Watch the Skies: Studying Space with Australia’s First Astronomers

Thursday January 26, 2017 Written by Chris

Aboriginal astronomy fuses 60,000 years of Indigenous knowledge with theoretical physics – and modern street maps. Chris Harrigan reports.

Aboriginal astronomy

Illustration: Ryan Presley

The Darkinjung people of NSW’s Central Coast tell a story about the universe where golden webs radiate from the stars, stretch across space and touch all of creation, from the moon in the sky to the people on the ground. Everything is connected, is the message: no matter how big or small, or how far away.

For Karlie Noon, a Kamilaroi woman from Tamworth who heard the story as a kid, the golden webs have always been a fact of life; she didn’t need science to prove they existed. But when she began studying physics at the University of Newcastle in 2011, that’s more or less what she got. “String theory is this concept – quite modern for physics – that says that there are these little strings that come out of everything,” Noon explains. “And all these strings interact with all the other little strings.” Everything is connected, in other words: whether by one-dimensional strings or cosmic webs just depends on your perspective.

It wasn’t always clear that Noon would end up at university, let alone majoring in physics. “I hated school,” she remembers. “My attendance was less than 50 per cent, and I ended up dropping out in year eight.” But, Noon says, she always loved maths. With tutoring from an Indigenous elder, she eventually completed year 12, then applied for university and got accepted to study philosophy.

Despite majoring in arts, Noon still ended up writing all her assignments on the two things she loved the most: numbers and space. “Growing up I just wanted to spend all my time outside looking at the stars,” she says. “But I didn’t know that space was its own thing that you could actually study.” In fact, Noon didn’t even know of physics as a discipline until she stumbled across Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. “That’s when I realised, ‘Oh, this is the study of everything, including space. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been interested in, so why don’t I study it?’”

Transferring into a bachelor of science, Noon began learning about things like string theory, and says she wasn’t particularly surprised to discover the concept correlated with her Indigenous beliefs. “I’d never questioned my views. [String theory] just filled in the gaps.” But as Noon’s studies progressed and she began looking into other topics such as astrophysics, she noticed more connections between the two knowledge systems.

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Space is often thought of as something that’s studied by men in white lab coats, who write stuffy papers about pulsars, quasars and other fantastical-sounding things you need expensive equipment to see. But this definition of astronomy overlooks much of the work that has been done in the field, and the people who have done it. Long before Galileo peered into a telescope, Australia’s Indigenous people were studying the night sky. They didn’t write stuffy papers about their observations, but they recorded them all the same – in stories, songs and dances they passed down through the generations.

Together, these oral traditions amount to some 60,000 years of accumulated knowledge on everything from solar eclipses to the southern lights. Talk to most academic astronomers, though, and they’ll tell you the scientific records in this country stretch back only 230 or so years, when white people arrived and started taking notes.

Thankfully, Noon says more scientists are beginning to understand the wealth of information the country’s first peoples have accumulated about space. It’s a realisation that Noon only recently came to herself: “That you could look at the way Indigenous cultures relate their life to astronomical objects or phenomena and examine it from a Western standpoint wasn’t something that had occurred to me.”

Duane Hamacher, an astronomer who now works at Monash University’s Indigenous Centre, was the man who changed her mind.

On the surface, Hamacher seems an odd spokesperson for what’s being called Aboriginal, or Indigenous, astronomy. “I’m a white American, of all people,” he admits. But his education – first in astrophysics, and then in anthropology and archaeology – makes him well-qualified to teach people like Noon about the increasingly popular field, which seeks to understand space by supplementing Western scientific methods with Indigenous knowledge.

“When we think of Indigenous culture,” the Missouri-born academic says, “we think of oral traditions: songs, dances, myths and legends.” But, he explains, these stories aren’t just fantasy. “They also contain all of the information that’s been passed down over tens of thousands of years, which includes information about the natural world.” Part of Hamacher’s job is to comb through these stories and look for elements that might refer to astronomical events.

“If you’ve got a story that talks about a bright star suddenly appearing in the sky,” he says, “that might give you a location to point your telescope to look for supernova remnants.” Or, if there’s a story about a giant fireball, that might help you pinpoint the location of new meteorite craters. Hamacher hasn’t found any new craters yet, though he has helped rewrite the history books on some of the ones we already knew about.

