The Landscape and Skyscape
The content below is taken from Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings. Astronomy & Geophysics, Vol. 52(4), pp. 4.12–4.16.
Australia has a rich heritage of Aboriginal representations of the cosmos which goes back more than 40 000 years. In that long period of time the Aboriginal people have built an astronomical knowledge system that pervades the social fabric of their society. Overall, the origin of the universe goes back to a time called “the Dreaming”, which Spencer and Gillen immortalized as the “dreamtime” or alcheringa of the Arunta or Aranda people of central Australia. This is a difficult concept for the modern mind. According to Stanner:
“A central meaning of the Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long ago when man and Nature came to be as they are; but neither time nor history as we understand them is involved in the meaning.”
The Dreaming is not only an ancient era of creation but continues even today in the social and spiritual lives of the Aboriginal people. All life, human, animal, bird and fish, is part of an ever transforming system that can be traced back to the Spirit Ancestors who go about the Earth in an eternal time called the Dreaming, as described by Charles Mountford. According to Ronald and Catherine Berndt:
“One of the characteristic features is that the mythic personages have magical and supernatural powers. They are able to change their shape, transform themselves, and perform remarkable feats that are beyond the ability of ordinary human beings.”
As these spirit people roamed across the Australian continent they made the mountains, the rivers, the sky and other features we see in the natural environment. The Aborigines believe that they themselves are co-creators of the universe they live in. While there are many different beliefs among the complex cultures under the Aboriginal umbrella, we present here some of those that shed light on this heritage of astronomical thinking.
In the caves in the Kimberley in northwest Australia there are spectacular examples of paintings of some of these spirit ancestors or sky heroes. They are the Wandjina figures — responsible for the creation of the universe, the stars, the people, the fauna and the flora. They were seen in 1838 by George Grey who had travelled by horseback into the Kimberley in the hope of discovering new pastoral country. Their most remarkable feature is the “halo” around their head and a mouthless face. Their silence informs us that they have nothing more to say about creation. The Wandjina paintings are not the only images that one finds in the caves. There are also images of Galaru who is associated with the rain and the sky, and Walanganda who is identified with the Milky Way.
“The Aboriginal people’s astronomical knowledge system pervades the social fabric of their society”
The Pleiades or Seven Sisters, which can be seen with the naked eye from dark locations in country Australia, have their own stories in Aboriginal social/cultural astronomy. They are associated with women’s secret business and thus some of the stories about them will never be made known widely by the Aboriginal custodians of these stories. The Pleiades are called by many different names in various Aboriginal communities. In central Australia Jula or Nirunja (the men in Orion) are always chasing the Seven Sisters. The only pictorial representation of the Seven Sisters we have is to be found in the wall painting in the southern cave at Owalinja, in South Australia. The first appearance of the Pleiades just before sunrise in May was taken to be the start of the New Year for the Aboriginal people. They also held elaborate ceremonies at this time to increase the number of dingo puppies, which when roasted were considered to be a great delicacy.
Wandjina figures, believed to be creators of the universe, depicted in cave paintings in northwest Australia. (JD Collection)
The Seven Sisters are also represented by geological features in central Australia: the huge rocks at Glen Helen in the western MacDonnell Ranges. The sisters are said to be running away from the men in the Orion constellation. Six sisters were transformed into a group of rocks on the side of Finke gorge while the elder sister was transformed into a spectacular outcrop of vertically bedded rocks at Glen Helen gorge, and from here she keeps watch of Nirunja’s (Orion’s) movements. Some of the stories about the men in Orion and the women in the Pleiades in central Australia are associated with violence. However, in the Aboriginal tales from northeast Australia the stories about Orion and the Pleiades are about domestic bliss and harmony.
The land and sky emu
In his well known book Yorro Yorro, Mowaljarlai, a Ngarinyin tribal Elder, explains in a succinct way how the Aboriginal people view their cosmos. According to him: “Everything under Creation is represented in the soil and in the stars. Everything has two witnesses, one on earth and one in the sky.” This is nowhere better illustrated than in an Aboriginal site in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park about 50 km north of Sydney. Long before the First Fleet arrived in Sydney in 1788, this site was used by the Aboriginal people for ceremonial and ritual purposes. Here on the tessellated rock surface is an engraving of a huge emu. It is about eight metres in length.
The emu has great spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people. This ancient engraving of an emu in the rock in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Sydney, is about 8 m long. It reflects the emu in the sky, traced out not by stars as European constellations are, but by the dark clouds of dust in the Milky Way. (© Barnaby Norris). The land and sky emu again, in art and on the ground.
