Cultural Impacts of Astronomy: Astronomy Of Indigenous Australia – LEAP Links Video Conference

By | December 3, 2019

I’m going to tell you about Indigenous astronomy and navigation this morning. First of all I’m going to tell you a bit about myself.
So, my day job is to do research on astronomy, so I do things like understand how black holes get into the galaxy, and what they do to the galaxy and things like that. What I’m really interested in as well as my astrophysics, is how different cultures get involved in
astronomy, how they use astronomy, and it turns out that Indigenous people in Australia have been doing an awful lot of astronomy for fifty thousand years or so.
So let me start by giving you an example. This guy here on this slide is a guy called
Bill Yidumduma Harney and he is the Senior Elder of the Wardaman people in the Northern Territory. Now, Bill and I are actually great mates, we do a lot of work together, we actually did a stage show together, and you might think, you probably guess from my accent already I am a Pom, I grew up in the suburbs of London, Bill grew up in the bush and went through initiation processes and all this stuff. You think, “Well, how does a Pom and an Aboriginal Elder get to be good mates?”, and the reason is that we’re both mad on the sky, we both love the
sky, and we love it in different ways, but we exchange our stories. So I tell Bill my stories about black holes and electron jets and how galaxies form and the Big Bang and all that stuff and Bill tells me stories like this: So, in the Wardaman peoples’ culture,
when they die they believe that spirits go up to the sky. Now, they just don’t go up any old how, they go up, and you can see the screen behind this, there is a star there on the right called, well, as an astronomer I would call it Vega, and Bill calls it Jalala, and he says it is not really
a star, so it’s a tunnel, it’s a wormhole or porthole, portal, and our spirits go up and through that portal and then into the Milky Way. And, they spend ages up in the Milky Way going through ceremonies and things, re-purifying them, getting them ready for the next life. And when they are ready they come back down to earth again, as shooting stars. So if you haven’t seen a shooting star they’re really easy to see, you just go out, you have got to find somewhere really dark like in the bush, and just look up at the sky and you will see this thing go “peeew”, and they’re bits of rock falling through the atmosphere.
So in Bill’s culture he believes these are spirit to come back to Earth, and when they come back to Earth, your spirit when you come back to Earth, you land on the ground, you
make your way to a creek. Now while you are up in the sky, up in the Milky Way you had
a couple of other guys looking after you, there’s the star I call Altair, Bill calls
it Bulyan, the “Wedge Tail Eagle”, and that’s like, the top guy, he is the master of ceremonies.
And the star I call Arcturus, Bill calls Munin, and he says that it’s a big rock
cod living in the sky. And that’s like your mentor, the guy who’s looking after you. When you come back down to Earth you land in the creek and the big rock cods on Earth
look after you, and they feed you algae and you’re all going, “Yuck! Why would I want to
eat algae?” Well I didn’t write this, right? I mean, I would make it chocolates or something,
but in the Wardaman tradition it’s algae. Anyway, you stay in the creek for a while and you
wait for your mother to come past and when you recognize your mother, you jump up into
her and you become reborn and so it’s reincarnation. That is the Wardaman life-cycle. So a very
beautiful story, and we find lots of stories like that right across Australia.
Now, across Australia there is not just one Aboriginal culture, there’s about three or four
hundred different cultures, I’ve got a map here, the names of some of the people I’ll be talking
about in the next half an hour, Bill is up there in the Wardaman people, up near Katherine. So all these different groups they have all got different
stories. I am going to go to one right up near the top there in a place called Arnhem Land, East of
Darwin, and a little community called Dhalinbuy. You might wonder what an aboriginal community
looks like if you don’t live in one. We hear an awful lot on the news about problems
in Aboriginal communities and it’s really nice to know that there’s aboriginal communities
like Dhalinbuy here which don’t have those problems, and of course they don’t get on the news
because they don’t have problems, and the kids here, you can see they are happy and well fed and they
go to school every day. There’s a couple of teachers come in, this is about three hundred
kilometres from the nearest road, so it’s a pretty remote community, they have a school
there where all the kids go to school there and some of their lessons are in English, which
they are learning as a second language, and some of their lessons are in their first language,
which is Yolngu, which is the language spoken by people up there. And they have wise and
careful elders who are trying to find the right direction for their community, they
are a beautiful community. Anyway, so, let’s go to a couple of stories that the
Yolngu people might tell us about. So, one of them is called, “The Emu in the Sky”. So if
you look at that picture in front of you, what you’ve got is the Milky Way, so you look up in the
sky and, right now it is a little bit early, in a couple of months time, in the
evening, you look up, if you are out in the bush you have got to get away from the street-lights,
and you see this beautiful Milky Way going across the sky above you. And you will
see in it, it’s got those dark clouds and those dark clouds are caused by dust in our galaxy
where a new star is being born. Now, just to orient you, on the right, there, the top right is the Southern Cross. So if you go out this evening, if you look down roughly in the south you will the southern cross there, the Southern Cross is roughly in the south of the sky. And if you are out in the bush if you look carefully, you will see next to the Southern Cross is
that dark cloud, I will just take those dots away so that you can see it: see that dark,
black bit, just below the Southern Cross, up on the right, okay? There’s the Southern Cross up
on the top right, and just below it is that dark bit, just next to those two stars. And that is the head of the emu. Can you see? If you look carefully, you can see that the head of the emu has got
a beak sticking out to the right, then following down to the left you have got the neck, all those