Aboriginal astronomy

“Around 4700 years ago,” Hamacher says, “a small asteroid broke apart and hit the Earth, creating about a dozen craters around 140 kilometres south of Alice Springs.” Geologists only identified the area, now known as the Henbury crater field, as a meteorite crater in 1931. “But if you look at the oral traditions of the Luritja people who come from that area,” Hamacher says, “they talk about fire-devils coming down from the sun, setting the land on fire and killing everybody. They had a very clear memory of this event that happened 4700 years ago.”

Meteorite craters aren’t the only thing Aboriginal astronomy is illuminating. One of Hamacher’s postgrad students, Robert Fuller, recently completed a project that might change the way non-Indigenous people think about something far more mundane: our road networks.

While visiting Goodooga, a town in northern New South Wales, Fuller met with a Euahlayi leader named Ghillar Michael Anderson. Anderson’s résumé is something to behold: a former Black Power leader, professional rugby league player and lawyer, he helped set up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, speared the Union Jack on the grounds of Buckingham Palace in 1999 and – as the leader of the Euahlayi People’s Republic, which declared independence from Australia in 2013 – continues to champion Aboriginal sovereignty today.

The purpose of Fuller’s visit, though, was to learn about the astronomical knowledge of the Euahlayi people – another subject Anderson can speak about at length. “I told Bob stories about dark matter and black holes,” Anderson says. “Stuff scientists are only just starting to find out about.” Then Anderson pointed to a constellation of stars in the sky, and explained that his people used them to navigate long distances every three years, to attend a nut festival in the Bunya Mountains in the summer. Fuller was puzzled: the stars weren’t in the direction that Anderson described, nor would they be visible during the summer. (Or while the sun was out, for that matter.)

That’s when it clicked: the Euahlayi didn’t use stars as compass points, but as memory aids. Each star in the constellation represented a feature in the landscape – usually a waterhole – where travellers would stop or change direction. To memorise these star maps, the Euahlayi sang songs, also known as songlines, that described the route.

Over time, these songlines became trading routes, and when early colonists arrived, they started using them, too. Eventually they turned into paths, and then roads, and now, thousands of years after they were conceived by looking up into the night sky, they became the highways that drivers in New South Wales and Queensland use every day.

“I think that comes as a bit of a shock to a lot of people,” Anderson says. “But as people look into it further, they’re going to realise that Aboriginal people have many stories that science is still yet to find out.” As to why it’s taken non-Indigenous Australians so long to make these connections, the answer is, unfortunately, the obvious one. “They never asked,” Anderson says. “They just saw us as Stone Age people with these very crass traditions that have no meaning. They don’t understand: that’s our library.”

Hamacher agrees: “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that Aboriginal people developed complex knowledge systems about the world around them,” he says. “But when you’re going to take their land, the colonist mindset is to look at them as somehow primitive. And that mentality can last a long time.”

For his part, Hamacher feels that Aboriginal astronomy can help to redress some of these wrongs. But, he says, non-Indigenous people shouldn’t think Aboriginal knowledge is simply theirs to go and use, or that it needs their validation. “There has to be collaboration and mutual benefit,” he says. “There’s an old saying in a lot of Aboriginal communities: ‘Here come the anthros.’ That refers to the seemingly never-ending stream of academics who’d come into an Aboriginal community, demand all this information, record it and leave. Then this person goes and makes their academic career off this knowledge.”

This is something Anderson feels strongly about too: “Aboriginal people get disappointed when they see their knowledge sitting in a book. Someone’s claiming authorship of it, but we’re not recognised as Masters or Doctors.” Hamacher, for his part, is keen to make sure he doesn’t repeat these mistakes in his own work. “Some of the elders I’ve worked with are actually going to be co-authors of the papers,” he says. “They’re not just in the acknowledgements: it’s their intellectual property.”

For former problem student Noon, the potential benefits of Indigenous astronomy are best expressed by kids. She recently started working with the CSIRO’s Indigenous education program, and has seen the effect of this research first-hand. “We hold a summer school with Indigenous kids, and a lot of the time they have the perception that there’s nothing to gain from being Aboriginal.” But once she explains the knowledge their people have about the universe, Noon says she notices a change. “By the end, they realise they’re not just the First People of this land: they’re a community that has all this knowledge, and they’re so proud to be Aboriginal. It’s a huge step for reconciliation.”

This article was first published in Smith Journal volume 20, with the title Watch the Skies. Buy a copy, find your closest stockist, or subscribe.