From this site in times long ago the Aborigines would have seen the shape of the emu in the dark spaces of the Milky Way which stood over this site, echoing Mowaljarlai’s words about everything having two witnesses. This association of the land emu with the emu in the sky is well documented by Basedow
, who wrote a detailed description of how the Aboriginal people saw the shape of the emu in the dark spaces of the Milky Way stretching from the Coal Sack through various constellations such as the Southern Cross, Musca, Lupus, Norma, Ara and Scorpio. They referred to the emu by the name of Dangorra.
Most engravings on rock surfaces, including those at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, are of whales, fish, kangaroos, spirit ancestors or sky heroes such as Baime or Dharamulan, and other animals and objects. The emu in particular is of spiritual significance in many parts of Australia. The stories of the emu are widely spread across the continent and were transmitted from one group of Aboriginal people to another along the trade routes which zigzagged across the Australian continent in years gone by. According to Daisy Bates:
“In the dhoogoor or dream times of long ago, the emu constellation played a most important and sacred part in the curriculum of the young initiates of the kallaia dhoogoor waddi (emu totem men) of Central Australia … With every performance the sacredness of their symbol was enhanced.”
The Moon and constellations
We are told by 19th-century scholars that the Aboriginal numerical system was limited to one and two and when the numbers became large they devised a system of notches on a stick. This system has relevance to astronomy. In a paper written for the Transactions of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales, Krefft (1862—65), a curator at the Australian Museum, wrote: “At one time, when about fifty bags were in the store, I observed two natives trying to count them, but their numerals being limited to one and two, this became a rather difficult task; rangul means two, and meta one, so that rangul, rangul, meta is equivalent to five, and so on ad infinitum; of course, to count to fifty in this fashion was too much for them, so … they returned shortly after with a stick, into which they made a notch for every bag, keeping henceforth as good an account as the storeman.” This method of counting also found its way into other aspects of their society where it was necessary to count things.
“The emu is of spiritual significance in many parts and stories of the emu are spread across the continent”
About ten metres away from the engraving of the emu in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park are several small circular drilled holes and transverse grooves or lines engraved in the rock surface (figure 4). They appear to be artificially made. It has been suggested that these transverse grooves and circular holes may be of astronomical significance. Many Aboriginal rituals and ceremonies (or coroborees) take place at full Moon, so it was important to keep a count of the lunar phases. The transverse grooves at the locality may represent a tally of the phases of the Moon. In addition, the patterns of the circular holes on the polygon surfaces have associations with constellations that are of significance in Aboriginal social/cultural astronomy. In the polygons we find circular dots which seem to show the patterns of a number of constellations, such as Orion’s belt, the Southern Cross and the Triangulum Australe.
Drilled holes, also in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, may represent the belt of Orion, Triangulum Australae and the Southern Cross.
Orion, as mentioned earlier, has stories associated with the Pleiades and is of significance in some Aboriginal social culture. The Triangulum Australae, the Pointers and the Southern Cross are associated with Aboriginal family relationships and marriage traditions. Thus, the stars Alpha Trianguli and Beta Trianguli are the parents of Beta Centauri, while Alpha Crucis and Beta Crucis are the parents of Alpha Centauri. These relationships are significant as it is culturally important that marriages take place between the correct groups. The Southern Cross has many stories associated with it. In fishing communities the Southern Cross is seen as a stingray being chased by a shark (the Pointers). In other communities it is seen as the footprint of a wedge-tailed eagle or as Mirrabooka (a man who did good deeds on Earth), who when he died was placed in the sky by the Ancestor Spirits to look after his people.
Scattered on the beaches of north Australia one usually finds empty shells of the pearly nautilus (Nautilus pompilius). According to the Aboriginal people at Yirrkalla in Arnhem Land, Alinda, the Moon-man, becomes thinner and thinner daily and then he finally dies. Three days later he begins to grow again, becoming larger day by day until he reaches his full circular shape. They believe that the empty nautilus shell is the skeleton of the dead Moon.
At the head of Bantry Bay Reserve, in Middle Harbour in Sydney there is an engraving of a Moon-man. The engraving shows the Moon-man with a crescent Moon on top of his head. It is probably the only engraving of a Moon-man in Australia. As usual the site has several engravings of fish, human figures, shields, kangaroos and whales.
Aboriginal stone arrangements have been found in several localities around Australia. In general they include fish traps, monoliths, heaps of stones, circular patterns, linear arrays and elaborate structures. It has been suggested that some of these structures and patterns may have astronomical significance. For instance, Mountford notes that the square bases of the stone structures he found at Weroonee Range in South Australia had corners directed towards the four corners of the compass. However, he does not give us a reason as to why these were arranged in this manner. Furthermore, doubt was cast as to the stones having been arranged originally by the Aboriginal people. It was suggested that the structures were erected by early surveyors; because they were used as auxiliaries only, they were not marked on the official charts.
