Monday, April 25, 2011

"Bridging the Gap" through Australian Cultural Astronomy: Part I

By Duane Hamacher and Ray Norris

In January of this year, the International Society for Archaeoastronomy & Astronomy in Culture (ISAAC) held its 9th global conference, dubbed “Oxford IX”, in Lima, Peru.  This was a great chance to meet all of the top people in the field, network, share research ideas, collaborate, and a fantastic opportunity to present the latest research on Australian Cultural Astronomy to a global audience. Representing Aboriginal Astronomy were Dianne Johnson, who wrote the definitive book on the subject, Ray Norris (who was unable to attend) and Duane Hamacher.  Dianne and Duane gave talks on the first day, which were both very well received.  A paper was prepared for the conference proceedings, and is presented in this blog. Although this paper is far more “academic” in nature than our previous blog posts, it is still easily accessible to the general reader.  The first half of the paper is presented this week, while the second half will be presented next week, complete with a list of references.

Left - Participants of the ISAAC conference in Lima, Peru.  Right - Gail Higginbottom (Flinders), Clive Ruggles (Leicester) and Duane Hamacher (Macquarie) at an archaeological site in Lima.


For more than 50,000 years, Indigenous Australians have incorporated celestial events into their oral traditions and used the motions of celestial bodies for navigation, time-keeping, food economics, and social structure. In this paper, we explore the ways in which Aboriginal people made careful observations of the sky, measurements of celestial bodies, and incorporated astronomical events into complex oral traditions by searching for written records of time-keeping using celestial bodies, the use of rising and setting stars as indicators of special events, recorded observations of variable stars, the solar cycle, and lunar phases (including ocean tides and eclipses) in oral tradition, as well as astronomical measurements of the equinox, solstice, and cardinal points.


An accumulation of evidence has shown that Aboriginal Australians were careful observers of the night sky and that celestial knowledge played a major role in the culture, social structure, and oral traditions of the hundreds of distinct Aboriginal groups, each with a distinct language and culture, that existed prior to British colonisation (e.g. Stanbridge, 1858; Griffin, 1923; Maegraith, 1932; Mountford, 1958; Clarke, 1997; Johnson, 1998; Haynes, 2000; Cairns & Harney, 2003; Fredrick, 2008; Norris & Norris, 2009; Norris & Hamacher, 2009), something Aboriginal people themselves have long known but is only beginning to receive long-overdue acknowledgement by mainstream Australians.  This knowledge included an understanding that celestial phenomena correlated to terrestrial events, such as the passage of time, the changing of seasons, the emergence of particular food sources, the timing of ocean tides, and the nature of transient celestial phenomena, such as comets, eclipses, meteors, and cosmic impacts (e.g. Hamacher & Norris 2009, 2010, 2011a, 2011b, Hamacher & Frew, 2010). Aboriginal people used the sky for marriage and totem classes and as cultural mnemonics (Johnson, 1998). This knowledge was passed through successive generations via oral tradition, dance, ceremony, and various artistic forms. Much of this knowledge was restricted to particular genders, totems, or was dependant on the initiation of that individual into the higher ranks of the community.

It has been claimed that Aboriginal people “made no measurements of space and time, nor did they engage in even the most elementary of mathematical calculations" (Haynes, 2000:54).  As recently as the 1980s, Blake (1981) stated that "no Australian Aboriginal language has a word for a number higher than four," despite well-documented Aboriginal number systems (e.g. McRoberts, 1990; Tully, 1997). If indeed Aboriginal people were incapable of counting past four, then it would seem unlikely that they "measured things" or observed celestial phenomena. Such misconceptions are an obstacle to research in this area.

While some Aboriginal groups were badly damaged by British colonisation, other communities, especially those in Arnhem Land, still live fairly "traditional" lifestyles, where the traditional language is spoken, and ceremonies, laws, and artistic forms are strong and vibrant. However, in other regions, evidence of once strong Aboriginal cultures is confined to historical accounts or archaeological sites, largely due to the damaging effects of colonisation.

In this paper, we highlight examples of how Aboriginal people made use of celestial phenomena for calendric, navigational, and cultural purposes and show that Aboriginal people were careful observers of the night sky. We show that they noted the changing brightness of particular stars, and the complex motions of the sun and moon, and oriented stone arrangements to cardinal directions, and to locations of astronomical phenomena.

