Legends of the Stars: Aborigine Astronomy

To see and understand the law.

This the central theme of Aborigines, the natives of the Australian continent. Aborigines abide by a cosmological understanding of the universe that is deeply tied to legends of ancestral beings of the Dreaming. Their lives center on understanding and respecting these forces, persisting through the tradition of passing down knowledge from generation to generation through various forms of art and storytelling in efforts to ensure future generations understand and preserve the laws of the land. The cosmological and ecological traditions of Aborigines still thrive in select regions throughout the continent, and their spiritual experience with nature is something more cultures should understand for themselves, especially since most of the industrialized world remains largely disconnected and unconcerned with the natural world.

All modern humans are descendants of wanderers who traveled by the stars. According to Australian Geographic, recent DNA genome sequencing confirms that Australia’s Aboriginals were the first modern humans to wander from their modern human family in Africa over 75,000 years ago, at least 24,000 years before a similar wave of migrators journeyed into Europe and Asia. Many experts believe that the Aboriginal tribes of Australia remain the oldest surviving culture on Earth, and many refer to them as the planet’s first astronomers as well. They most likely used their understanding of the night sky as a calendar and navigational guide on their journey to new worlds, and their early isolation from other modern humans created the conditions for a unique cosmological culture to cultivate and persist the test of time. Curiously, many civilizations have risen and collapsed over the past few millennia, but the tribal way of life which ebbs and flows with forces of nature remains constant on such timescales.

While many civilizations no longer exist, the culture of Aboriginal Australia has stood the test of time. This is significant because while empires rise and fall, tribal cultures can strongly persevere for thousands of generations. The well-preserved legends of Aborigines explain that the land and the heavens were created by ancient ancestral beings in a distant epoch known as the Dreamtime, which goes something like this:

In the beginning of time, ancestral spirits created the land below and the heavens above in the time of the Dream. The spirits shared their songs and stories about the Dream, teaching us how to preserve the natural world and survive with the land. Even today, signs of our creative ancestors can be found in the natural cycle of events on the land, in the sea, and in the heavens. We are direct descendants of this time through our common ancestors, and this knowledge is passed on to every successive generation by birthright to preserve our land and culture.

Their spiritual beliefs echo a deep ecological perspective once shared by wanderers across the planet, a perspective still understood by many tribes and the scientifically literate population of the western world, yet somehow lost to the rest of modern civilization.

Modern science can unlock nature’s long-hidden secrets, but for thousands of generations, wandering people like the Aborigines were the ones attempting to understand the mysteries surrounding the natural world. The official website of Australia’s government explains that in Aborigine culture, the Dreaming translates to Tjukurrpa, meaning “to see and understand the law.” Over thousands of years, their wandering ancestors tediously accomplished this task. Meticulously, they observed the natural world over the span of generations, developing a fluid understanding of the starry skies and the cycles of nature, eventually creating a calendar based on their observations which divides into six separate seasons. This cosmic calendar directly coordinates with certain celestial features and events in the night sky, and they understand the relationships between these features and the cycles of nature on Earth. Although a cosmic calendar is not unique to any particular culture, the culture surrounding the Aborigine calendar is notably ancient.

Humans possess a talent for pattern recognition, arguably one of the best evolutionary tools in the species’ survival kit. Take a look at the night sky, and this is apparent in the ability to find patterns in the stars which are not actually there. A joint-research paper titled “The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia” by Ray Norris and Duane Hamacher, an astronomer at the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility and a scholar of the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, outlines how the Aborigines developed an understanding of the night sky involving a variety of cosmic events, explaining how these astronomical understandings influences their cultures. Stories of ancestral spirits from the Dreamtime surround their cosmology and deeply connect to an ecological perspective concerning how the universe and life are both physically and spiritually dependent on each other. Their legends of celestial events are highly imaginative, yet genuinely awe-inspiring.

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Imagine taking a drive out on some remote country road to get away from the city lights. Once away from the glow of light pollution, look up, and the universe reveals itself. Stretching across the plane of our galactic home, the Milky Way, the Aborigines see the constellation known as the Emu in the Sky. According to Dreamtime legends, the Emu in the Sky was slain on Earth and cast into the heavens by an angry husband who lost his wife to the bird while she was out gathering the emu’s large eggs for a meal. Curiously, when this constellation reaches a particular point in the night sky, western Aborigine tribes know that the time of year to hunt for emu’s and their eggs has arrived. The traditional wisdom of native Australians allows the cycles of nature on Earth and in the sky to be used as a calendar, survival guide, and even a story arena for their cosmic legends about the Dream.

