Thursday, September 11, 2014

Are supernovae recorded in Indigenous astronomical traditions?

New research by Dr Duane Hamacher at the University of New South Wales explores Indigenous traditions that may describe supernovae, and sets criteria for confirming supernovae in oral tradition and material culture (e.g. artefacts, rock art, etc).

Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage, Vol. 17(2), pp. 161-170.


Novae and supernovae are rare astronomical events that would have had an influence on the sky-watching peoples who witnessed them. Although several bright novae/supernovae have been visible during recorded human history, there are many proposed but no confirmed accounts of supernovae in indigenous oral traditions or material culture. Criteria are established for confirming novae/supernovae in oral traditions and material culture, and claims from around the world are discussed to determine if they meet these criteria. Aboriginal Australian traditions are explored for possible descriptions of novae/supernovae. Although representations of supernovae may exist in Aboriginal traditions, there are currently no confirmed accounts of supernovae in Indigenous Australian oral or material traditions.

Image from

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Cultural Astronomy Channel" - YouTube

The Cultural Astronomy Channel is a YouTube channel moderated by Prof Jarita Holbrook from the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa.

The channel features a number of videos on the subject of cultural astronomy. Most recently, Prof Holbrook uploaded talks from the recent conference of the International Society of Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture in Cape Town (aka "Oxford X"). The theme of the meeting was "Astronomy, Indigenous Knowledge, and Interpretation" and featured a number of talks on Indigenous astronomy from around the world.

You can view videos here, including those from Cape Town. Updated versions of the talks that incorporate lecture slides will be uploaded in the future. A talk on Australian Indigenous astronomy is given by Dr Duane Hamacher.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Emu in the Sky

The concept of the Emu in the Sky exists in different Aboriginal groups across Australia. These stories have different meanings, from indicators of resources (when to collect emu eggs) to that of culture heroes. The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples, who live in the north and northwest of New South Wales, also have traditions of an Emu in the Sky, which differed from many of the other accounts. For the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi, the celestial Emu represents different things at different times of the year. The Emu first becomes visible in March. When it is fully visible in the Milky Way during April and May, it assumes the form of a running emu (Figure 1). This represents a female emu chasing the males during the mating season. Because emus begin laying their eggs at this time, this appearance of the celestial Emu is a reminder that the emu eggs are available for collection.

Figure 1

In June and July, the appearance of the Emu changes, as the legs disappear. The Emu, which is now male, is sitting on its nest, incubating the eggs (Figure 2). The eggs are still available for collection as a resource at this time.

Figure 2

The Kamilaroi and the Euahlayi have in common their male initiation ceremony, called the bora. The preferred time for the bora ceremony is during the summer, but the planning for the ceremonies, and possibly the layout of the bora site, may take place in August and September. There is a strong connection between the bora ceremony and the Milky Way, where the culture hero Baiame lives, and to whom the ceremony is dedicated. There is also evidence that the Emu is connected to the ceremony: as male emus rear the young, so male Aboriginal elders nurture the young initiates into manhood.

The bora ceremonial site usually consists of two circles, one large, and one small, connected by a pathway. In August and September, the Emu once again changes appearance to that of two circles in the sky, vertically aligned above the south-southwest horizon (Figure 3). This is the direction to which most bora sites are aligned (from large circle to small circle).

Figure 3

Later in the year, around November, the Emu once again changes appearance and becomes Gawarrgay/Gawarghoo, a featherless Emu that travels to waterholes and looks after everything that lives there. The Emu is now low on the horizon in the evening, so it appears only as the “body” of the Emu. The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi say this is because the Emu is sitting in a waterhole (Figure 4). As a consequence, the waterholes in country are full (which is often the case in November).

Figure 4

Later in the summer, the Milky Way and the Emu dip below the horizon. This signifies that the Emu has left the waterholes, which dries up the waterholes.

The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples have a complete story of the Emu in the Sky, and this reflects their belief that, at one time, the sky and everything in it was “down here”, and what is now “down here” was in the sky. This explains the connection between the Emu in the Sky, and the emu bird on the ground, and the connections to resource management and the ceremonial aspects of the male initiation ceremony.