Timekeeping & Written Records

There are a number of ways celestial objects can be used to record the passage of time.  In Aboriginal cultures, the moon is widely used. Hahn (1964:130) notes that Aboriginal people of the Hahndorf area in the Adelaide Hills were observed making notches in their digging sticks upon the appearance of each New Moon to mark their own age. Message sticks consist of pictograms used to communicate particular information to distant communities, which Howitt (1898:314) called "Blackfellow's letters". For example, Mathews (1897:293) explains how the pictograms on a message stick (Figure 1) represent information about the location and time of a corroboree to be held in the future. The message stick states that "Nanee (a) sent the message from the Bokhara river (b), by the hand of Imball (c), via the Birie (d), the Culgoa (e), and Cudnappa (f) rivers, to Belay (g); that the stick was dispatched at new moon (h), and Belay and his tribe are expected to be at Cudnappa river (f) at full moon (i); (j) represents a corroboree ground, and Belay understands from it that Nanee and his tribe are corroboreeing at the Bokhara river, which is their taorai, and, further, that on the meeting of the two tribes at full moon on the Cudnappa river a big corroboree will be held."

Figure 1: A message stick, taken from Mathews (1897:292), depicting information including time, denoted by the phase of the moon.

This particular message stick reveals pictograms representing the moon at different phases ("new" and "full"). The new moon, which in this context represents a crescent, is depicted in the lower-left of Frame 1, labeled as (h) while the full moon is the full circle depicted in the upper-left of Frame 2, labeled as (i). Given that the cusps of the moon point toward the right, this stick seems to represent a waxing crescent moon, which is prominent in the early evening. Lunar phases were a common method of determining time in message sticks (e.g. Howitt, 1898:317).

Seasons & Food Economics

Marking the change of seasons was essential to the Aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies of Australia, and the positions of celestial bodies were a good way to accomplish this (see Table 1 for examples). The change of seasons denoted altering weather patterns, the availability of particular food sources, and the breeding seasons of animals. The various climactic and geographic regions of Australia have led Aboriginal groups to designate a wide variety of seasons. In areas like northwest Victoria, Aboriginal groups had four distinct seasons (Stanbridge, 1858) while groups in Arnhem Land and many other areas had six (Thomson & Peterson, 1983), with substantial variation across the continent. In many communities, these seasonal changes are designated by the appearance of particular stars.

Table 1: Examples of the significance to different Aboriginal communities of the heliacal (morning) rising of particular stars.  We identify the star Parna as Fomalhaut, as it is the only bright star that rises in the eastern skies before sunrise in mid-March, the start of the Autumn Rains in the Adelaide region.

Group               Location              Object          Meaning                               Reference           
Boorong             NE Victoria          Vega             Mallee Fowls Build Nests        Stanbridge (1858)
Kaurna               Adelaide Region    Parna           Start of Autumn Rains            Gell (1842)
Pitjantjatjara       Central Desert       Pleiades        Dingo Breeding Season          Tindale (2005)
Warnindilyakwa   Groote Eylandt      v,la Scor       Start of Dry Season               Mountford (1956)
Yolngu               Arnhem Land        Scorpius       Arrival of Macassans              Mountford (1956)

Observing Stellar Variability

In his seminal work on Boorong ethnoastronomy, Stanbridge (1858) quoted a number of stars, clusters, planets, and celestial objects, citing their Boorong names.  For the entry Collowgullouric War (the wife of War, the Crow, pronounced "Waah", designated as the star Canopus), he wrote "a large red star in Robur Carol, designated 966". From this description, Hamacher & Frew (2010) were able to show that this was a reference to the hyper-giant variable star Eta Carina during an eruptive period in the 1840s, when it became the second brightest star in the night sky after Sirius (Figure 2). Not only had the Boorong noted this "supernova impostor" event, but they incorporated it into their oral traditions as the wife of War. This is the only definitive Indigenous record of Eta Carinae's eruption.

