For 50,000 years, Australia’s First Peoples have traveled long distances using star maps in the night sky. But how do these Aboriginal dreaming tracks work, and why do we call their oral transmission, “songlines”?
Did you know that the ancient songlines telling the story of the Australian landscape are still alive today? In fact, many of the routes embedded in these songlines have turned into tracks and highways forming the modern Australian road network.
One example, is the famous route across the flat, arid, almost treeless Nullarbor Plain in Southern Australia, linking Adelaide with Perth. Another, the rugged highway through Western Australia’s sparsely settled Kimberley region, leading to Darwin.
The songlines mapping these tracks have been passed on orally for thousands of years, from elder to elder. But how do they work in practice, and how can the directions described in the songlines be so precise, baffling us until today?
Robert Fuller is a PHD student who studies Indigenous cultural astronomy at the University of New South Wales. He explains:
“So if you think of a list of maybe six stars in a row, each of those stars is a point along the landscape on their trip and that point is something that they have to remember. So the person teaching is using those stars point by point to teach the person okay, your first stop is this water hole, and then the next star is the river you go to, and maybe the next star is the mountain. So it’s a memory aid, not so much a navigation aid.”
Fuller has researched the astronomical knowledge of the Euahlayi and Kamilaroi Aboriginal peoples of northwest NSW. He says they used the songlines to cover hundreds of kilometres, to attend ceremonies and trade precious goods and songs:
“They used to go to a place up near Quilpie from Goodooga, which is near the Lightning Ridge, and meet another group of Aboriginal people from the central desert area, north of Alice Springs. Those people would have traveled maybe 1500 km to meet the Euahlayi people for a ceremony and of course they must have used a similar method to teach people how to travel that long distance.”
So next time, when you’re driving on a major road out in the country, on a sealed road, in the comfort of your GPS-equipped car, spare a thought for Australia's First Peoples who found their way too, guided by little more than the stars and combined wisdom of their ancestors.