dark clouds, remember you are looking at the clouds not the stars, the dark spaces, this constellation
is made with the dark spaces and that goes in to a sort of round bit, that is the body of
the emu, and the legs go off to the left. I’ll just draw it on, if you haven’t seen it
yet, that is what it looks like. Okay? So let me just go back to that picture – can you see the emu? Now, if you go out into the bush – you gotta get away from the street lights – if you look up in the sky you will see this emu stretching across the sky and you go out
there and you will be looking for this, “Where is this thing that the bloke Norris was talking
about?” and you will be looking around, and you see the Southern Cross, you see, and suddenly you realize the emu is not the little thing you are looking for, it is the thing that going right
across the sky, it’s absolutely enormous, it stretches right across the sky, it is the
most fantastic sight and if you haven’t seen it I really recommend you go out one
day, do it in a couple of months’ time, like May and that is the best time to see it on
really dark evening. Okay. So the emu is a really important constellation, it’s right across
Australia and it’s to do with all sorts of things like initiation, things like, there’s lots of stories, every group has got a different story about it. So, around Sydney we have a lot of things like
rock engravings, you can see there, there’s a man on the right and there is a wallaby and its
baby on the left. We find these rock carvings all around Sydney, there’s thousands of
them, and these were made by Aboriginal people hundreds or thousands of years ago. And up
in Ku-ring-gai National Park just north of Sydney is the engraving on the, which you
can’t see very well on this picture on the bottom, you can just see there is an engraving,
there is a picture of the emu, and it’s an emu on its side. You will see it better in
a second, but the interesting thing is that – there you go, see the outline there – is that
real emus don’t really look like that. Real emus… Real emus look like that, they never have their
legs behind them, but the emu in this sky does have its legs behind and we think that is
actually a picture of the emu in the sky. So Aboriginal people didn’t just talk about
these constellations they also drew them in the ground, and in fact this particular site,
any of you who live around the Sydney area you should go up there, it’s fantastic, it’s the Elvina track, when you go up to the West Head, towards West Head, it is the first
track on your right, it’s called the Alvina Track, you go along there and you find all
these beautiful Aboriginal engravings. Now, I was a little bit sceptical when I first heard about this, I went, “Well, you know, okay, it could be”, but the thing that really got me
is that actually the emu in this picture here, you see the emu in the sky above, and the emu
on the ground, and this is just how it looks in late Autumn, and that is when the real
life emus lay their eggs, and that is a really important food source for the local people. So, it’s circumstantial evidence but it sort of hangs together. Okay, let’s go to another constellation. So, like, Orion. So the reason it’s called Orion, you’ll see it actually in a moment, it’s sort of near the moon right now, it’s up in the sky
in the evening, and the thing that’s most obvious is those three stars in a line. So look
at the moon, look near the moon, and you will see a line of three bright stars and that is
the belt of Orion, and the reason we call it Orion is because it’s from Greek mythology
and there is this hunter who is a Greek hunter and those three stars are supposed to be his
belts, and the Orion nebula is his sword and the other stars are his arms and legs and
so on. But you need a pretty good imagination to turn that pattern of stars into a Greek
hunter. There is also something really wrong about this picture; and I don’t know whether
anybody can see it but Orion is upside down in the Southern hemisphere in Australia. So
in fact you are not even trying to turn that pattern of stars into a hunter, you’re trying
to turn into an upside down Greek hunter, you know? It’s not the thing that obviously
springs to mind, okay? So, that’s why maybe not many people knew the name of the constellation.
In Australia we often call it the saucepan. And the saucepan is good, it’s the right way up, it’s much better than an upside down Greek hunter. Anyway. Aboriginal people thousands, of years ago, didn’t have saucepans and so they had other names, and everybody’s got their own story about Orion, and I’ll tell you the Yolngu one from Dhalinbuy, which is that village I just spoke to you about, and they see it as a canoe. So those three bright stars they say are three brothers sitting in a canoe. And these three boys, they were going out hunting and fishing, and all they could catch were kingfish. So
up in Arnhem land people see the constellation of Orion as being this canoe with three brothers,
and the three brothers are from the kingfish clan. So you can’t eat kingfish, it’s like,
it means they had descended from the kingfish back in the dreaming, so eating kingfish is
like eating your grandfather, you know, it’s like “Yuck!” And it’s also extremely illegal. And, anyway,
one of the brothers got so hungry and all they could catch were kingfish, and he ate
one. And the sun saw this, the sun is female in most Aboriginal cultures and she blew them up into the sky. And so when you see the constellation Orion what you’re seeing are those three brothers in their canoe, with the fish on the line behind them, and they have been put up there as a punishment for breaking the law. And I’ll take away that picture. Can you see the canoe there? So, when you go out tonight, even if there are street lights you’ll still see it. You see those three bright stars
near the moon and those three bright stars are the three brothers in Orion, and it really looks
much more like a canoe than a saucepan or an upside down Greek hunter. Anyway,
okay, so, these stories about the sky, these are great, they’re valiant, staying, they’re lovely, but it
is it astronomy? It’s not the astronomy I know. The astronomy I know, when I do astrophysics, I want to about know how the sky works, I want to know how galaxies work, I want to
know how the universe started, I want to know why eclipses work and why the tides work and
why do we have seasons, why do we have days and night? Those are the sorts of things that
we do in astronomy. And then the other thing about astronomy is that it is useful; we use
