Astronomy

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, everything on the land is reflected in the sky.

The sky serves as a scientific textbook, a map, a law book, and a canvas on which complex layers of knowledge are interwoven, linked, and recorded for future generations. The Sun, Moon, and stars encapsulate narratives about social order, seasonal change, the behaviour of plants and animals, navigation, kinship, and spirituality.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have their own astronomers – people who carefully watch the positions of all the celestial objects to inform the community about food economics, ceremony, and travel. In the western Torres Strait, they are called Zugubau Mabaig, meaning “Star Man”. These astronomers carefully observe the positions and properties of the stars to inform a rich corpus of knowledge, a phrase many elders call “Reading the Stars”.

By working closely with scientists, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders are sharing their traditional knowledge. It is through oral tradition (story, song, dance) that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been able to pass down the collective, growing, and evolving wisdom and knowledge for thousands of years. This has revealed a wealth of information about the power of oral tradition, demonstrating oral histories can describe natural events dating back over 10,000 years, showing its resilience in the face of natural disasters, climate change, and ongoing colonisation.

Navigation, Star Maps, and Songlines

The Sun, Moon, and stars were – and still are – used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to guide long distance journeys, map the landscape, and link stories, people, and Law through complex routes that criss-cross the country. From following navigational stars, to using constellations as clocks, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples utilise a range of techniques to navigate across the land and sea, and to map these journeys in the stars to future generations will be able to travel long distances for trade and ceremony. Some of these Aboriginal star maps formed the basis of towns and highway networks across the country, particularly in southeastern Queensland.

Seasons and Weather

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use the positions of the Sun and stars throughout the year to denote time and seasonal change. Where the Sun sets relative to the landscape notes the gradual shifting between the wet and dry seasons, while stone arrangements (like the one near Wurdi Youang in Victoria) track the setting Sun at the solstices and equinoxes throughout the year. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples read the subtle ways the stars twinkle to predict weather and observe moon haloes to predict coming rain. Elders even observe the orientations of crescent Moon cusps to predict seasonal change.

Animal and Plant Behaviour

The rising and setting of particular stars at dusk and dawn are closely linked to narratives about the behaviour of animals, and the availability of plants. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples observe the positions of the stars to inform breeding, fledging, birthing, and migration patterns of various animals, as well as flowering plants and food courses.  This includes Kamilaroi traditions about the dark-constellation of the celestial emu informing the time to collect eggs, Boorong traditions about the nesting behaviour of the Mallee Fowl and the position of its stellar counterpart (Vega), and the Torres Strait shark (Beizam) in the northern sky (Ursa Major) signalling the animal’s breeding behaviour and the coming wet season.

Law and Social Order

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the stars and sky serve as a Law book for ensuring social cohesion and social behaviour. The stars embody Lore that tells the people about acts of heroism, such as the brother who appeared in the sky as a new star for giving his life to save his younger brother in Yolngu traditions; behaviours that are not acceptable – such as traditions about the man in Orion harassing the girls of the Pleiades in Western Desert traditions; and punishments for breaking sacred Law, including the destruction caused by the fall of the Henbury meteorites in the Central Desert 4,500 years ago.

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.