Stars seem static and everlasting on human timescales. As the seasons come and go, the stars predictively fix their positions in the sky. Occasionally though, ghostly apparitions appear in the night sky without warning, taking on different manifestations. Astronomers know these distinctive apparitions as meteors and comets. According to Norris and Hamacher, however, when Aborigines witnesses either of these occurrences, it is usually interpreted as a signal of bad omens in the near future. Meteors streaking through the sky are often associated with death and disease, while a comet is usually a sign of an imminent catastrophe. Astronomers know that from time to time, some of these stellar visitors actually fall from the sky, impacting the surface of the Earth. Surprisingly, indigenous tribes have many stories from the Dreamtime surrounding such event sites found throughout Australia. Although no direct correlation between their stories and these past impact events have been found, I’m left wondering how native tribes figured such impact sites were caused by some past cataclysmic impact event from the sky in the first place.

The Sun and the Moon are by far the most familiar celestials to Earthlings. As the planet rotates on its axis, both objects routinely appear in our sky. The Earth basks in the seemingly infinite power of the Sun’s light as the Moon’s gravitationally dances around the planet, creating the tides. Norris and Hamacher note in their paper that the Aborigines see the Sun as the embodiment of a female spirit while the Moon represents a male spirit, and they believe these celestials interact with each other through events known as eclipses to modern astronomers. When a lunar eclipse occurs, native legends suggest that the female spirit of the Sun has succeeded in her pursuit to reach the male spirit of the Moon. A solar eclipse suggests to the tribes that the Moon spirit is mating with the spirit of the Sun. The overall meaning and significance of such events varies throughout various Aborigine tribes, however, the capacity to romanticize the intimate relationships between natural events, even if they aren’t factually correct, most likely results in their shared appreciation of the natural environment they depend upon for survival.

Attaching earthly legends to constellations and other celestial events from the perspective on Earth is a way for humanity to understand their place in nature. In the introduction to Pale Blue Dot, astronomer Carl Sagan claims that this practice has most likely been with us since our wandering ancestors first left Africa, using their knowledge of the stars to navigate across the surface of the planet in search few new lands. According to Sagan, in many ways, humans have always been wanderers among the stars, for everything in the cosmos is in motion. Planet Earth protects life on this cosmic journey, and Aborigines believe that “the land is at the core of all spirituality,” and preserving the sacred relationship between humans, spirits, and the natural environment remains their top priority. Essentially, indigenous Australians see themselves as the protectors of a sacred land which occupies the heavens.

Aborigine cultures still endure simply because of the traditions their spiritual beliefs inspire. Just as their ancestors did for them in the past, each generation understands the importance of passing on their knowledge to their children so that the laws and land will be protected in the distant future. Australian native Tom Dystra explains he “was taught to preserve, never to destroy” the land his people depend upon for survival. Native tribes belong to a certain geographic region marked by geographical landmarks such as bodies of water or mountains, and each clan recognizes their responsibility to preserve and adapt to their land. Every native generations learns the ways of their ancestors and experiences a culture which has endured for thousands of years, all thanks to the arts and stories originally discovered and preserved by their distant, wandering ancestors.

The purpose of transmitting knowledge, whether traditional or scientific, is a significant part of any culture that strives to persist through time. Indigenous Australians continue to pass down knowledge to new generations so that the wisdom of the past can be expanded upon in the present moment. The scientific industrialization of the modern world works in a similar process, except passed down almost exclusively through generations of scientists. This is a problem, because many citizens of societies driven by science and technology are scientifically illiterate, remaining unaware of their stellar origins and the potential of their civilization. Just as the Aborigines have accomplished for thousands of years, as a global tribe, humanity must learn to adapt to changing times if our modern society is to thrive and persist the test of time.

Aborigine tribes still preserve an ancient ecological perspective passed down by their ancestors which deeply connects humans with nature, meanwhile, most of the industrialized world have severed their ties with the natural world. While Aborigines celebrate the Emu in the Sky, most Westerners cannot even attempt to find the constellation without taking a several hour drive away from urban light pollution for a clear view of our home galaxy. Indigenous Australians have long known what modern science confirms, that everything in creation is truly shaped by the laws and forces of nature. If more people understood this concept in one way or another, perhaps cultures from across the globe could finally collaborate in an effort to preserve our common planetary home once and for all.

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Ian McLeod currently lives in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. He is naturally curious about the world around him and enjoys long mountain hikes, creative culture, and all things science and science-fiction. He is currently pursuing a science degree at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.