This post is based on research conducted by Robert Fuller, Michael Anderson, Ray Norris, and Michelle Trudgett with Kamilaroi and Euahlayi elders and custodians. Their paper, “The Emu SkyKnowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples will appear in the July 2014 issue of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage (Volume 17, Issue 2). You can read a preprint of the paper here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Indigenous Astronomy @ UNSW

Australia’s Indigenous people have rich and ancient traditions relating to the stars, which informed social practices, sacred law, and ceremony, and were used for navigation, calendars, hunting, fishing, and gathering.

The Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit at the University of New South Wales in Sydney is the national leader in teaching and research in this area and our program is dedicated to increasing our understanding of the intricate and complex ways in which astronomical knowledge is encoded in oral traditions and material culture. We have staff, students, and educators teaching, researching, and sharing various aspects of Indigenous astronomical knowledge with the public.

Our Teaching

Dr Duane Hamacher developed new undergraduate courses on Indigenous Science and Indigenous astronomy for Nura Gili. The units are part of the Indigenous Studies major and are available to all UNSW students as General Education units. Both courses are taught by Dr Hamacher in Semester 1 of each year. International exchange and study abroad students from any academic background are encouraged to enroll.

  • ATSI 2015: The Science of Indigenous Knowledge: Explore the various ways in which scientific information is encoded within traditional Indigenous knowledge systems, including astronomy, weather and climate, ecology, bush medicines, mathematical systems, geological events, and fire practices. Guest speakers, including academics and elders, bring a unique perspective the course, which uses an interactive "inverted classroom" approach.
  • ATSI 3006: The Astronomy of Indigenous Australians: Learn about the ways in which Indigenous understood and utilised the stars in an interactive classroom environment, develop your knowledge of naked-eye astronomy in Sydney Observatory's digital planetarium. and conduct original research and use your findings to create a planetarium show, curate an exhibit, produce educational materials, or film a documentary.

Our Research
Research at Nura Gili covers a range of projects on Indigenous astronomy. We work closely with Aboriginal and Islander communities, educators, and industry partners, and collaborate with researchers and teams at Macquarie UniversityCurtin University, and Griffith University. Some of our research projects are as follows:
Rediscovering Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge
Professor Martin Nakata and Dr Duane Hamacher are leading a collaboration with UNSW’s School of Computer Science & Engineering, Microsoft Research, and the State Library of New South Wales, to develop a public online repository for astronomical knowledge accessible to Indigenous communities worldwide, with additional information sourced from institutions and collections.  Martin is also working closely with UNSW’s College of Fine Arts (COFA) to produce cutting-edge visual technologies for presenting this knowledge.
Exploring Astronomical Knowledge and Traditions in the Torres Strait
Dr Duane Hamacher was awarded a major grant from the Australian Research Council to study Torres Strait Islander astronomy. The purpose of this study is to chart Torres Strait Islander customs and traditions with a deep connection to the sun, moon, and stars. A well-researched and documented library of astronomical knowledge will help Islanders continue longstanding traditions in developing knowledge about their place in the world.
Wiradjuri Skies: Aboriginal Astronomy in central NSW
Trevor Leaman is conducting his PhD research on the astronomical knowledge and traditions of the Wiradjuri people of NSW. This project will see Trevor conducting ethnographic research with communities across the Central West of NSW. The project will expand our knowledge of Wiradjuri astronomy and provide educational materials for the community.
Aboriginal Astronomy in the Hunter Region of NSW
Emma McDonald is researching the astronomy of the Worimi, Awabakal, and Wonnarua people of the Hunter region, NSW for a BSc with Honours degree. Emma will study ethnohistoric records, archival documents, and museum artefacts to better understand the role of astronomy in these Aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal Astronomy, Environment, and Ecology
Plants, animals, and seasonal cycles were an important component of Indigenous astronomical traditions. This project examines the role animals and plants played in these traditions and how the stars informed the people of seasonal change, and the best times to hunt, fish, and gather.
ATSI 3006 Research Projects
Students enrolled in ATSI 3006 are undertaking small research projects on topics in Indigenous astronomy, including 

  • Aboriginal astronomy in the Sydney region
  • Aboriginal astronomy in the Melbourne region
  • Aboriginal astronomy in Tasmania
  • Cultural astronomy in the Torres Strait
  • Yuin Aboriginal astronomy (south coast NSW)
  • Music, culture, and astronomical traditions
  • Calendars and astronomy
  • Astronomical symbolism in material culture

Our Team
Dr Duane Hamacher
Lecturer and ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher
Duane is an American and earned degrees in astrophysics and Indigenous studies, with a PhD thesis on Aboriginal astronomy. He joined Nura Gili staff to develop teaching and research programs in Indigenous astronomy and was awarded an ARC grant to study the astronomy of Torres Strait Islanders. He is also a consultant curator and astronomy educator at Sydney Observatory.

