On the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Aboriginal Australians

19th December 2012

General image for website abstractDuane W. Hamacher

Historian of science David Pingree defines science in a broad context as the process of systematically explaining perceived or imaginary phenomena. Although Westerners tend to think of science  as  being  restricted  to Western  culture, I argue in this thesis that astronomical scientific knowledge is found in Aboriginal  traditions. Although  research  into the astronomical traditions of Aboriginal Australians stretches back for more than 150 years, it is relatively scant in the literature. We do know that the sun, moon and night sky have been an important and inseparable component of the landscape to hundreds of Australian Aboriginal groups for thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands, of years. The literature reveals that astronomical knowledge was used for time-keeping, denoting seasonal change and the availability of food sources, navigation and tidal prediction. It was also important for rituals and ceremonies, birth totems, marriage systems, cultural mnemonics and folklore. Despite this, the field remains relatively unresearched considering the diversity of Aboriginal cultures and the length of time people have inhabited Australia (well over 40,000 years). Additionally, very little research investigating the nature and role of transient celestial phenomena has been conducted, leaving our understanding of Indigenous astronomical knowledge grossly incomplete.

This thesis is an attempt to overcome this deficiency, with a specific focus on transient celestial phenomena. My research, situated in the field of cultural astronomy, draws from the sub-disciplines of archaeoastronomy, ethnoastronomy, historical astronomy and geomythology. This approach incorporates the methodologies and theories of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and  humanities. This thesis, by publication,  makes use of archaeological, ethnographic and historical records, astronomical software packages and geographic programs to better understand the ages of astronomical traditions and the role and nature of eclipses, comets, meteors, impact events and certain variable stars. I also test the hypothesis that certain types of stone arrangements have preferred orientations that probably relate to astronomical phenomena.

This research shows that Aboriginal astronomical traditions explain the motions of celestial bodies and the relationship between events in the sky and events on Earth. I explore how Aboriginal people perceived and made use of particular astronomical phenomena, such as meteors and comets, and show that Aboriginal people made careful observations of the motions of celestial bodies. I provide evidence that Aboriginal people noticed the change in brightness of particular stars, described the kinematics of eclipses, explained how lunar phases are related to ocean tides, and acknowledged the relationship between meteors, meteorites, impact events and impact craters. I then show that linear stone arrangements in New South Wales have a preferred orientation to the cardinal points and explore astronomical reasons for this. In the Appendix, I include biographical details of William Edward Stanbridge, one of the first people to write in depth about Aboriginal astronomical traditions, which were compiled from historic records.

Duane W. Hamacher
On the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Aboriginal Australians
2012
75
129-130
Thesis Abstracts
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