Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Speaking with": Duane Hamacher on Indigenous astronomy

Duane Hamacher interviewed by Tamson Pietsch. Originally published on The Conversation on 19 December 2014, 11.35am AEDT.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people have between 40,000 and 60,000 years of pre-colonial history that includes stories of constellations they observed in the night sky and traditions that align with the stars and the moon. But until recently, these stories were largely dismissed by the scientific community.
Researchers are now finding that Indigenous oral traditions contain vast environmental and scientific knowledge. These complex knowledge systems have helped Indigenous people survive Australia for tens of thousands of years.
Tamson Pietsch speaks with cultural astronomer Duane Hamacher about Indigenous astronomy and its complex relationship to history, culture and applied scientific knowledge.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Studying Cultural Astronomy for a Career - a Guide

By Duane Hamacher

I am frequently asked how to go about studying cultural astronomy and pursuing a career in the field. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, knowing what to study and how to build a foundation in this area is not as straightforward as one might think.

This blog post will serve as a guide to studying cultural astronomy at the university level, from undergrad to PhD. I will also list some of the career options for graduates in this field. This is based on my knowledge and experience.

What is Cultural Astronomy?

Cultural astronomy is the academic study of the ways in which various cultures understood and utilized the celestial realm. It is a social science informed by the physical sciences. Since it involves human perception of the natural world, it is grounded in the social sciences. But as it utilises information and knowledge about the natural world, it is informed by the physical and natural sciences.

Cultural astronomy is generally divided into two sub-disciplines: archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy.

Archaeoastronomy is the study of the astronomical practices and beliefs of past cultures. It relies heavily on the archaeological record and has traditionally focused on alignments in monuments, structures, and stone arrangements. This approach relies heavily on archaeological surveys, precision measurements, and statistical analysis.

                    Archaeoastronomical studies at Chankillo in Peru.

Ethnoastronomy is the study of the astronomical practices and beliefs of contemporary cultures, with a focus on Indigenous peoples. It relies heavily on the the ethnographic and historical records and involves learning about human understanding of the sky directly from the people themselves, particularly Indigenous elders.

   Ethnoastronomical work with Aboriginal elder Bill Yidumduma Harney.

The study of astronomy in culture is a growing field of interest, and an increasing number of masters and doctoral degrees are being awarded with theses and dissertations in the field. The graph below shows the increase trend in graduate degrees with theses/dissertations in cultural astronomy being awarded between 1965 and 2004 (McCluskey, 2004).

Dissertations and Theses in Cultural Astronomy (1965-2004)

Cultural astronomy is highly interdisciplinary, so could consider a number of different majors and degree programs, depending on your personal interests. If you want to learn about astronomical alignments in temples, megalithic structures, or ancient cities, archaeoastronomy is your area and archaeology and classics are suitable fields of study. If you are interested in learning about contemporary Indigenous cultures, anthropology and sociology are a better option. If your interest lies in interpreting ancient texts, linguistics and languages would be a suitable option.

Very few universities have any structured programs in cultural astronomy, and only a handful offer courses on the subject (a list of such courses will be the focus of a future post). So do not expect to find a university where you can complete a full program in cultural astronomy... you'll have to build your own.

What should I study at the Undergraduate Level?

Regardless of which area of cultural astronomy you choose to pursue, you need a grounding in the social sciences, and a working knowledge of astronomy. Basic knowledge in other sciences, such as geology, ecology, and biology, are also useful. Skills such as surveying, computer programming, and statistics are also highly valuable. Majors or fields of study for each sub-discipline are given below. This is not an exhaustive list. It only serves as a general guide.

Archaeoastronomy: Archaeology, Anthropology, Ancient History, Classics, History & Philosophy of Science, Cultural Heritage Management. Noteknowledge of statistics and surveying are essential.

Ethnoastronomy: Anthropology, Sociology, Indigenous Studies, History & Philosophy of Science, Environmental Humanities, Religious Studies.

