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