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  • Written by Dr Ragbir Bhathal Distinguished Teaching Fellow Western Sydney University

Most Australians have probably heard of ancient Greek, Muslim, Chinese, Indian and Inca astronomies. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomy usually draws a blank. Could a people who our great 19th century anthropologists and ethnologists had written off as belonging to the stone age have developed an astronomy of their own? Surprisingly they did although their astronomy was social cultural astronomy rather than that based on the hypothetico-deductive system of modern day astrophysicists which demands rigorous verification by scientific experiments.

Their astronomy remained social cultural astronomy because they had a truncated number system which did not feed into the Hindu-Muslim positional decimal number system which the scientific world inherited. According, to Cathy Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Corporation, “the Muslim mathematicians created the algebra that would enable the building of computers and the creation of encryption”. Their number system drives our scientific and engineering enterprise.

Nineteenth century anthropologists even told us that the Indigenous people were a dying race and so there was an urgency to record their lives, culture and stories. They left us with volumes of information. The Indigenous people became the most questioned, measured and prodded people in Australia. These scholars defined the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from their European perspective. Today, we are coming to terms with how Aboriginal scholars and lay Aboriginal people define themselves and an Australia stolen from under their feet. Hidden amongst the volumes of notes and other archival data we find a treasure trove of information about the astronomy of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is a fascinating story which in some cases generated a clash of cultures with mainstream Australia which had political ramifications on both sides of the divide.

Daisy Bates, a Commonwealth Aboriginal Protector who lived with them for well over 40 years of her life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote in her notes held in the archives of the National Library of Australia, “Many of the star groups which we call constellations were divided and named by the Aborigines thousands of centuries” ago. The Southern Cross which is known to every school girl and boy was “known to them as the Eagle’s foot”. It was first observed by the Europeans in the 16th century when Andrea Corsali, a Florentine traveller who sailed with the Portuguese expedition to Goa in India in 1515, described the group of stars as forming a cross. On European star maps it came to be called “crux”, “cross” or “crucero” – Cross of Jesus Christ. In the 20th century, the late Aboriginal poet and activist, Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal) described the Southern Cross from her perspective. She tells us that when she was growing up on Stradbroke Island the Southern Cross was known to her people as Mirrabooka a kind man who because he did good deeds was placed in the sky by Biami, the Good Sprit when he died so that he could look after his people. However, she noted that when the “white invaders came across the seas and stole their tribal lands … they renamed them the Southern Cross”. The Southern Cross is known by different names in many parts of Australia. For example ethnologist Charles Mountford who organised the American and Australian Expedition to Arnhem Land in the 1940s writes that the Southern Cross is seen as a sting ray being chased by the Pointers which represent a shark. Today, astrophysicists will tell you that the universe began with a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. In fact, the universe according to them was born out of “nothing”. To the Aboriginal people the universe and everything that went along with it came into existence during the Dreaming, a concept that is complex and difficult to understand by non-Aboriginal people. William Stanner, perhaps came close to unravelling the concept for non-Aboriginal people. According to him “A central meaning of the Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither ‘time’ nor ‘history’ as we understand them is involved in this meaning”. Their universe defers from that of astrophysicists. In their knowledge system the observer and the observed are the same entity. For astrophysicists, the observer and the observed belong to two different domains.

The Aboriginal people observed the night sky and made stories about the stars and constellations which they used to tell the seasons, when to conduct ceremonies and also as a book of morals. For example, the red star Aldebaran informs people of what happens to adulterers. According to Aborigines of the Clarence River region Karambal (Aldebaran) stole the wife of a person in his tribe and hid her in a tree. The aggrieved husband set the tree on fire. The flames carried Karambal into the heavens where he is easily visible as the red star. It serves as a constant reminder to anyone contemplating adultery.

Two instances where Aboriginal astronomy clashed with mainstream Australian politics and the legal system were illustrated by the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair and the challenge in the High Court by Mabo of the rights to his land. In the case of the Hindmarsh Island affair the constellation called the Seven Sisters played a key role. A group of Aboriginal women were opposed to the building of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge near Adelaide as they argued that building the bridge would impede the free movement of the Seven Sisters from the water to the sky and vice-versa. In their Dreamtime story the Seven Sisters went to the mountains and made springs of water to feed the rivers. Hindmarsh Island sits at the mouth of the Murray River where the fresh waters mingle with the salt waters before draining into the sea. For the Aboriginal women the waters were associated with secret women’s business and they argued that building the bridge would constitute desecration of a sacred place. Unfortunately, they lost their case in the High Court and the bridge was built. A later Royal Commission found in their favour. It was too late. However, it was a moral victory for their culture and their Seven Sisters. They marched through the streets of Adelaide holding up banners showing off their Seven Sisters and loudly proclaiming “Elders tell no lies”.

Eddie Mabo, from James Cook University in Townsville took on the might of the Australian legal system in the High Court of Australia. He and his legal team used the Stars of the Tagai (a huge constellation made up of the Southern Cross, Scorpio, Centaurus, Corvus, etc) and Malo’s law, a law of the land to win land rights for his people. His people had to claim that the land stolen from them belonged to them. In fact, they used one of the most profound laws in the history of physics and astrophysics which states that the laws on the land are similar to those in the heavens. On 3 June 1992, the Full Bench of the High Court recognised Meriam rights to the Murray Islands. Judge Brennan summarised rather succinctly the end of the torturous ten year trial which had caused so much anguish to the First Peoples of Australia thus: Australia’s common law had “made the indigenous inhabitants intruders in their own homes and mendicants for a place to live”. So ended the fiction of terra nullis, that had its genesis in Captain Cook’s observation of the Transit of Venus and ended with the Stars of the Tagai.


Dr Ragbir Bhathal is an astrophysicist and a Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Western Sydney University. He has published 15 books, 8 on astronomy. He is in the process of writing
The Endless Frontier: A review of recent and future developments in astronomy.



Private collection

The emu in the heavens and on the land.

The laws in the heavens are the same as those on the land and vice-versa.