Figure 2: Eta Carinae and the surrounding region as it looks today, highlighting Canopus, Eta Carinae, Gacrux ("top" star of the Southern Cross), and Rigil Kentaurus and Hadar (the Pointers - Alpha and Beta Centauri)

There is also evidence that more subtle variable stars were noted by Aboriginal Australians. Daisy Bates from Ooldea, South Australia recorded that the local Aboriginal people had noted the variability of Betelgeuse in Orion (Fredrick, 2008). According to an oral tradition, the stars that constitute Orion represent Nyeeruna, a hunter of women who chases the women of the Pleiades (Yugarilya). Nyeeruna's right hand is represented by the star Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), which holds a club he endeavors to fill with fire-magic to hurl at Kambugudha, the eldest sister of the Yugarilya (represented by the V-shape of the brighter stars of the Hyades in Taurus), who prevents Nyeeruna from ever reaching the Yugarilya, thus humiliating him. In his rage, Nyeeruna reddens with fire and lust, but Kambugudha's magic and humiliation causes his fire magic to die out, becoming faint.

After some time, his magic comes back and his brightness increases. Betelgeuse is a red super-giant star with noted semi-regular variability that ranges between 1.2 < Vmag < 0.2 with a mean magnitude of 0.42 (Figure 3). These variations, first described by Herschel (1849), have a duration of several months to a year.

Figure 3: Light Curve of Betelgeuse, using the AAVSO Light Curve Generator (LCG)

To be continued next week...

Monday, April 18, 2011

The World’s First Astronomers?

Over the last few years, there have been a significant number of news articles claiming that Indigenous Australians were the world’s first astronomers.  Is this true?  How do we define “astronomer”?  How do we determine who was “first”?

To begin, let us define “astronomy”.  Astronomy is considered the oldest of the natural sciences, and is defined as “the branch of science that deals with celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole.”  Astronomy relies upon the scientific method, which involves logical-deductive reasoning, the collection and analysis of empirical data, and the development of testable, falsifiable hypotheses and theories.  While the origins of “scientific” astronomy can be found in Mesopotamia, many peoples around the world had their own forms of “cultural astronomy”.  In this context, we are not simply talking about having stories related to the sky or naming celestial objects.  We are talking about an intellectual quest to gain a deeper understanding of the motions of celestial objects, their relationship to events on the earth (such as tides, timekeeping and seasons), and the nature of their origin and composition (such as comets and meteors). One application of astronomy to make predictions based on the positions and motions of celestial bodies.  For example, the motions of particular celestial objects at certain times of the year can reveal various important things.  These include the heliacal rising of certain stars and the availability of particular food sources, the rising and setting position of the sun denoting the changing of seasons, or the correlation of tides and lunar phases (Figure 1).  To understand these requires logical deductive reasoning, the analysis of empirical “data”, and the testing of various hypotheses.  Therefore, Indigenous cultures that demonstrate this maybe considered “astronomers”.

Figure 1: Lunar phases and ocean tides.  Image from

Indigenous Australians can certainly be considered astronomers, for all of the above criteria have been met.  We now ask, “has this been the case over the course of human habitation in Australia?”  We do not know for certain, but the answer is very probably “yes”.  While it would have taken some period of time to work out the link between the motions of celestial bodies and the availability of particular food sources or the changing seasons (e.g. wet or dry season), it is obvious that this has been done to some degree, as we find many records of it in art and oral tradition.  The fact that Indigenous culture thrived in Australia is testament their adaptability, which no doubt was due, in part, to their knowledge of the heavens.  We could argue that the celestial realm would have been essential for survival, as it served to inform the people when seasons were changing and new food sources were ready.   Of course, many cultural aspects were built on to this framework, which led to the development of social structure, oral traditions, laws, ceremonies, art, and cultural mnemonics related to the cosmos (e.g. Figure 2).  But were Indigenous Australians the first to do this?

Figure 2: A Wardaman rock painting from the Northern Territory featuring astronomical symbolism.  Image taken from Dark Sparklers.

This is difficult to claim with any level of certainty.  There are two primary approaches to answering this question: The first is that we find an archaeological site that we can show, conclusively, had some form of astronomical purpose… and date it.  The oldest earns the title of “first astronomers”.  The second is to determine that a detailed knowledge of the night sky was essential for survival of a particular culture, then see how far back that culture stretches.  The oldest was the first.  While the second approach seems logical, it is not so easy to prove.  It is certainly possible to survive while knowing little or nothing about the celestial world, although it would seem much easier if it were understood.  The first approach is flawed and highly subjective, as not all groups of people would have needed to (or wanted to) build monuments for astronomical purposes.  Even if an astronomical site were found to be very old, it certainly does not prove the people who built it were the “first” astronomers.  For instance, one of the oldest astronomical sites known is Nabta Playa in southern Egypt (Figure 3), which is estimated to be some 7,000 years old.  However, this does not mean Egyptians were the first astronomers.

