Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sydney City Skywatchers - Lecture on Aboriginal Astronomy

Join the oldest operating astronomical group in Sydney. The group provides an opportunity for those interested in astronomy to share and broaden their interest in the sky. People at all levels are catered for from beginners to serious amateur astronomers. Whether you want to just listen to a monthly lecture or to discuss serious observing through a telescope, this is the club for you.

These meetings usually consist of brief reports of observations made during the month by club members and a presentation from a guest speaker followed by a light supper. There is a $2 fee for each meeting.

by Duane Hamacher
Monday, March 5th at 6:30 pm - Sydney Observatory

Aboriginal Australians had a complex astronomical knowledge system that may stretch back for over 50,000 years. This knowledge extended beyond having names and stories for celestial objects. It included a deep intellectual component that was used for navigation, time keeping, food economics, and social structure.

Recent research from the Aboriginal Astronomy Project at Macquarie University has revealed a wealth of astronomical knowledge and practices by Aboriginal people, including the construction of stone arrangements and ceremonial sites to cardinal directions and astronomical objects, such as the setting position of the sun or the orientation of the Milky Way. Aboriginal people paid careful attention to, and had explanations for, eclipses, comets, meteors, and variable stars. Research also suggests that oral traditions describing meteorite impact events remain strong after thousands of years.

In this talk, Duane Hamacher from the Aboriginal Astronomy Project will discuss the latest results from the Project and explore how Aboriginal Australians may very well be the world’s oldest astronomers.

Duane Hamacher giving a tour of Aboriginal rock art sites, including the famous Emu in the Sky engraving, 
in Kuring-gai Chase National Park north of Sydney.

About the Speaker

Duane Hamacher is a trained astronomer and science educator at Macquarie University and Sydney Observatory. After graduating in physics from the University of Missouri and completing a Master's degree in astrophysics at the University of New South Wales, he submitted a PhD thesis at Macquarie University where he researched the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Aboriginal Australians. He is currently the Jenni Chandler Fellow in Aboriginal Astronomy in the Department of Indigenous Studies and manages the Association for Astronomy at Macquarie.

Talks are followed by supper ($2 donation)

Open to Members and everyone who is passionate about astronomy.  It is possible to join Sydney City Skywatchers on the evening or take home a membership form.

Bookings are not required.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Karrugang and the Origin of the Pleiades

This is a Gundungurra story from the Blue Mountains (NSW) about 
the origin of the star cluster Westerners call the Pleiades.

In the Dreaming, a group of sisters were pursued by a magpie named Karrugang, who wanted to make one of the sisters his wife.  One day, while digging for edible roots near a river, one of the sisters slipped into the river and became tangled in the weeds, drowning.  The magpie saved the woman and made her his wife.  The other sisters stayed at the camp with the crow and his wife.  The magpie was lazy and made all the women do the work.  The women frequently tried to escape, but the magpie would find and return them to his camp.  One day during a storm, the wife pulled stringy-bark from a tree to make a shelter whilst her sisters sang a charm song.  As the lazy magpie lay around, the sisters sang making the tree grow taller and taller.  They quickly climbed the bark into the sky where they are seen today as the sisters of the Pleiades.

A Magpie.  From

Mathews, R.H. (2003).  Some mythology and folklore of the Gundungurra tribe.  Den Fenella Press, Wentworth Falls, NSW.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ngaut Ngaut - A Lunar Calendar?

From Paul Curnow and Ray Norris (edited by Duane Hamacher)

On the banks of the Murray River, north of Adelaide, is a rock art site called "Ngaut Ngaut" that has astronomical connections.  However, those connections are shrouded in mystery.  The Traditional Owners know that some of the engravings represent the sun and moon, but the banning of their language and oral traditions by Christian missionaries over 100 years ago resulted in knowledge about this site being lost.

An Aboriginal guide named Cess explaining the fossils and rock art of Ngaut Ngaut
to the Supernova Group (from Adelaide Planetarium) in 2003.

Ngaut Ngaut is part of the Ngarrindjeri Nation, which encompasses the region stretching along the Coorong in South Australia to along the Murray River to Blanchetown further north.  The Traditional Custodians of Ngaut Ngaut are the Nganguraku (sometimes spelt Nganguruku), who form part of the Ngarrindjeri Nation.

Ngaut Ngaut was the site of Australia’s first archaeological excavation in 1927.  Dating evidence taken from the remains of ancient campfires suggests that humans have occupied this area as long ago as 27,000 years.  The site includes various engravings, or petroglyphs, of animals, people, deities, the sun and moon.  Close to the engravings are a series of dots and lines carved in the rock, which, according to the Traditional Owners, show the "cycles of the Moon". 

Engraving of the sun.  Image by Paul Curnow.
Lunar cycle tally marks at Ngaut Ngaut?  Image by Ray Norris.

This oral tradition has been passed through generations from father to son, but since initiation ceremonies were banned (along with the Nganguraku language) by Christian missionaries over a hundred years ago, only this fragment of knowledge survives, and it is not known exactly what the symbols mean.  Are they tally's of each full moon?  In parts of central New South Wales, Aboriginal men cut notches into sticks at each full moon so as to keep track of their age, so this idea is certainly plausible.  But what are the verticle lines above the dots?  What is the strange symbol in the middle?  Why are dots superimposed on the sun engraving?

The rich record engraved on the walls of Ngaut Ngaut has so far defied attempts at decoding it, but we are setting our sites on unlocking the astronomical secret, which will be the focus of future research.


Take a guided tour of Ngaut Ngaut here.