Solar System Knowledge of the First Australians

For at least 65,000 years, First Nations Australians have understood Earth’s place in the solar system and the universe, write Kirsten Banks and Duane Hamacher.

This extended resource and activity are best suited to Year 5 Earth and Space students who are learning about the solar system. It explains some of the Australian Aboriginal astronomical traditions and understanding and how they connect with Western astronomy.

 

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The regular path of Venus over Uluru, trailed by Jupiter in the early evening zodiacal dust light. Credit: Simon Stone / Alamy

Have you ever tried to spot a planet in a sky full of stars? If you know what you’re looking for this could be an easy task, or you might make use of a handy sky guide app on your smart device to help point you in the right direction. But Australia’s First Peoples have maintained an intimate connection to the night sky based on 65,000+ years of observation, and this includes a detailed understanding of the planets and their complex motions in the sky.

The five planets visible to the unaided eye – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – are much closer to us than distant stars, and appear to move among the background canopy. Some move quickly, like swift Mercury. Others move at a grandfatherly pace, like distant Saturn. The ancient Greeks called these celestial bodies planetai, meaning “wanderers”. Westerners know them today by their Roman names, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a great many names for them, reflecting deep layers of astronomical knowledge.

Journeys Along the Sky Road

The planets travel along a special pathway in the sky, along with the Sun and Moon. This is the path of the ecliptic, moving along the background stars of the zodiac. Senior Wardaman Law Man Bill Yidumduma Harney refers to the path as Yondorrin, teaching how the cosmic Dreaming track is a road over which the “old spirits”, as planets, walk during their cosmic travels. “Planets making the pathway! Travelling routes, a pathway you could call it, like a highway!”

As the planet-ancestors travel along Yondorrin, they act in ways very different to any of the background stars. Uncle Yidumduma teaches that, “the planets come straight across like you and I going on a walk. Up and down, walking backwards, forwards.” Just as we walk down the street, we might stop, catch up with other people, or even walk backwards for a bit before continuing on our journey.

Astronomers call this retrograde motion, which is an optical illusion that happens when we look at other planets from night to night as each planet orbits the Sun at a different rate. All the planets go through periods of retrograde motion, which makes them appear to stop and move backwards for a time, before continuing on their original course.

The Inner Planets

Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, is swift. The Romans named it after their messenger god, as it only appears low in the morning sky for a couple of weeks, then disappears for a month and a half before reappearing in the evening. In Wardaman, Mercury is a little girl named Gowaman who hides away from the threatening actions of the Moon-man.

Australia’s First Nations peoples (see map) share an understanding of the planets’ “wandering” patterns, like Mercury (above, in the last three hours of its transit across the Sun in 2019). Credit: Alan Dyer / Getty Images

Venus is the brightest planet and third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. You may know Venus as the Morning and Evening Star, as it can lead in front of the Sun before dawn or trail behind the Sun after sunset. Of all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomical traditions involving the planets, Venus is the most prominent.

First Peoples across the world recognise Venus as a Morning Star and an Evening Star. They are seen as the same object but are never visible in the morning and the evening on the same day. In the eastern Torres Strait, elders teach that Venus is called Iluel in the evening, and Gerger Neseur in the morning.

Kapua Gutchen Snr, an elder from Erub, teaches a traditional story about a young couple: the mischievous Meb, the Moon man, and the beautiful Iluel, the Evening Star-woman. The lovers have a relationship marred by atkit (jealousy). Meb is jealous of Iluel’s relationship with Lim, the Sun-Man, as she always stays near him, occasionally brushing along his side. Iluel is jealous of Meb’s relationship with her sisters, the planets, as they wander the heavens together.

The lovers come together once a month, when Meb appears as a crescent in the evening. They drift apart as the days pass, but come together a month later. Erub islanders call the conjunction of the two lovers Atkit Meb, meaning “jealous moon”.

Yolngu people on Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) in the Northern Territory have long observed the complex motions of Venus. They note that it spends nearly nine months as a Morning Star, before disappearing for about 50 days and re-emerging as an Evening Star for another nine months. It dips below the horizon again for only eight days before emerging as a Morning Star.