Figure 3: A stone circle with proposed astronomical alignments at Nabta Playa in Egypt, regarded as one of the oldest astronomical sites in the world.  Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Even though Indigenous Australians were astronomers and represent very old cultures, that does not necessarily mean they were the “first”.  If that claim were true, it would mean that all of humankind, for the tens-of-thousands of years prior to Australian migration, did not deduce the link between celestial and terrestrial events, they did not use the night sky for navigation, food economics or time keeping, nor did they derive the relationship between lunar phases and ocean tides.  Such a claim seems VERY unlikely.  To better understand this, we must establish how long humans have been in Australia, how they got there, and whether this tells us anything about their use of astronomy? 

Before I do this, I want to say that I realise many Indigenous Australians believe that they were always here, that they literally “came from the earth”.  In a cultural context, I completely understand this, but I must approach this from a scientific viewpoint (after all, I am a scientist).  To start, we look at the origins of humans.  The dominant hypothesis of human evolution places the origins of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, in Africa some 250,000 years ago, which then spread throughout the world between 70,000-50,000 years ago (Figure 5), although recent studies show that the migration out of Africa may have started 125,000 years ago.  This spread was dependant on a number of factors, including climatic conditions, adaptability, and accessibility.  40,000-50,000 years ago, the sea level was much lower than it is today, and southeast Asia constituted a landmass called Sunda, while Australia and New Guinea formed the landmass of Sahul (Figure 4). 

Figure 4: A map of Sunda and Sahul showing the extent of the land during a period of low sea levels some 50,000 years ago.  Image from Wiki Commons.

Travel from Sunda to Sahul required navigation and sea-faring skills, as the gap between them consisted of a deep ocean waterway that exceeded 90 km in width, known as the Webber Line.  While previous hypotheses suggested that humans had migrated to Sahul in multiple waves, recent genetic studies using Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA suggest that humans migrated to Australia in a single wave, as opposed to multiple waves.  The study showed that the Indigenous people of Australia and New Guinea share several ancient genetic lineages, indicating that both are descended from a single founding population (Figure 5).  It has also been claimed that in order to reach Sahul, which would not have been clearly visible from Sunda, people would have recognized that a landmass existed in the distance by watching migratory birds and climactic variations.  To reach this land would have required reasonable sea-craft and various degrees of navigational skills (depending on the route taken). The routes travelled are still unknown, and further research is underway.

Figure 5: A map showing probable routes of human migration.  Australia corresponds to M30 (~50,000 years ago).  Image from Genetic Archaeology (click on image for larger version).

In any case, we know that humans have populated Australia for at least 45,000-50,000 years.  We know that Indigenous Australians were astronomers, and we could reasonably assume that this stretched back to the original habitation of Australia.  It is possible that humans used celestial navigation to reach Sahul, although it is uncertain at this point.  However, we have no reason to believe that the humans prior to the settlement of Australia were not 'astronomers'.  Indigenous Australians are considered to be among the oldest continuous cultures in the world, having not been colonized or displaced by any other humans until the British arrived some 220 years ago.  For that reason, we could accurately call Indigenous Australians the (or among the*) world's OLDEST astronomers… but not necessarily the FIRST.  We must remind ourselves that this is not a competition.  It is not relevant to say who was first, biggest, best, etc.  These are relatively meaningless terms in this context and they only act to drive a wedge between cultures.

Were Indigenous Australians the "first" astronomers?  Very probably not.  Are they the "oldest" astronomers?  Yes, probably.

*I make this distinction because Indigenous people have inhabited the Andaman Islands (in the Indian Ocean between India and Myanmar) for 50,000-60,000 years, which may predate the arrival of humans to Australia by thousands of years.

Read more:

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Coal Sack and the "Emu in the..." er, I mean... the "Llama in the Sky"?!