You would be best suited to take either a Major in a social science and a Minor in astronomy/physics, or double Major in both social science and astronomy/physics. A single major in the social sciences will not generally provide you with the scientific foundation necessary to work in the field, and vice versa for a major in the sciences. A dual Major or double degree will be very intensive but is the best overall option. A dual BA would be easiest (e.g. BA Anthropology/BA Astronomy). However, a BA/BS provides the widest breadth and opens up the most opportunities (e.g. BA Anthropology/BS Astronomy).

[A colleague at Macquarie University in Sydney completed a dual degree to pursue his interests in Egyptian astronomy. He completed a BA in Ancient History and a BS in Astrophysics, with an Honours year studying Egyptology. It was hard work, but he's glad he did it!]

What should I study at the Graduate/Postgraduate Level?

If you want to pursue a career in cultural astronomy, you will need to complete a PhD.

You will be best suited in a social science or humanities program. It is very important to carefully choose a university and department that will support the research, and a knowledgeable, able, and supportive supervisor. You also much carefully choose the field of study in which the degree will be awarded. "Studies" programs tend to be more broad, while "traditional" programs (e.g. anthropology, archaeology) are more narrowly focused.

PhDs in the sciences with a cultural astronomy thesis topic are rare. A study in 2004 showed that of 79 masters and doctoral degrees awarded with theses in some area of cultural astronomy, only 3 were awarded through physics/astronomy departments. This means you will be far more likely to be accepted into a PhD program through the social sciences than the physical sciences.

Graduate degrees awarded with theses in cultural astronomy, divided into disciplines (1965-2004).

Career Opportunities

It should be made very clear that cultural astronomy is a tiny academic field - only a handful of people in the world have managed to carve out a career in this discipline - and the chances of getting a job in that area are incredibly slim. That is the advice my supervisors gave me. But it is possible to study cultural astronomy and make a career out of it… I did. You simply have to carve a niche, strategise your career, and maximize your opportunities. Just remember that nothing is guaranteed and academia is brutally competitive.

There are numerous employment opportunities that will utilize your skills and knowledge set, although the job may not entail further cultural astronomy research. These include:

  • Research and/or Teaching Academic
  • TAFE/Community College Instructor
  • Cultural Heritage Management
  • Archaeological and Anthropological Consultant
  • Education and Curriculum Developer
  • Museum or Gallery Curator
  • Outreach Officer
  • Astronomy Educator
  • Tour Guide
  • Tourism Consultant
  • Media and Communication
  • Journalism
  • Policy Development
  • Journal/Magazine Editor
  • School Teacher
  • Administration
  • Park Ranger
  • Technical Writer
  • Analyst (for those with high maths/stats skills)

So if this is a subject you wish to pursue... go for it. But be warned that the chances of landing a career in the discipline are very small. But it is a very exciting field in which to work and provides you with broad skills that can be used in a number of careers.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Stories from the sky: astronomy in Indigenous knowledge

by Duane Hamacher (University of New South Wales)
Indigenous Australian practices, developed and honed over thousands of years, weave science with storytelling. In this Indigenous science series, we’ll look at different aspects of First Australians' traditional life and uncover the knowledge behind them – starting today with astronomy.

This article contains the names of Aboriginal people who have passed away.
Night sky over Lake Tyrrel in Western Victoria – home of the Wergaia people. Alex CherneyCC BY-NC-ND

