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22 August 2009
Australia's first astronomers

Aboriginal people have been described as 'the world's first astronomers'. The Yolngu people in Arnhem Land, for example, have dreaming stories that explain tides, eclipses, the rising and setting sun and moon and the changing positions of rising stars and planets throughout the year.
     CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris has been gathering and listening to Aboriginal stories about the night sky across the country. Surprisingly, these stories are very similar to Greek mythology. "It's that sort of thing that fascinates me, the way that different cultures arrive at the same conclusions," says Norris.
     A celestial serpent Aboriginal dreaming stories may help locate astronomical events - in time and in space - says Duane Hamacher, a PhD student from Macquarie University. Hamacher is gathering Aboriginal stories of comets and meteors - often described as the glowing eye of a celestial serpent flying across the sky - and seeing whether he can use them in conjunction with Google maps to locate the site of previously undiscovered impact craters. He has found a story about 'a star falling from the sky and causing fire, death and destruction' from a place about 100 kilometres outside of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory which seems to correspond with a large, circular structure he has found on Google maps. "I've got my fingers crossed. When we look at it, it's heavily eroded, which suggests it's millions of years old, but still, if we were able to find an impact crater based on a dreaming story, then that's quite significant."
     Aboriginal people would have had a very practical reason for their interest in astronomy: the sky is a calendar that indicates when the seasons are shifting and when certain foods are available, says Roslynn Haynes, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales and author of Explorers of the Southern Sky, a history of Australian astronomy. "Constellations appearing in the sky, usually at sunrise or sunset, were very important. They helped [Aboriginal people] predict what was happening in the world around them," says Haynes. While the night sky had a very practical use for Aboriginal people, it was also valuable spiritually, as a means of reinforcing culture and community, added Haynes. "[Objects in the sky] had stories attached to them to do with the values and morality of the community. So when constellations appeared, the stories were told and those lessons would be ingrained in the younger people."
     Much of the richness of the Aboriginal night sky has already disappeared, says Norris. "Some cultures have been so badly destroyed that it's impossible to see what's left, and you just have fragments." Meanwhile, researchers are turning to journals and papers of early white Australians, such as explorers, missionaries and early anthropologists, as well as archaeological sites, to unearth long-forgotten records of Aboriginal astronomy. For example, Norris and Hamacher are recording information from a rock site near Geelong in Victoria that seems to line up with the summer and winter solstices.

Source: ABC.net.au (August 2009)

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