it for navigation, we’ve used the discoveries from astronomy to get GPS and things like
that. So, is there any evidence that Aboriginal people thousands of years ago, were doing more
than telling stories? Were they actually trying to understand the sky? And that is what
our research project, me and several colleagues, that is what we are working on, trying to
understand: Is there astronomy in Aboriginal culture? Okay, I’ll illustrate what I mean by telling you about another constellation, a group of stars
called The Seven Sisters, and they are close to Orion but you need to be right out away from
the street lights to see them. Beautiful little cluster of stars, and they are called The Seven Sisters or
the Pleiades. And the reason they are called that is because again, in Greek mythology, they
were this group of seven beautiful girls, and, and those are the seven stars that you saw, very beautiful, and of course being Greek mythology, in Australia they’re upside down. And they were being chased by Orion, right? Boys chase girls, right? And, so the story is that Orion was chasing
these seven girls and they escaped up into the sky. And in fact as the sky goes
round you see Orion following the seven sisters. Here is the Yolngu story about the seven sisters,
and this Yolngu lady is telling us that The Seven Sisters they come back, with turtle,
fish and so on, we can read it there. The point is that the Yolngu people know that
when they see these stars in the sky it’s time for all these foods to come out, the
berries and so on to come out, and you might think “Well, why do they need to know that? Don’t
they, can’t they just see the berries on the trees?” Well, no, actually, because these people are hunter /
gatherers, which means they, throughout the year they travel in a cycle around their land, and
they need to know when it’s time to move from one place to another, they need to know
when it’s time to go up to escarpments, to get berries, before the birds will get them.
Or when it is time to come down to the rivers, where there’s the barramundi, before the barramundi
all swim out to the sea and so on. So, calendars are really important to hunter / gatherers.
And so, in fact they have calendars, and they use the stars, like The Seven Sisters, to tell
them when it is time to move camp. Now, here’s another story, it’s from another
place in the Northern Territory, and the guy here is saying, “You see that mob of stars?” –
that’s Orion – “We black fellows call him Manbuk and all day he chases that mob of girls over
there,” – The Seven Sisters, again same story. I mean, finding the story all over Australia
that Orion is nearly always – the story changes a little bit – but Orion is nearly always a
young man or a group of young men, and that other cluster is a group of girls, and the boys are chasing the girls. And you think, “Why do you get the same story everywhere?” And then you realize,
“Hang on, this is the same as the Greek story,” and actually you find the same story in China
and everywhere around the world, it’s really weird. And what’s even weirder is that, that
Seven Sisters, they really don’t look like seven, I’ve just gone back to the slide,
if you look there is no way you make that seven sisters, it’s not seven stars there.
If you’ve got a really bad eyesight you might see, well if you’ve got really bad eyesight, you’ll just see it as a little smudge, or maybe you see four stars, or five stars, or maybe you see lots of stars, but nobody sees it as seven.
So why does everybody in the world call them Seven Sisters and have these same stories? One
of the bits of research I’ve done is to, we know about how these stars evolved; was
there some time in the past when they looked like they were seven? Hmm, not as far as we can
tell, but they may have varied in brightness to make them. But why do you get the story
all around the world? Because in fact the Aboriginal people didn’t have very much
contact with the Europeans for like fifty thousand years, and so we think the story might
be really really old, it might predate the Aboriginal people coming to Australia. It
might actually be from a hundred thousand years ago, when all humans came out of Africa.
So a hundred thousand years ago all of us with Asians, whether we’re Asians or Europeans or Aboriginal people, we were all sitting around our camp fires a hundred thousand years ago in Africa telling each other these stories, and all our cultures have still got these stories. Okay, let’s move on. When I’m telling you this, you have to be aware of some cultural baggage. Sometimes you will hear people say things like, “No Aboriginal languages have numbers for, words for numbers that are higher than four,
Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond four or five,” you know? They would go “one, two, three
four… many.” You get stories like that around, they are completely wrong. This picture here is
actually a group of kids in the Tiwi Islands, North of Australia, and with my wife on the
right there, and they are doing this game, which I guess probably all of you do. You know,
you jump into the pool, you put your heads below the pool, and you see who can hold their
breath for the longest. And these kids were doing this, and they only spoke Tiwi. Hang on, our guide book had
just told us they can’t count beyond five, so the kid puts his head under the water,
and the kids around him start counting in Tiwi: “One, two, three, four, five…” What do
they do when they get to five? Because our guide book says they can’t count beyond
five? They just kept on going. It’s complete rubbish. These are the Tiwi numbers up to
ten, and in fact Tiwi people can count up to a hundred, or a thousand, or whatever. And, so you
have to be really careful; there is this baggage going around that people underestimate Aboriginal
cultures, I think it was left of from colonial days, and Aboriginal people really can count,
they do make measurements, they are interested in how the world works. Okay, myth busted!
Let’s move on. What about the moon? Aboriginal people saw
the moon changing every day, it starts off as in right now it’s a really big, bright moon,
it gets to be a full moon, big and round, and then gradually, over a period of months, it
gets thinner and thinner, becomes like a crescent, and then goes dark for about three days, three
nights, and then it gets brighter again, and there are stories about why this happens.
Let me tell you one again from Arnhem land. So, the moon, one particular story, there
are lots of different stories, but one story is that the moon was this really lazy man, and