Another interesting and intriguing site was mentioned by John Morieson. This is the Wurdi Youang site in Victoria on land that traditionally belongs to the Wathaurong Aborigines. It may have been used for ceremonial purposes. The site consists of an egg-shaped oval arrangement of stones. The long axis, about 50 metres across, lies in an east—west orientation. The hundred-odd stones are of various sizes with three fairly large stones about a metre in height lying on the western end of the oval shape. Morieson has suggested that these stones indicate the setting positions of the Sun at the equinox (EQ) and the summer and winter solstices (SS and WS). At these times the rays of the Sun pass through the gap between the middle and the right stones.
While this is an interesting suggestion, Aboriginal Affairs Victoria notes that they do not know “much about the function of stone arrangements.” No record to date has been found in the anthropological literature about the significance of these stone arrangements. Ray Norris and colleagues surveyed the arrangement and demonstrated that it aligns to the setting Sun at the equinoxes and solstices.
Positions of the Sun at equinox (EQ) and the solstices (SS and WS) at the Wurdi Youang site in Victoria. (Redrawn with J Morieson).
In 1948 one of the biggest scientific expeditions was undertaken to Arnhem Land in north Australia. Called the American-Australian Scientific Expedition, its purpose was to study Aboriginal society before it disappeared under the onslaught of modern technology and an invading European civilization. It was believed at that time that the Aboriginal people were a dying race and that it was important to record the last tangible evidence of their culture and society. It was seen as the last frontier by the members of the expedition; the leader, Mountford, referred to Arnhem Land as still being in the Stone Age. The expedition was a great success. As well as collecting 13 500 plant specimens, 30 000 fish, 850 birds and 460 animals, the collection also included 2144 ethnographic artefacts, including 484 bark and paper paintings. The most important aspect of this huge collection from an astronomical point of view is the fact that 36 of these paintings are on astronomical subjects. They were collected from the communities at Groote Eylandt, Yirrkala, Milingimbi and Oenpelli. They form the single largest astronomical collection of ideas and concepts in Aboriginal astronomy before contact. Unfortunately, at the end of the expedition the collection (including the astronomical paintings) was dispersed to various museums and art galleries in Australia and the Smithsonian Institution in the US. The astronomical paintings have a collective story to tell, but this was not taken into account by the administrators who dispersed the paintings to the various institutions.
“Most Aboriginal people associate the Milky Way with a river in the sky where ancestor spirits live on fish and water lily bulbs represented by stars”
The paintings can be classified into the following categories: Sun and Moon, planets (Venus and Jupiter), constellations and clusters (Southern Cross, Scorpio, Orion and Pleiades) and galaxies (Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds). Each of these celestial objects has a story associated with it. A description of a few of these paintings will serve to illustrate the ideas and concepts in the astronomy of the Aboriginal people. To most Aboriginal people the Milky Way is associated with a river in the sky where the ancestor spirits live on the fish and water lily bulbs represented by the stars. The Magellanic Clouds are seen as the camps of an old man and a woman. The planet Venus plays an important role in the lives of the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land. To them Venus is known as the Morning Star or Barnumbir and is associated with death. Barnumbir held on a long string by two old women on the Island of the Dead (known as Purelko in Yirrkalla and Djiraia in Millingimbi) to ensure that he does not escape. Just before dawn he is let out of the bag so that he can visit the Aboriginal people and give them messages from the dead. The blossoms at the end of each branch in the painting are the localities visited by the Morning Star. At dawn the star (Barnumbir) is pulled back to the shore and kept in a bag during the day. The process is repeated the next morning. The Aboriginal people perform Morning Star ceremonies to ensure that the deceased travels safely to the Island of the Dead. In the performance of the ceremony the Aboriginal people use a large pole decorated with feathered strings and a ball or bunches of seagull feathers. The ball represents the Morning Star.
Venus (Barnumbir) in a bark painting in which Barnumbir is held on a string by two old women on the Island of the Dead. The blossoms at the end of each branch are the localities visited by the Morning Star. (State Library of South Australia and the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre)
Throughout Australia, Orion and the Pleiades have many stories associated with them — and it is not surprising that their story is represented in paintings. The Aboriginal people in Millingimbi classify the stars of Orion, the Hyades, the Pleiades and those between these constellations and others as belonging to the Aboriginal constellation Tjilulpuna. They also call this rather large constellation the “canoe stars”. The story associated with this constellation is about Aboriginal fishermen paddling in their canoe along the Milky Way to catch fish. The long paddles represent the stars of the constellations of Gemini and Eridanus. On one side of the boat are the three fishermen (stars in Orion’s belt) and the wives (Pleiades) are shown in the middle of the boat. The fish in the canoe represent the stars of the constellation Hyades.