Tim Bach

The astronomical community is abuzz with news of the images being delivered back to Earth from the James Webb Space Telescope. While most of us cannot fully appreciate the scientific importance of those photos, we are stunned by the spectacular and surreal images.

We admire the knowledge and skill of the scientists and engineers who have accomplished this technical feat, and we should also acknowledge those who are considered by many to the earliest astronomers – the Indigenous people of Australia.

Their knowledge was preserved and passed down by oral traditions through hundreds or thousands of generations. Daylesford’s W. E. Stanbridge was the first European to document the traditional astronomical knowledge of Indigenous Australians.

Stanbridge arrived in Australia from England in 1841 and worked initially managing sheep stations around Victoria. In 1847, he obtained a pastoral licence for Tyrrell Station on the east side of Lake Tyrrell. He later (1851) purchased a portion of the Holcombe Run and established the Wombat Run, now Wombat Park on the north-east boundary of Daylesford. He made a fortune from gold mining royalties from mines on Wombat Run when gold was discovered soon after.

We know Stanbridge as a pastoralist and mining investor, a local politician and Mayor, a philanthropist and advocate of women’s suffrage. He was also a conscious supporter of Aboriginal knowledge and human rights.

Stanbridge is not as well-known as a scholar but he was clearly a well-educated man. He was elected into the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, the Royal Society of Victoria and the Ethnological Society of London.

While at Lake Tyrrell, he worked closely with the local Boorong people learning some of their language, customs and knowledge. In 1857, he presented a paper to the Philosophical Institute of Victoria on Boorong astronomy. The paper presented a catalogue of celestial objects and phenomena known to the Boorong people including the visible planets and many high magnitude stars. The Boorong also recognised dark celestial objects such as the Magellanic Clouds and the Coalsack Nebula at the head of the Dark Emu.

The Boorong people were not the only Indigenous people to develop astronomical knowledge. Australian Aboriginal people have an extensive knowledge of the stars and planets. Cultural knowledge associated with the heavens varies from place to place throughout the continent because the needs of people are local to their environment and the specific applications of astronomical knowledge therefore also differ. It is widely recognised that Aboriginal creation knowledge is embedded in the landscape and the starscape. Their astronomical knowledge is also used to mark the passage of seasons, identify harvest times, times to move to new seasonal grounds and to predict tides.

The Boorong use the stars to identify seasons and seasonal food sources. For example, as documented by Stanbridge, when Marpeankurrk (Arcturus, the fourth brightest star in the Southern sky) is in the north in the evening, the Bittur (wood ant larvae) is in season. Bittur is a dietary staple of the Boorong in the months of August and September. When Marpeankurrk sets with the sun, the Bittur are gone and Cotchi (summer) begins.

The study of Indigenous astronomical knowledge is central to the discipline of cultural astronomy. Stanbridge may have been the first cultural astronomer in Australia but he certainly wasn’t the last. Australia has been a rich source of material for cultural astronomy especially in areas where Indigenous knowledge has been preserved.

Duane Hamacher trained as an astrophysicist but did his PhD in cultural astronomy at Macquarie University. He now works at the Nura Gili Indigenous Centre at UNSW. He has shown that Indigenous astronomical knowledge is dynamic, or changing, as new observations are made. He used Stanbridge’s catalogue of Boorong stars to show that Collowgullouric War (female crow, wife of War) is the star kown to Western astronomers as Eta Carinae, a nebula which exploded a few years before the time that Stanbridge arrived at Lake Tyrill and became one of the brightest stars in the sky. Incredibly, it had already been incorporated into the Boorong traditional knowledge as the wife of War, the Crow, by the time Stanbridge studied with the local Boorong.

Indigenous astronomy provides insights into the culture and knowledge of Aboriginal people – not only myths and legends, but their traditions, law and understanding of the natural world. WE Stanbridge made a seminal contribution to preserving and disseminating this knowledge to Western science.

If you are intersted in learning more, this entertaining TedX talk by Duane Hammacher provides some insights into Aboriginal astronomical knowledge. And there is a wealth of knowledge at http://www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au/

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Tim Bach is a Daylesford resident and is an Editor of The Wombat Post.