he wouldn’t get any food, and his wives and his sons had to get all the food, and they
got really annoyed about this, he was just so lazy, sat around all the time. So they
started chopping bits off him, as you would. They got their knives and chopped bits off the sun, off the moon sorry, and he got thinner and thinner, and then he died, and he became the new moon. And this fat man, he is a really bad man, Ngalindi he is called in Yolngu, and he came back to life
and he cursed the world, he actually brought death to the world, and he said from now on
I am going to come back to life every month but nobody else will. Okay, that is the Yolngu story.
You get similar stories from all the other cultures in Australia, they always involve –
nearly always – involve the moon being a bad man. So, we, my wife and I we, a few years ago, tried to understand all this, this is us up in Arnhem Land in
a rental car crossing a creek, cross the road. That creek by the way is full of crocodiles, so you really
don’t stall the car when in the middle of the creek. And we were trying to understand things
like how the tides work. Well we know now how the tides work; scientists will tell you it’s
all about gravitational forces from the sun and moon. What we know with the tides,
if you live near the sea you will see the sun, you see the sea going up and down by about a metre or
so every day, actually twice a day, and the height of the sea goes up and down twice a
day. And we know the height it goes to depends on the phase of the moon; if you’ve got
a full moon the tides go up and down an awful lot like that. If you’ve got a crescent
moon, it only goes up and down a little bit. And so people have always tried to figure out
how do these tides work. Now many of you would know of Galileo, he was maybe the world’s
greatest ever scientist. He used things like, used the telescope to find the moons of Jupiter,
and he really took an approach of really looking at the world and trying to understand how the world
works using experiments and using observations rather than just guessing. And I think he had
really bad day one day. He was trying to figure out how tides work. People around him, like Kepler,
were saying that the tides were caused by the moon. Galileo didn’t believe them. He said,
“Ahh, that is a lamentable piece of mysticism.” He is Italian, so he said it in Italian, but
you get the idea. And, it’s really stupid, he had this stupid model which really didn’t
work, only gave you one tide a day, didn’t tell you when it is going to be high or low. Galileo didn’t think that you could actually understand that stuff. All right. So, that was Galileo’s
biggest blunder. What about the Yolngu people? So one of the things we’re interested in is how
do the Yolngu people see tides? Well they have an interesting explanation: they live
on east coast of Australia, and they see the moon coming up through the horizon every day.
And they’ve noticed that the tides, and that the moon comes up different time each day, they’ve noticed the tides happen at the same time relative to the moon every day. You get two tides a day
and it depends on where the moon is. And they’ve also noticed that when it’s a full moon
you get a really big tide, and when it’s a crescent moon you don’t get such big tides.
So they’ve got this explanation involving the moon filling up with water as it goes
up through the horizon. Now, you might say ‘Well, that’s a bit of a funny explanation,” because it’s not what we know now. No, but given the information they had at the time it’s actually a really good explanation. And, you can imagine, if you were there, you didn’t know about all the bits, but you saw the moon going up every day and
you’d noticed that when there was a full moon it was a really big tide, and you think, “That
must why the moon is getting full, or why we are having a new moon, must be something to
do with that!” And so you come up with a model like this. Okay? Now, the point is: this is science; you
might not like the explanation but the science is right. With the information they had it’s
a perfectly good scientific explanation. What’s more, it has predictive powers, one of
the other things we want from science. They, a Yolngu person can look at the moon, and from the
moon they know what time the tide is going to be and they know how big the tide is going to be.
So it works. This is how science works. You want to understand how science works? This
is a really good example: with the information you’ve got, you figure out how what you
see in the sky is related to the things that are all going around you, and you try to make it useful.
So, that explanation works. Galileo’s didn’t. Right, so let’s move on. So, one of the things I wondered, could people actually predict where things rose and set on the horizon? And there is this fantastic site down in Victoria, a
place called Wurdi Youang, I don’t know whether you, it’s a ring of stones, sort of slightly kite shaped
ring of stones, I will just draw a circle around it so you can see it. And, I’ll just take this off so you can
see. So it’s this ring of stones about fifty metres across, the big stones are up there at the top and they’re about a metre high, and they’re weighing several tonnes, big ring of stones. Now, the amazing thing about
this ring of stones is that if you stand at those three stones at the top and you look out,
and you see some other stones running away from you there. And when you look out
over those stones you see the places where the sun sets. What this shows is that the
people who built this circle, they put in stones in the ground to point to where the
sun sets on these special days: on Midsummer’s day, the Midwinter’s day and the Equinox. And this is amazing! This shows that people, the Aboriginal people who built this stone circle thousands
of years ago, they are actually, or firstly they’re interested in the motion of the sun, and
certainly they were measuring its position, there actually marking things on the ground.
This place is sometimes called the Aboriginal Stonehenge, because it is a bit like the Stonehenge
in England. Well, being a scientist I’m always a little bit sceptical of these things, and you think,
“Well, could it be by chance, could it be a hoax?” You know, you go through all these things.
And so we did a lot of work on it, we made the big survey, and you see the picture up now, that shows
our plan, and it’s a pretty wonky circle. On the left are the three lines that I just showed you, so
you stand at those big three stones, you’re looking out over the little stones, and you’ve
got those lines pointing towards the setting sun on Midsummer’s day and Midwinter’s
