Aboriginal star maps

As part of this year's Stargazing Live from Down Under, we find out how Aboriginal Australians used the night sky to find their way across the dusty outback – even when the stars were missing.

Shining in the southern sky, the four bright stars portrayed in the left part of this image represent a useful orientation mark which helps identifying the South Celestial Pole. Because of the rather distinctive asterism they form, these stars have been officially classified as the Crux constellation, or the Southern Cross.  The vast dark cloud, visible in the lower part of the image, is usually referred to as the Coalsack Nebula; it also has a preeminent role in the Australian Aboriginal culture, representing the head of an emu in the traditional constellation of the "Emu in the Sky". The ruddy object glowing in the upper part of the image owes its colour to the blaze of hydrogen gas. Catalogued as IC 2948, this emission nebula hosts a sparkling cluster of young stars.

A familiar sight for Australian astronomers: the Southern Cross, which adorns Australia’s national flag, and the Coalsack Nebula, also known Down Under as the head of the ‘Emu in the Sky’. Image Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

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Aboriginal Australians are the oldest continuing culture on Earth, and have been living in Australia for over 50,000 years.

They may be the world’s oldest astronomers, as their culture has retained much astronomical knowledge, passed down through stories, song and art.

They have a sophisticated knowledge of the night sky, including the movement of the Moon and its effect on the tides, the mechanism of solar eclipses, and the location and movement of planets and stars down to 5th magnitude.

Ceremonial life, which is central to Aboriginal culture, has many connections to the sky.

In southeast Australia, the hero Baiame, who created the land and gave people law, came from the night sky, and eventually returned to the Milky Way.

Likewise, Aboriginal people believe that they themselves come from the night sky, and will return there after death.

Consequently, many Aboriginal ceremonies have frequent reference to objects and stories of the cosmos.

It is known that Aboriginal people travelled extensively throughout Australia before European settlement in 1788, and that there was an extensive network of trade routes for trading in goods and stories.

There is also evidence that Aboriginal people travelled large distances to share in ceremonies with other communities.

One question followed: how could people travel long distances outside their own country to destinations where they had not previously been?

Even though most Aboriginal people appear not to have practised celestial navigation using the stars, there is evidence that they could travel at night, but preferred not to do so.

Certainly, Aboriginal people have a clear understanding of cardinal directions, probably through observation of the Sun and stars.

In some places, there is evidence that Aboriginal people used patterns of stars in the night sky to teach other persons how to travel outside their own country, later in the year and in the daytime.

These patterns are called star maps, and were used to memorise waypoints along a route of travel.

I was researching the astronomical knowledge of the Euahlayi and Kamilaroi peoples of northwest New South Wales, and became aware of star maps through Ghillar Michael Anderson, a Euahlayi culture man from Goodooga, which is near the town of Lightning Ridge.

He showed me a pattern of stars in the southeast sky that was used as a memory aid for teaching travel along a route from Goodooga to Carnarvon Gorge, a ceremonial place in central Queensland, nearly 600km away.

The stars used to memorise the waypoints were not used for navigation and were not even visible later in the year, so this was not a case of teaching celestial navigation.

The waypoints memorised were geographical features in the land, such as waterholes, which would be important for travel during the summer, which was the time when people met for ceremonies.

Knowledgeable elders taught routes of travel during the winter camp to persons who would be travelling to destinations unknown to them, so the details of the waypoints and how to reach them would have to be memorised, and the star map pattern would be used as a memory aid.

I was aware that song is an effective method to encode memory, and asked Ghillar if the route was taught as a song, which he confirmed.

This led to a confirmation that many of these routes are songlines, an Aboriginal cultural device that encodes stories into routes across the landscape to the extent that the landscape was believed to be created by the culture hero or creature featured in the story.

Not all songlines are encoded by star maps, but it is believed that all routes taught using star maps are songlines.

One consequence of this knowledge occurred when I was examining several star map routes heading north into Queensland from Goodooga.

The star map waypoints are related to actual locations on the ground, many of which had significant cultural importance to the Aboriginal travellers.

These waypoints could be plotted on the current roadmap of the region, and while the pattern they made were similar in appearance to the star map, it must be remembered that they were only a memory aid for remembering the waypoints.

What was interesting was to look at the location of the waypoints and routes compared to the modern roadmap and the regional towns.

With the star map routes to Carnarvon Gorge and the Bunya Mountains (another important trade and ceremonial destination), there was a significant correspondence between the star map routes and the modern road system, including some towns located at the waypoints.

The reason for this became clear after some thought: the early European explorers who first travelled to this country would have been guided by the local Aboriginal people, who had used these routes for millennia.

The explorers were followed by drovers, then settlers, who created dirt tracks, and finally, paved roads, where towns often spring up at intersections of routes.

In a sense, the routes taught using Aboriginal star maps became the modern Australian road system.


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Robert S. Fuller is an expert in Aboriginal astronomy at the University of New South Wales, Australia.