• Milky way panorama in Kings Canyon,Northern Territory, Australia, 2015. (Moment R/Getty Images)Source: Moment R/Getty Images
A new generation of stargazers are exploring how their ancestors used the night sky to thrive and survive in the Australian landscape.
Melinda Boutkasaka

The Point
16 Aug 2018 - 4:59 PM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2018 - 4:59 PM

First Nations peoples have read skies for over 65,000 years, making them one of the world’s first astronomers.

This ancient science has been passed down from generation to generation, woven into Dreamtime stories.

When Wiradjuri woman Kirsten Banks, an astrophysicist with the Sydney Observatory, began studying astronomy at university she soon realised how much knowledge was contained in those stories.

"Astronomy for our ancestors was very integral to their lives. We needed it for finding food, for learning law [and] knowing how to direct yourselves at night time,” Ms Banks told The Point.

How Aboriginal traditions describe the complex motions of planets
The planets we can see in the sky were known to the ancient Greeks as 'wandering stars'. But they appeared much earlier in the stories and traditions of Australia's Indigenous people.

She's determined to validate Aboriginal astronomy as a legitimate science and has recently published research looking at the role of the planets in Aboriginal stories.

“We've actually found that you can navigate using the path of the planets in the sky because all the planets at the moment… appear to fall in a line called the ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the sky," she said.

“There's Wardaman tradition saying that the planets are the elders, the spirits, that walk the path forwards and backwards: that's retrograde motion.”

She is also studying how Aboriginal astronomy was used to guide what to eat and when.

"Our dark constellations come from within the Milky Way, so for example, my absolute favourite is Gugurmin the Celestial Emu," Ms Banks said.

"When we see this emu in the sky, it lets us know when is the right time to look for emu eggs based on what position it is in the sky. It's like a seasonal menu." 

Bundjulung man and storyteller Drew Roberts says reading the stars helped his ancestors survive.

“I come from a saltwater nation, so that means that we don’t actually eat fish predominantly from a river," he told The Point.

"So a certain tree will actually connect with a certain thing within the sky and tell me that the fish have actually come out of the river and gotten the black weed and the dirt out of them, so they no longer taste like mud."

Mr Roberts thinks Aboriginal astronomy can also be used to help the planet in the future.

“I was taught you are one grain of sand in the universe and you’re meant to have as much impact as any other grain of sand – minimal, or what the Australian government like to call sustainability, but our cultures have been practicing that for generations upon generations."

“You only take what you need and Mother Nature will provide it for you when she is ready."

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