Professor Martin Nakata
Professor and Director of Nura Gili

Martin is an Indigenous Torres Strait Islander and the first Islander to earn a PhD in Australia. He is a national leader in Indigenous education and Indigenous knowledge, and published the book Disciplining the Savages - Savaging the Disciplines. He leads a project with Microsoft Research and the Mitchell Library to capture and record Indigenous astronomy for the WorldWide Telescope.

Trevor Leaman
PhD Candidate (FASS – Environmental Humanities)

Trevor is researching the astronomy of the Wiradjuri people of central NSW under the supervision of Dr Hamacher. His Masters degree involved studying the astronomy of Aboriginal communities near Ooldea, South Australia. He earned degrees and diplomas in biology forestry, engineering, and astronomy, and is an astronomy educator at Sydney Observatory.

Emma McDonald
Honours Student (BEES – Environmental Science)
Emma is an Aboriginal Worimi woman from Port Stephens, NSW. She earned a degree in geology (with a minor in Aboriginal studies) and is pursuing an Honours project on the astronomy of Aboriginal communities in the Hunter region of NSW under the supervision of Dr Hamacher. She also works as a Discovery Ranger for National Parks & Wildlife.

Tui Britton
Consultant Science Communicator
Tui is a Maori descendent of the Ngapuhi iwi of northern New Zealand. She was born in Christchurch and educated in Singapore, England, America, and Australia. She earned degrees in astrophysics and is finishing a PhD in radio astronomy. Tui produces educational units and writes popular articles and books on Indigenous astronomy and astrophysics. She is also an astronomy educator at Sydney Observatory

We welcome passionate students wishing to enrol in our undergraduate units or pursue research projects for an Honours, Masters, or Doctoral degree. Interested parties should contact Dr Duane Hamacher. A list of potential projects and degree information can be found here.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Maps By Night: Indigenous Navigation

On Friday 24 January 2014, Professor Ray Norris gave a talk on Aboriginal astronomy and navigation at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

In Australian Aboriginal cultures, mental maps are built on songs and ceremony. These songlines and other navigational tools enabled Aboriginal Australians to navigate across the country, trading artefacts and sacred stories. Join Ray Norris as he discusses how Indigenous people used stories and other navigational tools to cross country.

Click on the bark painting above to access the audio file (mp3).

Monday, January 20, 2014

The First Astronomers: Education in the Pilbara

As Australia has the oldest continuous culture on Earth, the first Australians were very likely to have also been the first astronomers. In 2008 CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris set out with wildlife expert Cilla Norris to learn, collect and document the stories of Australian Aboriginal astronomy from community elders who were the custodians of these stories.

There are hundreds of different Aboriginal cultures, and therefore as many different stories about the night skies. Some have been lost since colonisation and some were sacred, private knowledge. One thing was universal: Indigenous Australians valued the sun, moon and stars for information about seasonal survival, but also for its keeping of culture and story.

How to find the emu in the sky: Find the dark patch of sky between the Southern
Cross and the pointers. The dark area is known as the Coalsack by astronomers,
which are dense clouds of interstellar dust. The Coalsack forms the head of the
emu and stretching to the left is its long dark neck. Its roundish body is next to
Scorpius and its legs are towards the horizon. Images: Barnaby Norris.

There are hundreds of different Aboriginal cultures, and therefore as many different stories about the night skies. Some have been lost since colonisation and some were sacred, private knowledge. One thing was universal: Indigenous Australians valued the sun, moon and stars for information about seasonal survival, but also for its keeping of culture and story.

Ray and Cilla Norris’s publication "Emu Dreaming: An introduction to Australian Aboriginal Astronomy" became the message stick to a new generation of teachers, who are now adding the richness of Indigenous observations to astronomy science classes.