By Duane Hamacher

On a clear winter night in the Southern Hemisphere, the bright stars of the Southern Cross shine above, flanked by the Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) to the left and the False Cross to the right (Figure 1).  Just below the Southern Cross (called Crux), to the left, you can clearly see a dark patch, called the Coal Sack by astronomers.  The Coal Sack is an absorption nebula (an expanse of cool gas and dust that absorbs background light, making it appear dark) approximately 600 light years away and 20-30 light years across.  Other absorption (aka Dark) nebulae include the Horsehead, Cone, and Snake Nebulae.

Figure 1: The Pointers, Coal Sack, and Southern Cross.
Image by Duane Hamacher, using the Starry Night software package.

Aboriginal Australians have diverse views of the Coal Sack (Figure 2).  Given the dark, cave-like appearance of this nebula, some Aboriginal groups identify it as the lair of evil beings.  For example, in the oral traditions of the Yolngu, Ngarinman, and Wardaman peoples of the Northern Territory, an evil spirit-being lurks in the Coal Sack and flings a fireball (an exceptionally bright meteor) from the heavens to destroy the world if sacred laws are broken or traditions are ignored.   Similar views are held by the  Puckowe of the Lower Murray River region, Gundidjmara people in southwestern Victoria, Wiradjuri of central New South Wales, and the Wardaman of the Northern Territory.

The Tangani people of the Coorong saw a meteor come from the Coal Sack, which they called Yuuki, that coincided with a smallpox epidemic in the 1800s.  The meteor, which was “like a bright flash, too bright to look”, was believed to be a spirit-man named Kuldalai who traveled across the sea towards Kangaroo Island.  Descriptions of meteors emanating from the Coal Sack may be related to the Alpha and Beta Centaurids, meteor showers that radiate from near the Pointers and very close to the Coal Sack.  In fact, just yesterday, near the town of Armidale, New South Wales, I witnessed a meteor near the Coal Sack - what a beautiful sight!

 Figure 2:  A close-up image of the Coal Sack, with Acrux and Becrux to the upper right.
Image by Gail Bischoff.

Similarly, some South Australian groups describe the Coal Sack as a large waterhole in the Sky River (Milky Way), which is the home to a serpent or bunyip (monster).  In Central Australia, the Arrernte refer to it as the nest of the wedge-tailed eagle, Waluwara.  However, the Coal Sack is most frequently linked with an emu.  While many groups refer to the nebula simply as “the emu”, others describe the full figure of the animal.  Instead of being traced out by the bright stars, the body is traced out by the dark dust lanes of the Milky Way.  If you look carefully at the Coal Sack, you can see the shape of the emu’s head: the dust lane that forms the shape of a beak, the overall “roundness” of the head, and the star BZ Crucis, a 5.3 magnitude blue sub-giant star ~1,000 light years from earth, in a serendipitous position to look like the emu’s eye (see Figure 2).  The body of the emu is traced out by the dust lanes of the Milky Way to the east of the Pointers, into the galactic bulge (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Top - An emu.  Image by Australian Animals.
Bottom - The Emu in the Sky.  Image by Alec Kennedy.

In Victoria, Wergaia clans called the emu Tchingal, while the Mara called it Torong.  The “emu in the sky” is known across Australia, from the Kamilaroi of New South Wales, to the Meintangk of South Australia, to the Larrakia of the Northern Territory.  The famous emu rock engraving at Elvina Track in Kuringai Chase National Park north of Sydney may have a connection to the night sky.  The engraving is one of many examples of rock art in the park, which include rock engravings, paintings, stone arrangements, and axe grinding grooves, among others.  A look at the emu engraving will bring to your attention something unusual - her feet are pointed behind her, as if she were flying (which, of course, emus can’t do).  It was proposed by Professor Hugh Cairns of Sydney University that this may represent the “Emu in the Sky”.  Later, Professor Ray Norris of the CSIRO and his son, Barnaby, photographed both the engraving and the night sky, oriented appropriately.  What they found was remarkable… the emu aligns to her image in the night sky at the time of year that emu eggs are ready to be collected (late May and early June, Figure 4).  Emu eggs were an important food source for Aboriginal people, and the engraving features an egg within the emu herself.  The image won Barnaby Norris a Eureka prize and has become the definitive symbol for Aboriginal Astronomy today.

Figure 4: The "Emu in the Sky" engraving, as seen from Elvina Track, Kuringai Chase National Park, north of Sydney.  Image by Barnaby Norris.

