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Tuesday, January 26, 2021


Indigenous Constellations for January 26

Karuna names for constellations and stars on January 26 at astronomical twilight from Adelaide (10 pm ACDST) similar views will be seen around Australia at astronomical twilight (90 minutes after sunset)
Western equivalent names for constellations and stars on January 26 at astronomical twilight from Adelaide (10 pm ACDST) similar views will be seen around Australia at astronomical twilight (90 minutes after sunset)

If you are out and about tonight watching the fireworks or just wandering, you may want to look up and think about the sky from an indigenous perspective.

When the first fleet arrived the Europeans and the indigenous inhabitants saw the same wondrous skies but interpreted them somewhat differently. Indigenous Australians used the stars to tell the seasons and the times for food harvesting in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians did (although the practice had waned somewhat by the time of the First Fleet as Europeans used almanacs rather than the helical rising of the dog star Sirius). 

They also saw stories in the stars, just as the Europeans did (although most of the European stories came from the ancient Greeks and Romans). These stories played a more immediate role in indigenous culture than the sky stories did for the Europeans.

The biggest difference was the "dark constellations", figures made from the gaps in the sky, the dark nebula interrupting the arch of the Milky Way. They are not Unique to Australia though, most other Southern Hemisphere indigenous groups have them.

The most famous one is the Emu, a sprawling constellation whose head is the coal sack nebula, whose neck and body is the dark lanes of the milky way, with a fringe of feathers that is the Northern Hemisphere constellation Scorpius. if you look up tonight you will only see the Emus head rising below the Southern Cross.

Indigenous Australians were astute observers of the sky, and were able to follow the changes in light of variable stars, and may have recorded an outburst of eta Carina. There is even a stone circle, Wurdi Youang,  that was probably used for astronomical observations in Victoria.

Of course, there is no single "Aboriginal Astronomy", Indigenous Australians had many nations, living in environments from Mediterranean climates to the south, wet temperate forests, deserts, subtropical to tropical forests, and monsoonal grasslands. The names of celestial objects, their stories and significance differ from place to place, a star that signifies the malee fowl nesting will have a different meaning in landscapes with no malee fowl.

I am currently living on and writing this on Karuna land on the Le Fevre Peninsula (I grew up on Murri lands). Looking up tonight towards the north I will see Tinniinyaranna, the Hunting Youths, they form Orion's belt and Sword in the European tradition.Below them is their mother Madletaltarni (Betelgeuse) and above then their fater, Parnakkoyerli (probably Rigel). To the west is Mankamankarranna, a group of girls digging for roots,  the Pelaides star cluster in Western star lore. 

Looking South I can see Wilto, the eagles claw, which we identify as the Southern Cross, with the dark nebula the coal sack nebula, which from the head of the Emu, directly below. Almost due south and just belwo the bright stars Canopus and Achenar are the patches of light that form the Magellanic clouds, Dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way (Wodliparri). One or both of the Magellanic clouds are Ngakallamurro, ashes of parakeets roasted by another sky dweller. 

So so take a moment to look up tonight, and gaze upon the constellations and stars named and observed by indigenous Australians millennia before Europeans arrived. 

If you want to know more about indigenous astronomy Australian Indigenous Astronomy has lots of good content and links.

Stellarium is a good, free  skymap program that has many indigenous sky representations, including the Boorong people of western Victoria.

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