Indigenous Australians have been developing complex knowledge systems for tens of thousands of years. These knowledge systems - which seek to understand, explain, and predict nature - are passed to successive generations through oral tradition.
As Ngarinyin elder David Bungal Mowaljarlai explains: “Everything under creation […] is represented in the ground and in the sky.” For this reason, astronomy plays a significant role in these traditions.
Western science and Indigenous knowledge systems both try to make sense of the world around us but tend to be conceptualised rather differently. The origin of a natural feature may be explained the same in Indigenous knowledge systems and Western science, but are couched in very different languages.
A story recounted by Aunty Mavis Malbunka, a custodian of the Western Arrernte people of the Central Desert, tells how long ago in the Dreaming, a group of women took the form of stars and danced a corroboree (ceremony) in the Milky Way.
One of the women put her baby in a wooden basket (coolamon) and placed him on the edge of the Milky Way. As the women danced, the baby slipped off and came tumbling to Earth. When the baby and coolamon fell, they hit the ground, driving the rocks upward. The coolamon covered the baby, hiding him forever, and the baby’s parents – the Morning and Evening Stars – continue to search for their lost child today.
If you look at the evening winter sky, you will see the falling coolamon in the sky, below the Milky Way, as the arch of stars in the Western constellation Corona Australis – the Southern Crown.
The place where the baby fell is a ring-shaped mountain range 5km wide and 150m high. The Arrernte people call it Tnorala. It is the remnant of a giant crater that formed 142 million years ago, when a comet or asteroid struck the Earth, driving the rocks upward.
Tnorala (Gosses Bluff crater). Dementia/FlickrCC BY-SA
Click to enlarge

Predicting seasonal change

When the Pleiades star cluster rises just before the morning sun, it signifies the start of winter to the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Desert and tells them that dingoes are breeding and will soon be giving birth to pups.
The evening appearance of the celestial shark, Baidam traced out by the stars of the Big Dipper (in Ursa Major) tells Torres Strait Islanders that they need to plant their gardens with sugarcane, sweet potato and banana.
When the nose of Baidam touches the horizon just after sunset, the shark breeding season has begun and people should stay out of the water as it is very dangerous!
Torres Strait Islanders use constellations, such as the shark ‘Baidam’ pictured here, for practical purposes. Brian Robinson
Torres Strait Islanders' close attention to the night sky is further demonstrated in their use of stellar scintillation (twinkling), which enables them to determine the amount of moisture and turbulence in the atmosphere. This allows them to predict weather patterns and seasonal change. Islanders distinguish planets from stars because planets do not twinkle.
In Wergaia traditions of western Victoria, the people once faced a drought and food was scarce. Facing starvation, a woman named Marpeankurric set out in search of tucker for the group. After searching high and low, she found an ant nest and dug up thousands of nutritious ant larvae, called bittur.
This sustained the people through the winter drought. When she passed away, she ascended to the heavens and became the star Arcturus. When Marpeankurric rises in the evening, she tells the people when to harvest the ant larvae.
Arcturus (Marpeankurric – on the lower left) and the Milky Way over Lake Hart. Alex Cherney
Click to enlarge
In each case, Indigenous astronomical knowledge was used to predict changing seasons and the availability of food sources. Behind each of these brief accounts is a complex oral tradition that denotes a moral charter and informs sacred law.
An important thing to consider is that small changes in star positions due to stellar proper motion(rate of angular change in position over time) and precession (change in the orientation of Earth’s rotational axis) means that a few thousand years ago, these sky/season relationships would have been out of sync.
This means knowledge systems had to evolve over time to accommodate a changing sky. This shows us that what we know about Indigenous astronomical knowledge today is only a tiny fraction of the total knowledge developed in Australia over the past 50,000-plus years.

Moving forward

As we increase our understanding of Indigenous knowledge systems, we see that Indigenous people did develop a form of science, which is used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people today.
Students in Albury/Wodonga learning about Indigenous astronomy through the Charcoal Nights initiative. Murray Arts
Traditional fire practices are used across the country, bush medicines are being used to treat disease, and astronomical knowledge is revealing an intellectual complexity in Indigenous traditions that has gone largely unrecognised.
It is time we show our appreciation for Indigenous knowledge and celebrate the many ways we can all learn from this vast accumulation of traditional wisdom.

Duane is speaking at The Edges of Astronomy symposiumat the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra on December 4, 2014.