta Carinae”.  The remnant of this explosion is evident by the Homunculus Nebulae (Figure 3).  This identification shows that the Boorong had noted the sudden brightness of this star and incorporated it into their oral traditions.

Figure 3:  The Homunculus Nebulae, the debris ejected from Eta Carinae during the Great Outburst in the 1840s.

Of course, you may be asking, “Well, how do you know that?”  The answer is in Stanbridge’s identification.  During the early 1840s, when Eta went through its great outburst and the time that Stanbridge was learning firsthand about Boorong astronomy, it was one of the brightest stars in the night sky (“large star”), it had a reddish colour, was located in the now-defunct constellation of Robur Carol (which was later part of Argo Navis, now divided into several constellations such as Carinae, Vela, Crux. Etc.).  Star charts from the period refereed to the Carinae Nebula (surrounding Eta Carina) as '966'.  Eta Carinae itself was designated '968', but was labelled as a 4th magnitude star.  This was probably a simple transcription error by Stanbridge, who did not recognise the bright star where his star charts claimed was a fairly mundane 4th magnitude star (Figure 4).  Finally, this region of the sky is rich in 4th and 5th magnitude stars, which would have been the "small" stars representing the children of the female Crow.

Figure 4: Star charts showing the the Carinae Nebula (966 Argus) and Eta Carinae (968 Argus), denoted by red arrows.

So what we have is the first and only confirmed global indigenous record of this “supernova-impostor” event found to date.  Because it was incorporated into Boorong oral traditions, it shows that these traditions are dynamic, and not static as many people commonly think.  Does this mean that the Crow had no wife prior to this event?  We're pretty sure he did, but it was probably not Eta Carinae.  As we find in Stanbridge’s paper, Boorong celestial deities and their spouses are associated with stars or objects of similar magnitude in the same region of the sky.  Canopus and Eta Carinae were two of the brightest stars in the sky during the 1840s.  Why would the Crow’s spouse have been associated with an inconspicuous faint star?  We don’t think it would have been, but we can’t say for sure which star was Collowgullouric War before Eta’s eruption.

Details of this discovery can be found in our paper below:

Hamacher, D.W. & Frew, D.J. (2010), An Aboriginal Australian record of the Great Eruption of Eta CarinaeJournal of Astronomical History & Heritage 13(3): 220-234

We respectfully acknowledge the Wergaia people and Boorong descendents, both past and present.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Wurdi Youang - an Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar alignments

A research paper testing the solar alignments of Wurdi Youang has been been published in the May 2013 issue of the journal 'Rock Art Research', Volume 30, Issue 1, pp. 55-65. A preprint (PDF) can be viewed here.

By Dr Duane Hamacher

About halfway between Melbourne and Geelong in Victoria lies a large egg-shaped arrangement of ~100 basalt stones, each between 0.5-1 m in height. The arrangement is 50 m wide along its major axis, which lies almost exactly east-west. Traditional Ownership of the site, as registered with the Victoria Aboriginal Heritage Council, lies with the Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation.

Figure 1: The Wurdi Youang Aboriginal stone arrangement in Victoria.

At the western apex (at the top of Figure 1) are three stones that appear to mimic three mountains in the background. The late historian John Morieson suggested, in the 1990s, that a few outlier stones on the western end of the arrangement indicated the setting sun at equinox and summer and winter solstice (Figure 2). Ray Norris and his wife, Cilla, conducted a detailed survey of the site in 2008. Ray visited the site again with me in 2009. The results of the survey show that the outlier stones do indeed align to these solar points, but also that the straight edges of the arrangement also indicate these alignments (Figures 3 & 4). This provides us with two lines of evidence that these stones align to solar points.

Figure 2: The alignment of outlier stones at Wurdi Youang correspond to solstices and the 
equinox, as noted by John Morieson.

Figure 3: The straight edges of the arrangement align to the solstices and equinox, as noted 
by Ray Norris.

Figure 4: A layout of the Wurdi Youang stone arrangement showing the outlier stones and the 
edges of the main arrangement, which all align to solar points, as surveyed by Ray and 
Priscilla Norris (c) 2008.

The Wathaurong people have inhabited the area for over 25,000 years (Figure 5). Unfortunately, the traditional language, customs, and ceremonies were banned by missionaries over 100 years ago. As a result, only fragments of information survive today, and Wathaurong elders are uncertain what the stone arrangement means or what it was used for. Because of this, we do not know the age of the arrangement. The land on which the arrangement is situated has been maintained by the same family since early colonial times, ruling out a European origin. Therefore, it could date to anywhere between 25,000 years to ~1835. We are exploring methods of dating the arrangement, closely collaborating with the Traditional Elders.

Figure 5: The geographic area of the Wathaurong nation, west of Melbourne.

The primary purpose of this arrangement may not be astronomical, but we do know that the arrangement of these stones does mark the sun at solstice and equinox.  At this point, we are simply testing the astronomical hypothesis, but much more research must be done in order to ascertain its original purpose and intent, something we may never know for certain.  We do not reveal the exact location of the site, respecting the wishes of the elders and to keep the site from high levels of public traffic, which can severely damage the site in a short amount of time.

Listen to a short broadcast about Wurdi Youang on ABCs "The Science Show" featuring Duane Hamacher and Ray Norris, narrated by Robert Cockburn.  Hosted by Robyn Williams.

We would like to thank Wathaurong cultural officers Reg Abrahams and Trevor Edwards for their assistance. We acknowledge the Wathaurong people, both past and present.

New papers and the continuing debate over the JoC.

