Science

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ detailed knowledge of Sky Country – an understanding that goes from the ancient to the modern cosmos – is finding international recognition.

By Karlie Noon.

How Indigenous astronomy is changing science

A section of a 65-shot panorama showing the summer Milky Way over The Pinnacles Desert between Geraldton and Perth in Western Australia.
A section of a 65-shot panorama showing the summer Milky Way over The Pinnacles Desert between Geraldton and Perth in Western Australia.
Credit: Flickr / Trevor Dobson

For forever, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have danced, sung, painted and celebrated their understandings of the cosmos. Each song, dance and story is full of observations and theories, woven together by law, lore and the nature of Country.

For an oral culture with a deeply and intrinsically interconnected knowledge structure, the skies are a melting pot and reference point for much information. Dark, night skies are the stage upon which stories unfold.

Important changes are happening all around us constantly, in the atmosphere, in animal behaviour, in the orbits or appearances of celestial objects, in many other environmental conditions that offer great insight into how to live holistically and sustainably with the land, waters and skies. With a keen eye for cycles, patterns and relational information – that is, how things relate to one another – Indigenous knowledge systems are holistic in nature.

For Indigenous peoples, astronomical knowledge has a variety of practical applications to assist in living under such vast skies. Monitoring seasons or the time of day, predicting the weather, navigating across land and water, hunting and timekeeping over long, unfathomable periods of time are some of the ways that Indigenous peoples use Sky Country.

Because of the multifaceted nature of sky knowledge, astronomical knowledge has generally been a key feature in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and culture, with much knowledge known and shared by most. For example, in Gamilaraay traditions, the Pleiades – also known as Miyay-Miyay – are known as a group of sisters. They are ice maidens who touch the ground as they dip below the horizon after sunset, bringing winter and frost with them. This specific piece of knowledge assists the Gamilaraay in tracking the winter months, by monitoring the position of the Pleiades cluster.

Conversely, some knowledge is the responsibility of individual community members, where it can be their job to store and protect elements of a much bigger picture. This can be done based on expertise, if a member of the community is particularly knowledgeable in one area, or can be determined by moiety, also known as Indigenous kinship groups, which are a way to divide a large community into smaller groups. Kinship groups are also a way to distribute knowledge throughout the community, with each group being responsible for their own part of the sky.

In some instances, knowledge can be spread across several nations, with different elements existing in different languages. The Seven Sisters Songline is a beautiful example of this, and it has many variations and traverses across many nations, each segment providing information on how to also traverse across Countries.

Some knowledge may also be age or gender-specific. For example, the Moon – who is usually a man – is very often related to women in some way. The moon has a cycle of about 29.5 days, like that of the female fertility cycle of roughly 28 days. However, despite this link, for many groups, it is forbidden for women to look directly at the moon for fear it will make them infertile. As such, monitoring the Moon-Man and his cycles can often fall to the men in the group.

Indigenous peoples and communities possess world-class techniques to support the reading of Country, but also recording changes in both the land and Sky Country. Traditional and contemporary Indigenous knowledge systems are the result of adapting and evolving practices, encapsulating how people and communities have navigated the ever-changing landscapes and environments through drastic climate change, ice ages, sea-level rises, food insecurities, droughts, resource extinction and of course colonisation. As such, these knowledge systems are both ancient and new. Records of supernova, shifting objects such as stars or planets, even the shifting of the whole sky over thousands of years, have been documented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, making up the oldest continuous astronomical data sets known in human history.

Historically, early settler records and non-Indigenous scholars have dominated how Indigenous peoples are known, spoken about and studied. However, many of these records took on a dire view of Indigenous peoples, which heavily impacted what was observed and how it was interpreted. As such, it is only recently that the true depth and complexity of Indigenous astronomical knowledges have been revealed to the rest of the world, with many knowledge holders leading the way, sharing their view of the cosmoscape. By working with the original custodians, we begin to understand the thousands of ways in which the land connects to the sky and how life down here on the land relates to the unfurling celestial dance taking place above.

With the emergence of Indigenous peoples’ sophisticated understanding of Sky Country on the international stage, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are becoming internationally recognised and celebrated as the original astronomers. The Southern Cross constellation is arguably one of the most well-known constellations in the world, and it is one of the most easily identified features in the southern sky. It is an important feature of Sky Country because it is circumpolar, meaning it is positioned close to the south celestial pole, where it can be seen all year round, never dipping below the horizon. Even in metropolitan Melbourne or Sydney, with their less-than-ideal observing conditions, the Southern Cross is visible, hanging above as an eternally present guide for night-time navigation.

In 2018, the fifth star of the famous constellation became globally recognised by the International Astronomical Union by the name “Ginan”, a name provided by the Wardaman language group of the Northern Territory.  Wardaman traditional owner Uncle Bill Yidumduma Harney describes the importance of Ginan, observed by the Wardaman peoples to represent a dillybag filled with songs of knowledge, informing the community on matters relating to ceremonial initiation.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have observed, documented, explained and known Sky Country. It has served and informed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about how to live with the land, as opposed to on it, sustainably, relationally and auspiciously for thousands of generations. The fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have vastly different cultures, knowledge and knowledge systems than those of the Western world is well worth acknowledging and celebrating. The interconnected nature of Indigenous sky knowledges means that these systems are contextually relevant to natural cycles in the lands upon which Australia exists, and for the nation and the world to engage with this knowledge will inevitably lead to more environmentally aware, sustainably driven communities.

Interactions between the innovative technologies of the West and the holistic, adaptable, sustainably focused world view held by Indigenous peoples offer a way forward through the chaotic times of climate change, light pollution and environmental degradation in which we find ourselves. 

First Knowledges: Astronomy Sky Country by Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli is co-published by Thames & Hudson and the National Museum of Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Under vast skies".

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Karlie Noon is a Gamilaraay astronomer and science communicator.

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