Guest blog: Bucket List Astronomy Tour Class — Aboriginal astronomy

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Before Sam Houston State University’s Bucket List Astronomy Tour (BLAsT) Class left Australia after witnessing the transit of Venus, they learned a bit about Aboriginal astronomy. Theyvisited Macquarie University to learn about Aboriginal culture and the stars and myths they had long ago. The class also got to see a fascinating slideshow prepared by Duane Hamacher, a graduate student in archeoastronomy, shown by Bob Fuller of the North Sydney Astronomical Society. Here are some reflections by Brittany Crowson, who turned 18 the day the BLAsT Class returned home (June 8):

The BLAsT Class’ favorite Aboriginal night-sky tale involved “Tchingal” — the giant emu that eats people (the Coalsack dark nebula is the head with the beak while other dark clouds along the Milky Way to Scorpius represent the body). // photo still from 'When the Giant Fish Leaves the Sky, it is Time to Travel'
The lesson focused on cultural astronomy and the different types of astronomy that make it up. They are archeoastronomy, ethnoastronomy, historical astronomy, and geomythology. The people that were indigenous to Australia were both the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islanders, who arrived in Australia more than 50,000 years ago. At one point, there were more than 350 distinct language groups, but now there are only around 110 that are still viable. It was interesting to listen to the stories that went along with the different constellations and how each was used in the culture of the Aboriginals. One video we watched was called "When the Giant Fish Leaves the Sky, it is Time to Travel," by John Morieson and Alex Cherney, which was about the astronomy of the Boorong Clan. The video can be found here:

It really helps summarize the myths and shapes that the Aborigines saw to help them navigate their land and plan their years. We especially liked the giant man-eating emu (don't worry — it's dead now) and the acceptance of gender role reversal that the ancients had.

We saw pictures of petroglyphs the Aboriginals had for the phases of the Moon, and this reminded me a bit of V-Bar-V ranch in Arizona, where we also saw petroglyphs. They also had stone arrangements to record the cycles of the Sun, and these are going to be better dated later this year. It's possible that they might even predate the oldest known astronomically aligned structures, so that will be cool to see. This was really interesting to me to see the resourcefulness and the intelligence of these people that had none of the technology that we have today, but who had a great appreciation for the sky. They had a saying that "what is in the sky is on the Earth." This means more than just imaginary outlines of animals, and seems to show that the Aborigines were very wise.

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