Astrophysicist Alan Duffy is one who, after being introduced to concepts of Indigenous astronomy, will never look at the Milky Way the same way again. And after visiting the Pilbara earlier this year to share his knowledge about Indigenous astronomy with students in both Indigneous and non-Indigenous schools, he is even more encouraged, with new knowledge, and optimism about the future of astronomy in Australia.

Dr Duffy’s invitation to visit schools in the Pilbara to share his love of astronomy came about as part of Pilbara Joblink and the Federal Government’s ‘Inspiring Australia’ initiative called the ‘Science career carousel’. Dr Duffy visited Karratha High School, St Luke’s College and Roeburne, a Year 6 to 9 Indigenous school.

“I initially felt awkward about being the Irish boy from the Emerald Isle who visits the red regions of the Pilbara to talk to Indigenous kids about their own ancestral knowledge,” he says. “As there is a huge variety of Indigenous stories from different regions of Australia I decided to share the ones I knew in the fine oral tradition of storytelling.”

Dr Duffy explained to the students that Indigenous astronomy is a great example of how sophisticated Aboriginal science and culture was through its development. He also explored the fundamental difference in the way traditional European astronomy conceives the constellations by connecting the dots of stars to form pictures attributed to Greek mythology, whereas Aboriginal astronomy connects not just the stars but also the black spaces in-between. Two different ways of viewing the same night’s sky!

“The school kids were very excited by the “emu in the sky” which stretches out in what European astronomers call the Milky Way,” he says. “Once you see it, you can never look at the Milky Way the same way again. As a constellation, it is far more convincing than the obscure European pictures.

“There is an engraving of the emu in the sky in stone at Ku-ring-gai Chase national park just north of Sydney, where the Guringai people lived until the British arrived in 1788, and the time of year when the emu rises just above the horizon is also the season when real emus lay their eggs; it has remarkable timekeeping accuracy. This knowledge is important to survival, especially if you were keen on a fresh egg for dinner.”

Dr Duffy also explains that stretches of the Pilbara resemble the Martian landscape more than any other on Earth, and have been used by NASA to test and train their Mars rovers.

He found the red terrain fascinating and beautiful, and was not immune to the irony that during sessions students were enjoying a NASA app allowing them to simulate driving the Mars rover on Martian landscapes created from the very place they lived and learned.

Dr Duffy says he was amazed by how much he had learnt from visiting these students in the Pilbara.

“I spoke to the students about Indigenous astronomy, on using the sky as a ‘GPS’ and a calendar. I had no idea until I had done the research that the European story of Orion the Hunter (who is upside down in Australia) chasing seven sisters (a cluster of seven stars) is essentially the same story in Indigenous astronomy where a fisherman hunter and his three brothers are also chasing the seven sisters. I agree with Ray and Cilla Norris this suggests the possibility that these stories may have come from one set of people a very long time ago.”

Dr Duffy says one the most memorable student questions during his time in the outback also revealed complex analysis of physical concepts in astronomy.

“A girl asked, if the sun is so hot why is space so cold? While the answer is simple the question is wonderfully complex. The simple answer is, just as we walk further and further away from a campfire the energy is less and it feels cold in the next paddock. But the question is beautiful, Einstein would be proud, because there is logic in the observation that is embedded in the question. Consider the notion that it takes time for a room (our planet) to heat up. It suggests there was a time when the sun did not shine but now it does. It suggests there must have been a beginning to the universe.”

Dr Duffy laughs at himself and reiterates “I’m the Irish boy from the Emerald Isle who visits the red regions of the Pilbara to remind them of what they already know. That is, the universe is a fascinating story any way you look at it.

“Learning from the elders in any culture has allowed for knowledge and know-how to be passed down the generations. Their stories have helped us make sense of the world, navigate our lives and celebrate annual rituals,” he says.

This article was first published through The Age on 13 January 2014.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Bora Ceremonial Grounds and the Milky Way: a Connection?

Most Aboriginal language groups in Australia practised initiation ceremonies. In some places, this tradition continues. During this ceremony, teenage boys were taken through a rite of passage, where they would perfectly recite the stories, laws, and customs they were taught, and perform the dances with extreme precision among other things (Figure 1). The initiation also involved a form of body modification, but most of these details are considered secret. This ceremony proved to their elders that they were ready to be men. In southeastern Australia, it was generally known as a Bora ceremony, taken from the Kamilaroi term for the word. The Bora ceremony was commented upon by the earliest European arrivals in Sydney. One of the first Bora sites identified was at Farm Cove in Sydney – what is now the Botanic Gardens near the Opera House.