Banimbirr, or Morning Star Poles (by Malu Gurruwiwi, 1942–2020) are pointed towards Venus during certain ceremonies, the feathers on strings representing the planet’s ties to the Sun and Moon. Credit: Courtesy Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne

The people conduct a sacred ceremony called Banimbirr when Venus rises in the morning sky after disappearing as an Evening Star eight days previously. This ceremony is planned well in advance and people travel from far and wide to attend as Venus ascends into the dawn sky, signalling the location of Burralku, the island of the dead in the east. Elders explain how they count the days to know when it will appear. Western astronomers refer to this cycle as the synodic period of Venus, which lasts for 584 days before repeating.

Zodiacal Light

During the Banimbirr ceremony, dancers hold up a sacred Morning Star Pole, which they use to point towards Venus. It is covered in meaningful designs, as well as beautiful white features dangling from strings. The features represent the rope by which Venus is tied to the Sun. It can be seen in the evening or morning sky as a long, white triangle of light stretching from the horizon into the sky.

This is what Western astronomers call zodiacal dust, tiny debris particles scattered around the Solar System. It reaches up into the sky, exactly where you will find Venus as a Morning or Evening Star.

In the eastern Torres Strait, Meddy Kaigey, a Komet elder from Mer, teaches that when this light extends high in the sky, it is time to plant bananas and yams. When the light reaches the very top of the sky (zenith), the first rains of the monsoon season (Kuki) will follow a week or two later. This happens in late November and December. The zodiacal light is easiest to see in the Nay Gay season, when the weather is fine, the air is still and the sky is crystal clear.

Venus Laughing

Those with a keen knowledge of astronomy will recall that when looking for a planet in the night sky you’re looking for the stars that don’t twinkle. In the Torres Strait, Meriam elders understand this phenomenon, which happens because planets are closer to the Earth and their light is more stable in the atmosphere.

The understanding of wondering planets’ patterns includes the concept of retrograde motion, where for us on Earth planets appear to stop and reverse because of their different orbits (Mars in diagram and photographed in time lapse with Uranus visible behind). Credit: Ttezel / Getty Images, Simon Stone / Alamy.

However, when any star or planet is close to the horizon, its light has to compete with a much more turbulent and dense atmosphere. At this position, these objects are often subject to violent twinkling, which is called scintillation.

When Venus is particularly low to the horizon it can twinkle quite a lot, appearing to change brightness and colour. The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi people of northern New South Wales see Venus twinkling as an old man who is laughing to himself after telling a rude joke.

The Outer Planets

Not only are individual planets significant in Aboriginal astronomical traditions, but so too are the relative positions of multiple planets. In Euahlayi traditions, when the planets Mars and Venus come together in the night sky they are seen as the eyes of Baayami, the creator spirit. This conjunction in the sky holds special significance to the Euahlayi people and is linked to a ceremony.

Kokatha people link the red planet Mars to the red-tailed black cockatoo. Credit: Education Images / Getty Images

The planet Mars holds special significance in many Aboriginal astronomical traditions. Its reddish colour is described in terms of fire. Anmatyerre people of the Central Desert describe Mars as Iherrm-penh, meaning “something that has been burnt in flames”. It is also associated with animals on the land that have bright red features. Kokatha people of the Western Desert link both Mars and the giant red star Antares with Kogolongo, the red-tailed black cockatoo.

Mars and Antares are rivals in the sky. Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Since the ecliptic passes through Scorpius (which is why it is a zodiac constellation), Mars sometimes passes close by. They are both similar in brightness, very red and fight for dominance. Mars is the Roman god of war and Antares means “Rival of Ares”, the Greek god of war.

Jupiter is also known for its brownish-red colour. Muruwari people of the Darling River in NSW call Jupiter Wurnda wurnda yarroa. This is an ancestral figure who feasted on roasted yams. Jupiter’s colour is a reflection of the fire used to roast them. In Kamilaroi and Wailwan traditions, Saturn is a small bird called wunygal. In the Western Desert, Saturn (IrukulpinjaI) and Venus (Iruwanja) are brothers, with Jupiter being their dog.

This article was written by Kirsten Banks and Duane Hamacher for Cosmos Magazine Issue 91.

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Years: 5

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Topics:

Earth and Space Sciences – The Solar System

Additional: Intercultural Understanding.

Concepts (South Australia):

Earth and Space Sciences – Earth in Space