day. But it’s not just those little stones. On the right you can see those big lines and
they are fitted to all the stones in the circle, and those, the circle isn’t really a circle, it’s got
these straight bits. And so when you look out along those straight bits you’re also looking
at where the sun sets on Midwinter’s day, and Midsummer’s day and at the Equinox. So this
circle is clearly built for this purpose and it’s not by chance, and we did a whole load
of statistics and things, which I won’t bore you with, and we showed, yeah, it really isn’t
by chance. I’ll show you what that looks like. If you stand down at the pointy bit of the
circle and I don’t know whether you can see those three big stones on the horizon
there, so on the Equinox the sun sets like this, just right behind those three stones,
it’s exactly right. Or if you look up one of those straight lines of stones here on Midsummer’s
day and you wait for the sun to set – it’s Melbourne so it’s a big grey really but you still see
the sun sometimes – and you see the sun setting just behind that row of stones. So this stone
circle is clearly built, it is really important to these people who built it. We don’t know anything else about them unfortunately; we don’t know why they did it, why are they interested in
the sun, we don’t know and that is one of the great mysteries we’re trying to understand.
And it’s done accurately, so you can ask. “How well do people elsewhere in Australia
know direction that well?” So, my colleagues and I did this big study
of other stone arrangements, so, all over New South Wales, you get these lines of stones –
and you see some of them on the right there – and there is a sort of folklore that these
things tend to point to the North, and we thought “Well, being a scientist, how true is that? Can we
measure that?” And, so we went round a whole load of these and we measured what direction they
are pointing in, and this is a histogram showing all the directions. Now, I am hoping everybody
likes histograms; if you don’t like histograms, shut your eyes, it won’t hurt you, it will go away
in a minute. But actually histograms are really useful things. So, what we’ve done is, along
the bottom is the Azimuth, the bearing, so on the left at zero, that’s north / south, and in the
middle ninety is east / west, and for every stone row we’ve put a point where we have the
bearing of that stone row. And what you can see is that a whole load of them pile up at
zero, at north / south, and a whole pile of them pile up at ninety degrees, that’s east / west. So that’s
showing that these stone rows, yeah, they really are, when the Aboriginal people built
these stone rows, they built them either, or on the whole, there is lots of others there, mostly
put them either north / south or east / west. The really interesting thing is that the widths
of those piles on the histogram is about five degrees, so that is telling you that the Aboriginal
people weren’t just interested in north / south and east / west, but they also knew those
directions really accurately. How can you measure east / west to an accuracy of five degrees?
You might say “Oh, you look at the setting sun.” No! Wrong! The setting sun can be anywhere
from north-west to south-west. If you wanted to get it to five degrees, you’ve actually got to
make some really careful measurements; they’ve got to do with the sort of stuff we’ve
just seen at Wurdi Youang. So it’s showing that people all over New South Wales were making
astronomical measurements, so they knew these directions to within a few degrees. What about navigation? So this is my mate Bill Harney again here, and he says “Each night,” – I’m not
going to say it in his accent, it’d be awful – “Each night where we going to travel back to
the camp otherwise you don’t get lost and all the only tell is about a star. How to
travel? Follow the star along.” Just remember English is his second language, that’s not
perfect. But the point is Bill knows the sky really well. I’m actually paid by CSIRO as an astronomer.
You might say, “Wow, that guy Norris must know so many stars.” Well I don’t actually.
I do everything on a computer screen. I would be lucky if I can point out twenty, name twenty
stars for you properly. Bill knows every star in the sky. Every star you can see, down to about fourth
magnitude, Bill has a name for thousands of stars. So Bill knows the sky much better than
I do. And he uses this to navigate, he uses to get directions, and he knows what constellation’s
just to follow to get to his camp and things like that. You get other questions. People might ask, “Why is Venus always low in the sky?” So, if
you watch the setting sun, tonight or last night, you will see this really bright star
just above it and that is Venus. And the thing about Venus is it’s always just above the setting
sun, or early in the morning it rises just before the sun, but you never see Venus up there,
it’s always low in the sky and next to the sun. And the Yolngu people saw this, and they were obviously trying to figure out why is Venus always low in the sky? So they have this story about
Venus, they call Venus Banumbirr, and they say she is a creator spirit, she came from the east,
she actually brought the first humans to Australia, and when she rises up in the sky, like that, she – I hope
you can see that there is actually a line underneath Venus going down to the right – and
they say the reason Venus doesn’t go high in the sky because there is this rope attached
to her and the rope stops her flying too high. The rope’s actually put there by her
sisters to stop her accidentally getting lost. And, well, it’s an interesting story but I am an astronomer, I know there isn’t a rope hanging down from Venus and I said this to my Yolngu friends, I
said, “Well, you know, lovely story but there’s no rope!” And my Yolngu friends said, “Yeah there is, you haven’t
looked hard enough!” I said, “Look: I use things like the Hubble space telescope, I know there is no rope underneath
Venus! I am an astronomer, I know about these things!” And she said, “Well, you haven’t looked hard enough.” D’oh! Well, next morning, at four
o’clock, we were out there, at dawn, watching Venus rising.
And I know I am an astronomer, I’d completely forgotten there’s this thing called
zodiacal light; if you are in a really dark place when Venus rises up behind it is this glow
of light, it’s actually caused by dust in the solar system, and you get light being reflected
of the dust, and you get this beam of light up the horizon, up towards Venus. And she was totally