Figure 1: Photograph of a Bora ceremony,
taken in 1898 by Charles Kerry.
National Library of Australia

Most Bora grounds have a distinct shape. They tend to consist of two rings of flattened earth, with an embankment of raised earth or stones, and a pathway connecting them. One is a larger “public” circle, where women and other people can attend. The other is a smaller sacred circle, which is considered sacred and secret. This is where the final part of the initiation and body modification takes place. Secret parts of the ceremony are not discussed out of respect to the Aboriginal elders.

Figure 2: Casino Bora Ground, Richmond Valley, NSW.
Image from Sandra Bowdler (2000). A heritage study
of Indigenous ceremonial (Bora) sites. University of
Western Australia, Perth.

Bora ceremonies take place between August and the following March, which are the summer months. The ceremonial grounds are often laid out long before the ceremony is held, or even renewed from previous ceremonies. Although Bora ceremonies were held at any time over this long period, it seems many of them were held in August and September. And this may have astronomical significance.

It seems the Bora ceremony is connected to the Emu in the Sky. The Emu in the Sky is a spirit emu found in the Milky Way (Figure 3). This Aboriginal constellation is not made up of bright stars, but instead comprises dark patches in the Milky Way, stretching from the Coalsack Nebula near the Southern Cross down to the centre of the galaxy in Scorpius. Since male emus brood, hatch, and rear the emu chicks, it is symbolic of the initiation of adolescent boys by their male elders. In southeast Australia, the culture hero Baiame is believed to live behind the Milky Way. The son of Baiame, is a being called Daramulan, who watches over, and even comes down from the sky for, the Bora ceremony, and his wife is an emu.

Figure 3: The Emu in the Sky. Image from

One elder said that the Bora ceremonial ground was reflected in the Milky Way as the Sky Bora: two dark patches within the Milky Way that mimic the two earthly Bora circles (Figure 4). These dark patches are also within the celestial emu: the larger one is the Coalsack (the Emu’s head) and the other is down the Milky Way towards the Emu’s body. As it turns out, August and September is when the Milky Way is vertical above the south-southwest horizon in the evening sky. Because of this connection, the researchers – Robert Fuller (Macquarie University), Dr Duane Hamacher (University of New South Wales), and Professor Ray Norris (CSIRO/Macquarie University) – wondered if the Bora ceremonial grounds were oriented to the direction of the Sky Bora/Emu in the Sky when Bora ceremonies were held. Information collected by anthropologists learning from Aboriginal elders suggested as much, but Fuller, Hamacher, and Norris needed to demonstrate this.

Figure 4: the Sky Bora in the Milky Way at the time of year ceremonies were held
(evenings in August and September). Image made by R.S. Fuller using Stellarium.

Fuller and his colleagues collected data for 1,170 Bora grounds in New South Wales and southeastern Queensland. They identified 68 Bora grounds that contained clear information about the site’s orientation, from the large circle to small circle (mostly within 200 km of Brisbane). The 68 sites showed that a significant number of them were oriented to the southern quadrant – more so than any other direction (and by quite a bit more!).

This is interesting, but could these results be a product of chance? To test this hypothesis, the researchers used a statistical technique called a Monte Carlo simulation. This is where random orientations, like those of the Bora grounds, were simulated millions of times over. If these orientations were common, the simulation would confirm that. The researchers ran the simulation 100 million times. Only 303 of the simulations gave a result like the one found by Fuller and his colleagues. This means the probability of these orientations occurring by chance is one in 3 million, or 0.0003%! This confirms that there is definitely a preference for Bora grounds to be oriented towards the south. This coincides with the position of the Milky Way in the evening sky during August and September.

Is this conclusive proof that Bora ceremonial grounds were oriented to the position of the Milky Way in August and September? No. But it takes us one step closer to finding out. Fuller and his colleagues are currently working with elders across NSW to learn more about the Bora ceremony and its connection to the sky, which is starting to reveal new and interesting facts about this initiation ceremony.

To learn more about the research, check out the paper “Astronomical Orientations of Bora Ceremonial Grounds in Southeast Australia.” Australian Archaeology, No. 77, pp. 30-37.