Interestingly enough, this pattern is known all the way across the Pacific but is instead related to another animal.  In the Andes of South America, the outline of the Australian “emu in the sky” is instead referred to as a “llama in the sky” (Figure 5).  The Inca revered the llama, which can be seen as a very similar shape to the emu in the sky, except that the Pointers are the llama’s eyes.  For this reason, llamas with black fur are especially important in Inca religion.  In Inca legend, the llama (Yacana) was traveling with her baby across the sky river (Milky Way). The further she walked, the blacker her fur became.  When the baby was hungry, Yacana fed it.  When she awoke, it became daylight.  To this day, when a man walks near the place Yacana fed her baby, he will be blessed with good luck.

Figure 5: The "Llama in the Sky", found in Inca legends.  Image by Brian Ritchie.

In Bolivia, this asterism is seen as a rhea (a bird very much like an emu or ostrich)!  So next time you are looking up at the night sky, take a minute to look for the emu in the sky... you'll never see it the same again!

Further Reading:
The Legend of Yacana, by Antonio Claret
The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia, by Ray Norris and Duane Hamacher


We respectfully acknowledge all Aboriginal groups mentioned in this article.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Meteors, Meteorites, and Cosmology in Aboriginal Cultures of Central Australia

["Impact Craters in Aboriginal Cultures, Part 3: Wolfe Creek" will be the subject of a future post by John Goldsmith, who recently visited the site and spoke with Aboriginal Elders]

When you see a flash of light streaking across the sky, you are witnessing the destruction of a piece of cosmic debris as it vaporizes in the atmosphere.  While typically called “falling” or “shooting” stars, they are actually bits of dust or debris no bigger than a grain of sand.  Larger chunks of debris, say the size of your hand, create a brilliant light that streaks across the sky, called fireballs.  When in space, the chunk of debris is called a meteoroid, which travels at speeds ranging from 20-70 km per second.  When it enters the earth’s atmosphere, we call it a meteor.  If it survives its trip to the ground, we call it a meteorite.  Most meteors are fragments of celestial bodies that have collided (such as asteroids), or debris from comets as they pass close to the sun and are vaporized by solar wind.  As the earth passes through these dust streams, we see a meteor shower.

Figure 1: A bright meteor, called a fireball.  Image by Thomas Grau.

In the oral traditions of Aboriginal Australians, meteors and meteorites are prominent. In general, meteors are associated with serpents, evil magic, omens of death, and punishment for breaking laws and traditions.  For example, in Central Australia, a meteor was an omen that the spirit of someone that had died far away was returning home.  Meteors were believed to contain an evil magic called Arungquilta, which was harnessed in ceremonies to inflict harm or death upon someone that broke a taboo, such as infidelity. Arungquilta could also be found in toadstools and mushrooms, which were believed to be fallen stars, and their consumption was forbidden.  Such a taboo may have developed from the consumption of poisonous fungi that are found in the region.

Meteors also were a component of particular ceremonies.  Two Arrernte rituals were performed to cause death using magical means. One ritual involved chanting a spell over a bone or stick and throwing the stick as far as possible in the direction of the intended victim. Afterwards, if the individual performing the spell saw a meteor, it was believed to represent the spirit of the person they had killed. The second ritual, a small spear-like device designed to punish a man for stealing another man's wife. The spear, endowed with Arungquilta, was thrown in the direction of the offending man's home. The evil spirit within the spear would locate the law-breaker and kill him. This form of Arungquilta was seen "streaking across the sky like a ball of fire". The men conducting the ritual would wait until a "thunderous boom" was heard, which signified that the spear had struck and killed the man. Another form of Arungquilta was used to punish unfaithful wives. This particular ceremony involved drawing a pictogram (Figure 2) in the dirt in a secluded area while a group of men (generally relatives of the husband) chanted a particular song. A piece of bark, representing the woman's spirit, was impaled with a series of small spears and flung in the direction they believed the woman to be, which would appear in the sky as a comet.
Figure 2: A drawing representing a woman lying on her back, where (a) represents her head, (b) her eyes, (c) her arms, and (d) her legs. The asterix indicates where the piece of bark is placed, representing the woman's spirit.

