7 mins read 26 Jan 2021

Indigenous Astronomy 101 coming to uni students in 2021

65,000 years ago Australia’s First Nations people looked up at the night skies and started to observe recurring patterns as the Sun, Moon and stars travelled across the sky. Now, the University of Melbourne is offering a new undergraduate course that allows participants to study some of the knowledge from the world’s first astronomers in a new Indigenous Astronomy subject.

The Milky Way Galactic arc is represented as an emu in the sky, with the Kurin-gai Emu rock carvings displayed in the foreground. Credit: Barnaby Norris and Ray Norris.

Australia’s First Nations culture is over 65,000 years old and is not only are they the oldest continuing culture in the world but they are also the world’s first astronomers. Indigenous Astronomy across the world pre-dates Western civilization, older than the Babylonians, older than the Greeks. Song, dance and oral storytelling through the generations share how the land and the people are connected to the stars as they move across the sky.

For the first time, the University of Melbourne is offering a new ‘Indigenous Astronomy’ undergraduate subject as an introduction to Cultural Astronomy. The subject will focus on the astronomical knowledge and traditions of contemporary Indigenous cultures around the world, with an emphasis on Australia. 

As a subject offered under the Physics faculty, the Indigenous astronomy subject is the only one of its kind currently offered in Australia. 

The subject will look at how pre-Western scientific observations and practice were performed in relation to astronomic phenomena such as variable stars, eclipses, planetary motions, and meteorite impacts. The learnings will also cover how complex systems of knowledge are passed down generations and how we can apply emerging methodologies in cultural astronomy to reconstruct Indigenous astronomical knowledge fragmented due to colonisation.

The subject will also delve into how truth-telling about Indigenous people and their knowledge systems can change negative perceptions in modern society and how Indigenous astronomical knowledge can be protected as a living heritage.

Developed in conjunction with Indigenous First Nation Elders and experts, Dr. Duane Hamacher, Associate Professor of Cultural Astronomy in the School of Physics, is the subject developer, coordinator and lecturer. He said “The Elders have been teaching me for years that they are people of culture and science that their knowledge systems contain a lot of science. It doesn’t often get recognised that way, but a part of reconciliation and de-colonisation is for Western academics and science, and Indigenous knowledge systems to find a way to work together. 

“A lot of ‘discoveries’ that were made by Western Science had been figured out long before by Indigenous cultures in the world, particularly here in Australia. And that’s one of the things we’re going to be looking at.

“About a third of the subject is going to be Indigenous First Nation people guest lecturers coming in from Australia and around the world,” said Dr. Hamacher. 

Amongst the impressive list of guest speakers is Jarita Holbrook, an African American astronomer and expert in African astronomy and navigation, Professor Rangi Matamua, acclaimed Mauri Astronomer, Australia’s own Uncle Jimmy Smith, Aboriginal educator and cultural practitioner, and Prof. Marcia Langdon AM, renown anthropologist, geographer and Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. 

Indigenous Astronomy (PHYC10010) is also offered as a ‘breadth’ subject which allows students from other faculties to complete the subject to develop skills and explore interests that may not be available within the students’ main area of study. This subject will be available for students enrolled within Bachelor degrees of Arts, Biomedicine, Commerce, Music and Science. 

Prof Hamacher said “The Elders teach that everything in the land is reflected in the sky so Indigenous astronomy is not just about astronomy, astronomy is just the anchor point for talking about everything else that happens in our day to day realm. 

“We’ll talk about things like navigating and predicting weather and seasons through the star systems but also how that knowledge is tied into day to day lives, how it connects with the animals, the plants, the people, the landscape. Pretty much every aspect of everyday life links to the stars.

“Students from other disciplines will find a fantastic application to their research and their studies regardless of what discipline they are learning because it all works together like that. That’s what I love about it.”

The subject will be taught either as a blended delivery (online and campus-based) and also as an online subject for students who cannot attend campus.

The First Astronomers

Milky Way star map by Bill Yidumduma Harney, Senior Wardaman Edler. Image: Bill Yidumduma Harney, CC BY

Australia’s First Nations culture is over 65,000 years old and is the oldest continuing culture in the world. Indigenous astronomy across the world existed long before the Babylonians, Greeks, or the Romans.

Indigenous astronomy allowed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to navigate, predict animal and food availability, and to predict the weather through the observation of the Sun, Moon and stars. The complex knowledge systems of Australia’s First Nation’s people are told through stories, song and dance and are passed down through the generations to continually share the knowledge and culture. 

The book “Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia: a Noctuary” by Dianne Johnson, an anthropologist who worked closely with the Darug and Gundungurra peoples is the prescribed text for the Indigenous astronomy subject and is available as a free download. The book is described as “… a record of the stars and planets which pass across the night-time skies. This noctuary holds not only a record of what appears in the skies and how Aboriginal people see them, but also offers an appreciation of the Aboriginal stories that are tied to the night skies and the ideas and beliefs behind them.”

The continued relevance of Indigenous astronomy is proven in current research being done today in combination with current ‘Western’ astronomy practices. 

“There are lots of ways the two can work together. A good example is the work we are doing on supernovas,” said Dr. Hamacher.

“There are astronomy/astrophysicist colleagues (University of Melbourne) looking at supernovae remnants in the plane of the Milky Way and they are finding some that are relatively young, in the last 10,000 years. We are working together to see if there are any oral traditions that talk about those bright stars burning in the sky. We’re working with the Elders to see what comes out of that.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary and secondary curricula

Not only is the University of Melbourne offering Indigenous astronomy as an undergraduate subject but it is also home to the Indigenous Knowledge Institute. The Institute has developed resources across primary and secondary Australian School curricula to “… empower all teachers to integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures in their teaching using these curriculum resources that incorporate Indigenous knowledge.”  

The resources are centred around three topics that showcase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures – Astronomy, Fire and Water. The Astronomy teaching resource can be integrated into the curriculum from years 5 & 6 up to year 8 and covers learning areas of Science, Technology, English, Maths, The Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The project is run in partnership between the Indigenous Studies Unit (Centre for Health Equity, MDHS), the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and the Indigenous knowledge Institute. 

Find out more about the subject