right: there really is this beam of light holding Venus down. So… um… right… Yolngu one; Ray zero.
But the other thing about Banumbirr, as she crossed the land she sang this song, and in the myth
she is flying over the land and she describes the mountains, and the waterholes, and the good
camping ground, and the places you don’t want to go to because they are swampy, and
this becomes like a sort of oral map. So if you know the words to this song, and you want
to navigate across Australia, you go through the words to this song, and you come to a mountain,
and you remember, “Oh yes, Banumbirr said you go to the right of this mountain, and there
is this really good camping ground, and you don’t go to the left, cause it’s all swampy,” and so
on. And these lines, marked out by these songs, are a way of navigating, they’re called song
lines, and we know lots of these. Here is one we’ve got in New South Wales. Now, that goes from
Carnarvon Gorge, up in Queensland, down through Roma, Surat, down to Goodooga in Northern
New South Wales. We’ve been working with the Kamilaroi and the Euahlayi people up in Northern New South Wales where they are trying to rebuild their culture – it’s really badly damaged by the Europeans coming – and we are helping by trying to pull the astronomy together.
So we actually mark out these song lines and there’s a song which tells you how to navigate
from Carnarvon Gorge down to Goodooga, and in fact this song is also marked up in the
sky in the constellation Scorpius, there on the left. I could tell you lots more stories like this.
Bill Harney remembers as a kid how he was navigating across the north of Australia with
his grandfather, and the white fellows wanted to build a road, and they wanted an Aboriginal
guide, and his grandfather just followed the song line, and the white guys behind him they
knocked down the trees and built this road; that road is now the Victoria Highway, that
follows an Aboriginal song line. So does the Great Western Highway from Sydney up to the
Blue Mountains, they are both song lines. I am going to finish there. What I hope I
have shown you is that astronomy is really important in a lot of Aboriginal cultures:
the elders knew the sky really well; they tried to understand how the sky works – I call
it ethno science, it is like science but of course within the culture; they understood
how eclipses and tides – I haven’t told you about eclipses but there are other stories
about eclipses – and they used this knowledge for navigation. And I am going to stop there
and ask if you have got any questions? Thank you. If you go up to Kuringai National Park, which is just
north of Sydney – about twenty kilometres north of Sydney – and there are two ways in
to the park, you go up towards West Head, you go up the West Head Road, the first track
off to the right is the Elvina Track, you go along there, then about two hundred metres
from the road, there is a path off to the right, you follow that path and you will see
the emu there, and you will see hundreds of other rock carvings. If you Google “Sydney rock
engravings”, you will find maps and things like that. Also national parks, people tell you about them.
The other really good track to go up, up there is, if you go further up towards West Head, there is
the Basin Track on the right. If you go up the Basin Track there is a lovely board-walk,
lots of Aboriginal engravings, including some astronomical ones, and there is national park
signs explaining what they are. So I mentioned eclipses, and there’s this – and
Aboriginal people did understand eclipses – so when you get a a total solar eclipse, they say it’s the sun
woman and the moon man getting together and having a cuddle, and you get the body
of the moon man covering the sun woman and that is what causes the eclipse. And of course
that expression is completely correct, you know, that’s what causes a total eclipse: it’s
when the moon comes in front of the sun. The amazing thing about that is that, in
any one place, you only see a total eclipse maybe once every ten generations, and it’s
weird that they have these stories that go across all of these generations, across thousands
of years explaining how the eclipses work. If you mean, “Are there other civilizations
out there in space?”, my guess is almost certainly; you know, you just look at the
number of stars, the number of planets, the number of galaxies, you do the maths; unless
we are really, really, really special and improbable there have to be other civilizations out there.
But as far as we know they have never visited the Earth. You know, I’m a scientist, right? I’m
sceptical. I need evidence, and all these fuzzy photos don’t do much for me. One day, maybe we will
contact another alien civilization. I really hope so; it would be so cool to encounter another
civilization, but so far we haven’t done it. So, how did the aboriginal people use the stars to tell
them when to harvest? So the answer is yes they did have lots of different stars.
So, different Aboriginal groups they have calendars and seasons like we do, they often have six
seasons in the year, and they will say when a particular star comes up above the horizon,
in the morning, that’s the time when you need to harvest something. So they have a whole load of
different start or constellations for these different things. For example the star spiker,
for the Yolngu people when they see the star spiker in the evening they know that is the
time to go down to the rivers to get the nuts from the lotus plants that grow there, and
the thing is you can’t actually tell from looking at the river when the nuts are ready, but you
can tell by looking at when the stars are in the sky. If they leave it too late, then the magpie beaks eat them instead. So they have got to get them in time, they have got to get it at the right time. So the stars are absolutely essential for that. Great question. Yeah, so people have stories, but I’m trying
to remember them now, you have got me now, there are a lot of stories and I can’t remember
any of them. But, yeah, so people have stories about what those pictures mean. Oh, so one of them was,
yeah, the moon was attacked because he was a really bad man, and some of those things are scars from
where his attack, that is one of the stories. You get different stories around. The other thing
you get, I don’t really know if you’ve seen it, in the winter especially, you will sometimes
see a bright ring around the moon, a halo, and scientists would say that light’s been scattered
off ice particles in the atmosphere,you only get it when it’s quite cold, and there is a story that it’s