The Arungquilta would find the woman and deprive her of her fat. After a time, the emaciated woman would die and her spirit (ulthana) appeared in the sky as a meteor.  These descriptions seem to describe single particular events, where the rare appearance of a comet or airburst event were coincidental to the ritual and incorporated into, and explained by, the ritual itself.  In other accounts, meteors were poisonous serpents with large fiery eyes that flew through the sky and dropped into deep waterholes, while the eyes of serpents were often compared to bright stars, a perception shared by many Aboriginal communities in northern parts of Australia. This perception is illustrated by Dreamings from Ntaria (Hermannsburg), a town founded by Lutheran missionaries in 1877. One Dreaming involved a falling star that dropped into a spring where the Rainbow Serpent, Kulaia, lived (also called Kanmara by the Arrernte and Muruntu by the Luritja). In the Dreaming, a recently circumcised (initiated) boy and his brother were near the spring. The boy peered into it searching for water and was swallowed whole by Kulaia. The terrified brother ran to the camp and notified the people of this brother's demise. The boy's death caused much grief and mourning among the community, who promptly destroyed the food they had collected for the boy's initiation ceremony and left camp.

A young Arrernte woman from Ntaria told about a star that fell to earth on the site of the old Hermannsburg church prior to settlement of the area by Lutheran missionaries.  According to the story, the people were sitting in the shade by the river when a star fell from the sky, making a large hole behind two trees.  A new church was erected on that spot, with the church bell positioned between the two trees (Figure 3). When the young woman was asked why the star fell on that spot, she said it was the country where Jesus had been and that it was God who sent the star to earth because it was where the "Bible mob had been".  The story is the result of the heavy influence of Christian mythology introduced by the Lutheran missionaries and incorporated into the pre-existing Dreamings of the landscape, which the woman claimed were "forgotten" by the Arrernte.

Figure 3: The Hermannsburg Church, the site where a stone fell from the sky.

In Luritja traditions, meteorites were used as tools of punishment or signs of approval.  Men from the Ngalia clan (of the Luritja language group) claimed that the Walanari, celestial deities who were seen as protectors of good men and punishers of bad men that lived in the Magellanic Clouds, would throw stones to the earth as punishment for breaking taboos or as signs of approval during totemic ceremonies. The Ngalia men claimed that people have been killed by stones thrown by the Walanari and said the Walanari threw glowing stones on their camp the previous night after they shared sacred information with the ethnographer.
While Western science proposes that certain amino acids, which form the basis of life, were transported to earth via comets, the origin of life or humankind in Arrernte and Luritja Dreamings is also attributed to cosmic debris. A Western Arrernte account describes how the first human couple originated from a pair of stones that were thrown from the sky by the spirit Arbmaburinga (or Altierry), a "great strong old man" that lived in a place called Jirilla to the far north.  A Luritja Dreaming by Thanguwa describes how life was brought to earth by a meteorite called Kulu (see Figure 4):

"All the animals had a big meeting. 
Who was going to carry the egg of life up to the universe? 
The Kulu was chosen. 
When you see where the egg of life was carried. 
Meteorite has landed and dropped, split three ways. 
This is our memory of the Kulu. 
And life began."

Figure 4: A painting describing the story of Kulu, the meteorite that brought life to earth in Luritja oral traditions. Painting by Trephina Sultan Thanguwa (

The Arrernte and Luritja were not the only groups in Central Australia to associate their cosmology with meteors. The Yarrungkanyi and Warlpiri people of the Northern Territory tell how Dreaming men traveled through the sky as falling stars and landed at a place called Purrparlarla, southwest of Yuendumu, bringing the Dreaming to the people. From this, we see that Aboriginal views of meteoritic phenomena in this region are multiple and diverse. They can be omens, tools of evil magic, progenerators of life and culture, weapons of punishment, or signs of reward. These accounts show that meteors and meteorites were an important component of the Dreamings, ritual practices, and cosmology of the Aboriginal people of Central Australia.

Read more here: Meteoritics and Cosmology Among the Aboriginal Cultures of Australia by Duane Hamacher.  Journal of Cosmology, Volume 13.

It should be clarified that while some scientists have promoted a hypothesis called Panspermia - the idea that life itself was brought to earth via comets (including microbes responsible for disease epidemics like the bubonic plague), there is NO scientific evidence to support this hypothesis and it is NOT accepted by the scientific community.

We respectfully acknowledge the Aboriginal cultures of Central Australia, including the Arrernte, Luritja, Ngalia, Yarrungkanyi, and Warlpiri.