By Duane Hamacher

Our group has recently published two papers:

Hamacher, D.W. & Norris, R.P. (2011), "Bridging the Gap" through Australian Cultural Astronomy.  Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy: building bridges between cultures, Proceedings of the IAU Symposium No. 278, edited by Clive Ruggles.

Hamacher, D.W. (2011), Meteoritics and cosmology among the Aboriginal cultures of Central AustraliaJournal of Cosmology 13: in press. 

In the previous post, I had discussed my uneasiness with the Journal of Cosmology.  The editor of the archaeoastronomy component, J. McKim Malville, has no doubt kept the standards for the archaeoastronomy issues very high.  However, the same issue contains an article by Rhawn Joseph in which he equates scientists who support the Big Bang "myth" to Bible-thumping creationists.  Claiming in the preface that "The overarching message is this work is upsetting and should be censored, removed, and banned. Therefore, you have been warned: This article contains information which some people find threatening and upsetting" is very much like the ranting I've heard from 9/11 and climate change deniers, moon landing "hoaxers", and UFO conspiracy theorists.  Making inflammatory comments supporting a fringe point-of-view and then claiming that the article contains information scientists "find threatening and upsetting" when the scientific community calls BS is just silly.  And I'm interested to learn more about the "Brain Research Laboratory, Northern California".  

As for the Hoover study claiming to have found fossilized microbes in meteorites, the journal claims that "Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study."  Shouting and denouncing people who don't agree with you as "crackpots" is not professional or proper peer-review.  Of course people aren't going to agree, and debate and constructive criticism is what leads us to the truth (and it doesn't really matter if you came from Harvard, MIT, NASA, or Podunk State University - the evidence should speak for itself if it is of high quality).  

I also took offense to negative comments from Gabriel Beck about skeptic and astronomer Phil Plait and his "torches and pitchforks" followers regarding the possible Jovian planet in the outer fringes of the solar system, especially considering Plait's review was very kind and fair.  Personal attacks and jabs in a peer-reviewed journal are very unprofessional, regardless.

At any rate, I'll leave my paper in the journal and put my faith in Kim, who I know is very good at what he does and maintains a high standard.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Journal of Cosmology - the good, the bad, and the ugly

By Duane Hamacher

As you have heard by now, a controversial paper in the online Journal of Cosmology proposes that evidence of cyanobacteria have been found in meteorites.  Of course, this will be viewed with much skepticism, as it should.  Such claims have been made in the past and have proven to be false, so any new claims will be viewed critically.

Unfortunately, this has drawn some negative criticism to the journal, as have some highly speculative papers the journal has published in the past, making it appear more along the lines of a "crank journal", where speculation, pseudo-science, and fringe ideas are placed side by side with legitimate science.  I bring this up simply because I have recently published a paper in this journal, which deals with meteorites and cosmology in Aboriginal cultures of Central Australia (typos and all, apparently).  I want to make a few things clear:

1) I was advised by top archaeoastronomers at the Oxford IX meeting in Lima, Peru in January 2011 that this journal was reputable and that all papers were subject to rigorous peer-review.  It appears the papers in the archaeoastronomy issues are of high quality and do not constitute fringe material, although the same cannot be said about other issues;

2) The paper I published deals only with cultural views of cosmology that are associated with meteorites.  None of those views are to be held as "factual truth", they are simply cultural interpretations of a particular group of people at a particular place in time;

3) I have yet to see any solid or reputable evidence of Panspermia (the hypothesis that life on earth was seeded by comets and meteorites), and this paper is NOT about Panspermia in any scientific context;

4) In the paper, I comment that the scientific community has PROPOSED that amino acids, which are the building blocks of life, may have arrived to earth via comets (as well as water).  This is not the same as Panspermia and does not propose that life has extraterrestrial origins.  I am open to the possibility, but I want to see solid, rigorous, critically analysed evidence before I'll be convinced;

5) Any disparaging comments made about the "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait (a champion of the skeptical movement) in the Journal of Cosmology are not endorsed by me or our group.  I have a great respect for Phil and will not see him bad-mouthed when he points out obvious flaws or problems in a paper.

Apparently, the journal now appears to be shutting down, so we'll see what the future holds.  At any rate, the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage, Archaeoastronomy, and Rock Art Research will continue to be our primary journals of choice to publish our research, as they have for some time.

Eta Carinae, Comets, and Cosmic Impacts!

By Duane Hamacher

The group has been very busy lately publishing papers, giving talks, and promoting Aboriginal Astronomy.  

Recent papers include (click on the link to access the paper):

Hamacher, D.W. and Frew, D.J. (2010), An Aboriginal Record of the Great Eruption of Eta Carinae, Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp. 220-234.

Norris, R.P. & Hamacher, D.W. (2011), Astronomical symbolism in Australian Aboriginal rock artRock Art Research Volume 28, Issue 1, pp. 99-106

Hamacher, D.W. & Norris, R.P. (2010), Meteors in Australian Aboriginal DreamingsWGN - Journal of the International Meteor Organization Volume 38, Issue 3, pp. 87-98

Hamacher, D.W. & Norris, R.P. (2009), 
Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: eyewitness accounts of cosmic impacts? Archaeoastronomy Volume 22, pp. 60-93

We have a couple of new papers that are currently in press and will be out very soon:

Hamacher, D.W. (2011), Meteoritics and cosmology among the Aboriginal cultures of Central AustraliaJournal of Cosmology, Volume 13, in press (March 2011)

Hamacher, D.W. & Norris, R.P. (2011), 
Comets in Australian Aboriginal AstronomyJournal for Astronomical History & Heritage Volume 14, Issue 1, in press (March 2011)

As you can see, we are churning out as much research as possible, and we welcome any questions or comments from the general public and academic community!