actually, the moon man has built himself a wind shelter. You get these really cold nights, and
what you are seeing is the little hut, or shelter, that he has built around himself. There’s
a lot of stories like that. Yeah. So, people often think, you know, you’ve got the sun and the moon, you know, the sun’s up there in the day and the moon’s up there in the night; well, it’s not right! The person who asked that question, you’ve noticed that does
not happen and you will get nights when there is no moon in the sky, and sometimes the moon’s
up in the day. So, as seen from the Earth the sun’s going round, obviously, and that
defines our day and night, we call it day when the sun is up there, and the moon is going
round its own path, which is quite different, and sometimes they will be on opposite sides;
when they are on opposite sides that’s when you have a full moon, if you think about it.
And when it’s a full moon, the moon will up in the sky during the night, it will be right
up above you at midnight, and other times the moon will be close to the sun, and that’s when you see a crescent, and then the moon will actually be up in the day, except you can’t see the moon
very well when it’s high up in the sky but you can see it when it’s low down. The moon actually
has got this funny motion, it goes all over the place, I was talking about eclipses earlier, one of
the stories is that when you get a lunar eclipse it’s the sun woman chasing the moon man, and
he’s trying to escape, he’s running backwards and forwards, this is the complex motion of
moon, and when she eventually catches him, and that’s obviously when you have got the sun
and the moon close together in the sky, and she catches him and that is when you get the
lunar eclipse. Well “not enough” actually is the short answer,
but a slightly longer answer is we’re doing everything we can. So, the trouble is, you’ve
got a few things: so firstly, a lot of this knowledge is known by old people, and the old
people sadly are passing on, and so it is a race against time to write this stuff down,
and this is part of the reason we’re doing this work, and going up and writing down the stories
from these old people. And then there are other people – I’m just looking at the astronomy – lots
of other people in different fields, some people are going around making recordings, making films,
making recordings of people singing their songs and things like this. Then you get other groups, I mentioned
earlier we are working with the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi people in North New South Wales,
and they are trying to rebuild their culture; their culture was really badly damaged by
the British and the Australians, white Australians when they came in, but there are enough people who
know the language, they’re old Kamilaroi people over in the West New South Wales who still
speak Kamilaroi as their first language. And, so you’ve got younger people that we are working
with and they’re learning that language, and I’ve spoken to guys in their forties who happily
speak fluent Kamilaroi, they’ve learnt it, they have a good conversation in it and one
of our goals for this project is the, we hope that, in maybe ten years’ time or something
like that, kids in Kamilaroi country in New South Wales schools will be learning Kamilaroi
language as a second language like you learn French and German, and Chinese at the moment,
one of your options will be Kamilaroi. And wouldn’t be great if we could do that all
across Australia? That we could revive these old Aboriginal languages and celebrate the
culture and make sure that the culture survives. So there’s lots of groups trying to do
that; of course there’s never enough people, there’s never enough money, but, yeah, people are
trying really hard to do that. Really good question. Do you want the science answer or the Aboriginal
answer? So the science answer is, there is – I forget, I think it’s three and a half billion years
ago – there is a big collision with the Earth and another chunk of big rock, and the moon
was expelled as a result of that collision and it’s now going around the Earth.
The Aboriginal story – there’s a whole load of different ones; one is that, as I said, the moon man
was this really bad guy and people were chasing him, and he ran up a tree, really tall tree,
tried to escape these people, and then he jumped up into the sky, and that’s how he go up there,
and he stays up there because he knows if he comes down to Earth he will be attacked again. Would you really want to? It’s an awful place!
I wouldn’t want to go there, there is no air! There’s no shops! But, I don’t think –
and you could inhabit the moon, you could set up a base there, and there are reasons that you might want to set up mining bases or something like that. But if you want to go
and live somewhere else, actually Mars is a much better idea. Mars is a much nicer place
than the moon and people are seriously thinking about, “Should we set up bases on Mars?”
It’s got a decent gravity and things like this, it’s got a bit of atmosphere, it’s a much
easier place to live on than the moon. My guess is – I know it’s a long time away – there’s
no technological reason why you shouldn’t do it, you could do it now actually. It’s money;
the thing that stops you is money, and of course, you know, in the world we’ve got lots of other problems, other things we want to spend money on, and so it’s always a toss up. But my guess is eventually people will go, people will go back to the moon, people will go back to Mars, and there’s a lot of science you
could do, there is a lot of commercial stuff like mining rare minerals and things that
you could do there, and of course there’s also debate, “Should we do it, or should we leave
them pristine?” It’s a bit like, “Should you mine in a national park?” It has an awful lot
of complex questions, not everybody thinks we should be mining in space; some people
think we should be leaving them alone. So, the debate will go on. My guess is that within,
maybe not on my life time but in the life time of most of you guys you will see people living
on the moon and maybe Mars. A long time! How long does it take? I don’t know, I have to take that question on notice I think. But actually, no; I’m going to set it as an exercise for you: Google the moon, find its diameter – you know how fast you can walk, maybe five kilometres an hour or something – and work it out. Exercise for the students, okay? That’s your homework. Okay, thanks for your great questions, really good
questions, and it’s been great talking to you. Thank you very much. Bye.

