The Australian Aborigines - The World's First Astronomers
Bill Gammage ends his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth with this challenging thought, “ We still have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.”
Professor Ray Norris in his presentation on Saturday August 29 at Parramatta Congregation Centre presented a picture of traditional Australian Aborigines, as people who did understand country from the point of both sky and earth and linked the two. From reading the sky, they knew what season it was and what food sources would be available on earth. Furthermore, they used the stars for purposes of navigation (songlines) and calendars.
Ray talked about the debt he owed to Aboriginal elders in Arnhem Land and South Eastern Australia. These elders taught him much about Aboriginal Astronomy. Most importantly that they found as much meaning in the dark patches in the sky as the Europeans found in the patterns of stars in the constellations.
From the Aboriginal stories he came to the conclusion that the traditional Aborigines had an extensive knowledge of the sky and its movements. Naturally, they explained what they observed according to their culture and myths. For example they used images such as the Emu in the Sky to explain a certain dark area and related the waning and waxing of the moon to the fate of the Moon Man who was attacked by his wives for his behavior, only to die and rise again and again. The early European astronomers, on the other hand, related what they observed using Greek mythology.
With wonderful images of rock paintings, sculptures and formations, Ray demonstrated how the Aborigines, used works of art to bring down to earth what they saw in the heavens. In this way, they depicted the eclipses of sun, moon and planets. To give an example, the People of North-West Arnhem land portrayed a solar eclipse, when the moon covers the sun, as a man covering a woman as he makes love to her. There is some evidence from rock formations at Wurdi Youang in Victoria, that early Aborigines measured the Equinox and Midwinter and Midsummer sunsets. Though the latter requires more research to be a proven fact.
From the point of view of land management, the Aborigines for thousand of years knew how to tend country. Using fire and the life cycle of native animals and plants, they were able to ensure plentiful wild life and plant food throughout the year and had successful healing remedies for many aliments. The early Europeans commented that the Australian landscape they encountered, looked like a park that evoked an English country estate, albeit it without fences, with the Aborigines walking around as landlords.
Throughout his presentation, Ray emphasised the intelligence, skill and inherited knowledge of Aboriginal Australians and highlighted the limited vision underlying myths of Aboriginal backwardness that obsessed the colonial mindset and the views of many academic anthropologists and ethnographers.
Being a scientist Ray hesitated to say beyond reasonable doubt that the Australian Aborigines were the World’s First Astronomers. He acknowledges it as a hypothesis, still in the process of being disproved or verified.
Participants at the gathering expressed appreciation of this scholarly and interesting presentation that opened us to the richness of Aboriginal astronomy and the depth of Aboriginal care for country. I think we all left with the sense that we still have much to learn from Aborigines about our country and have quite a distance to travel before we become truly Australian.
Professor Ray Norris is an astrophysicist at CSIRO Australia and an Adjunct Professor at Macquarie University Department of Indigenous Studies. Currently he is researching Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and the formation of the first galaxies in the universe.