• Richard Dimon's photograph 'Eucalypt Galaxy' won the best image at the Ecological Society of Australia's photography competition. (Richard Dimon)Source: Richard Dimon
The Summer solstice, balmy evenings and starry nights make it the perfect time to learn more about our universe and the long history of Indigenous people using the skies to their advantage.
By
Karina Marlow

21 Dec 2016 - 5:12 PM  UPDATED 12 Dec 2017 - 1:14 PM

Astronomer Dr Duane Hamacher, who completed his PhD in Indigenous astronomical knowledge, says that learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomy is great for kids to understand how it can practically applied.

“The dynamics of galaxies and planetary motion is all well and good but Indigenous people used the skies to tell time, as calendars and to find ways to travel by the sun, moon and stars.”

Dr Hamacher is in the process of working on a book and website for curious amateur astronomers who want to learn more about Aboriginal Astronomy, and currently maintains an active blog.

Growing up in rural Missouri in the US sparked his passion for astronomy,

“I was a bit of a nerdy kid and I lived in the country so I just walked outside to see the stars, but the stars here are even better than that,” Dr Hamacher told NITV. 

His advice for budding astronomers is to stay away from cheap department store telescopes, as they often have a narrow field of view, and invest in a decent pair of binoculars - it's the best way to see the night sky on a budget.

 

Tips for astronomy

The best places to star-gaze are outside of the light pollution of Australia’s major towns and cities where the skies are more clear and the stars will seem brighter.

However, if you're based in a major city you won’t miss out entirely, as most cities have observatories which allow you to view the night sky with powerful telescopes and planetariums which let you gaze up at a simulated sky of stars. Click here for a list.

Be prepared when you go star-gazing by checking the weather, as a cloudy night will spoil your chances of seeing any stars. It’s also helpful to look at how full the moon is and the time that the moon rises, as a bright moon will obscure your view of the stars.

When gazing, your eyes might also take a little while to adjust (usually between five and thirty minutes) to the darkness so simply set up and relax as more and more stars will come into view.

Some key things to bring are a set of binoculars or a good telescope, a compass to help orient yourself in the night sky (or just use the one on your phone), a star chart for the month you are star-gazing, a good camera and tripod if you want to take some shots of the moon or star trails (and don’t forget the drinks and snacks!).

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences has a monthly star chart and audio podcast to let you know what to look out for in the sky. This month both Mars and Venus will be visible with the Milky Way appearing low in the Southern sky. 

There are also many great astronomy apps available for download including Google’s Sky Map. 

 

Summer solstice

Today, the 22nd of December, marks the summer solstice. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year with an equinox occurring roughly halfway between the summer solstice and the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) when the day and night are of equal length.

Both the equinoxes and solstices help to mark out the seasons of the year in many cultures, with the equinoxes marking out autumn and spring.

It is believed that Aboriginal people tracked the equinoxes and solstices with arrangements of stones such as Wurdi Youang near Little River, Victoria.

 

Sun and moon

Many Indigenous nations have Dreaming stories about the creation of the sun and the moon with the sun depicted as a female and the moon as a male. These stories often explain different aspects of their celestial movement including the rising and setting of the sun and the waxing and waning of the moon.

The Yolngu tradition, for example, refers to a woman Walu, the Sun, who lit a small fire in the morning (the dawn) and decorated herself with ochre, spilling some across the clouds to form a sunrise. She lit a torch and carried it across the sky from east to west to light the day. As she finished her journey her ochre began to rub-off creating a sunset. Finally, she put out her torch and traveled underground to reach her camp in the east to sleep before repeating the cycle again.

This story suggests that our people may have had an understanding that the earth was round through the correlation between the word for day and idea of the earth turning.

School kids teach themselves Noongar astronomy through self-published book
A small primary school in Perth is using the oldest stories from the Noongar people to teach year 2 students the wonders of the Universe.
Ancient 'Moon Rock' engravings protected as proof of Aboriginal astronomy
A collection of Aboriginal rock engravings known as ‘Moon Rock’ has been given the NSW Government's highest heritage protection to preserve the site for the benefit of all Australians.

The Dreaming story of the moon follows the man Ngalindi, who was once young and thin before he became fat (the waxing of the moon). His wives then chipped away at him with their axes (the waning moon) before he tried to escaped but died of his wounds (the new moon).

The Yolgnu people also identified that the moon played a role in the tides with the water of the tide thought to fill the moon at a full moon and new moon. The tide then drained away for the crescent moons to appear in between.

 

Star-gazing

Western Sydney University astrophysicist, Dr Ragbir Bhathal uses Indigenous astronomy to teach his students about physics.

He says there are many examples of how Indigenous people used the constellations of the stars in their everyday life.

"They used the stars for telling them the seasonal supply of food, when to plant and how the crop is, and for transmitting the morals of their society.”

“The star cluster, called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters informed the people in the Western Desert region that the annual dingo season was starting. And so they would descend to where the dingo stays and then catch their little pups and have a good feast. On the Torres Strait Islands the appearance of the stars the Tagai told them that it was time to start preparing the land for planting."

He also explained that the Milky Way was associated with a river filled with fish and that many nations had stories that explained the different colours of the stars.

Another well-known constellation is that of the ‘Emu in the sky’ created by dark clouds of dust and gas called nebulae that you can see against the bright outline of the Milky Way. The Guringai people of northern Sydney have extensive rock engravings of this emu depicting the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife.

How astronomy paved the way for terra nullius, and helped to get rid of it too
Many Australians might not realise it, but astronomy and physics have had a profound influence on the history of Australia and its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.