9 thoughts on “Cultural Impacts of Astronomy: Astronomy Of Indigenous Australia – LEAP Links Video Conference

  1. christosvoskresye Post author

    I grew up in Florida, and as a child I also thought of the belt and sword of Orion as a saucepan. But then, I was rather imaginative, and I thought the Pleiades were spooky, because there seemed to be something there that would disappear whenever I looked directly at it.

  2. Grh Haddybow Post author

    you wait till this guy gets ridiculed as the electric universe is finally credited and all the theory he preaches is dismissed and mocked as science collapses from the religion its become

  3. Katherine Morgan Post author

    Great 4 mins in and disrespectful. So because they go to school everyday and are fat thats acceptable.. O_o Leave your culture in England. thats what started the problem in the first place.

  4. Roger Roger Post author

    The tale about children counting beyond the numbers four and five is interesting. In the civilized world the most common system of counting is decimal based. There are others like binary, hexadecimal etc. What Mr Norris has not told us is what the system of counting the indigenous people used bearing in mind there were/are 400 different cultures. If they didn't have a system of counting and can count to millions or more then Rain Man would have nothing on them…the indigenous people would have to be blessed with absolutely brilliant brains.

  5. Lleyton Triffett Post author

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    This is Team 10, bitch, who the hell are flippin' you?

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    Yeah, I'm talking about you, you beggin' for attention

    Talking shit on Twitter too but you still hit my phone last night

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    And I just dropped some new merch and it's selling like a god, church

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    And if it weren't for Team 10, then the US would be shitty

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    Like Mag, who? Digi who? Who are you?

    All these beefs I just ran through, hit a milli in a month

    Where were you? Hatin' on me back in West Fake

    You need to get your shit straight

    Jakey brought me to the top, now we're really poppin' off

    Number one and number four, that's why these fans all at our door

    It's lonely at the top so we all going

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    We back again, always first, never last

    We the future, we'll see you in the past

    It's everyday bro

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    Can we switch the language? (Ha, ya tú sabes)

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  6. Tmantium Gaming Post author

    This video is bad so bad
    I’m 97 and you are dumb get a job
    You lonely nonce
    You think you have a good job but you don’t
    You make me sad I’m 97 and you a like 200

  7. DASEA Post author

    "its like science but, ofcourse within the culture" lol… Your science is 'within a culture' more…


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