Before Galileo
ABC Message Stick Episode


"This program from 2009 looks at the ways in which western science intersects with Aboriginal Cosmology, leading us to a deeper understanding of the night sky, gained by learning the practical pointers of the constellations and the guiding spirits that occupy the dark nebulae in between."
Used with permission of ABC TV.

"In the International Year of Astronomy 2009, astronomers world-wide are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo turning a telescope to the sky and while some Aboriginal artists and elders are learning from astronomers and seeing a western view of their constellations, they in turn are teaching astronomers their stories and ways they have viewed the stars way before Galileo was born. Wardaman Senior elder Bill Yidumduma Harney from Menngen, near Katherine in the NT, was raised by Wardaman lore men and women in the bush, during the assimilation era and taught the spiritual and practical significance of reading the night sky. 

This program will look at the ways in which western science intersects with Aboriginal Cosmology, leading us to a deeper understanding of the night sky, gained by learning the practical pointers of the constellations and the guiding spirits that occupy the dark nebulae in between."

Related Links:
Songlines and Navigation in Wardaman and other Aboriginal Cultures. Ray Norris and Bill Harney
How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia's highway network Robert Fuller
Kindred Skies: Ancient Greeks & Aboriginal Australians Saw Constellations in Common.

Return to Before Galileo


MIRIAM COROWA: Hello, I'm Miriam Corowa. Welcome to Message Stick. Before Galileo Aboriginal Australians had a sophisticated cosmology linked to their Dreamtime beliefs and creation stories. In the International Year of Astronomy, when scientists worldwide are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo turning his telescope to the stars, it's no surprise that organisations like NASA are studying what our first people knew about the night sky and how it has changed through millennia. Grant Leigh Saunders examines the space between western astronomy and Aboriginal cosmology and the guiding spirits that occupy the dark matter in between. 

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: A lot of white people don't know what the stars look like. They've gone to big school, but because they're in the city covered in clouds, they don't know what direction the stars, what area the stars rise from - east, south, north or west, or whatever. 

RAY NORRIS: What we do know is that things like Stonehenge and the pyramids have only been around for like 5,000 or 6,000 years. So, if this knowledge of astronomy goes back more than about 10% of the time that people have been in Australia it makes the Aboriginal Australians the world's first astronomers. 

STEVEN TINGAY: Indigenous astronomy I think is one of the oldest cultural perceptions of astronomy on earth. So, I think it's absolutely fantastic that we have the opportunity to sit under the stars and learn about some of that and exchange some ideas about what the night sky means and give the artists an opportunity to look through the telescopes, which many of them haven't done before. And so that gives you again a different view of the universe. 

CHARMAINE GREEN: When you're looking at the sky it really shows a difference in the way white people think to the way Aboriginal people think. Because white people when they look at the sky they look for the bright star. Whereas Aboriginal people don't do that, they look at the spaces in the sky and that's where they draw their stories from and all sorts of things that's happening with the sky. 

STEVEN TINGAY: This year is the International Year of Astronomy. And so there's a number of national work packages across Australia that are being run, one of those is Indigenous Astronomy. This particular idea came up when we were in Geraldton last November and we had a look at an exhibition of some Indigenous art and there were some really nice pieces of some of the constellations and The Seven Sisters and we decided that we'd get the artists and the scientists together to explore this a bit more deeply. 

CHARMAINE GREEN: It's really quite fascinating to have a look up really close at what's going on and when I saw the ring around one of the planets last night Mullewa Oval I sort of thought, "Oh, yeah," cos it's really hard to comprehend what the scientists are talking about. You know, talking about collecting sounds and these things that are really foreign to us. I think it's just a lot easier to stick with the stories that we've been told instead of trying to make sense of what the scientists are doing. 

STEVEN TINGAY: The significance of the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory is that this is Australia's candidate site for the next generation radio telescope, called the Square Kilometre Array. So this is a telescope we hope to build over the next ten years and will be the most powerful radio telescope ever built and the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory is where we want to build it. 

RAY NORRIS: We're building that on traditional land with the full support of the local Indigenous people. What we're doing is not that different from what traditional Aboriginal people did when they tried to understand the sky. So there's this sort of commonality of interests. It's not like we're going in and ripping up the ground. We're sitting there serenely on the ground looking up at the sky, trying to understand the sky. So actually it fits in pretty well with the preconceptions of the local Indigenous people.

CHARMAINE GREEN: Well, I like looking at the land for one and seeing the low impact on the land. It's not like a mining company that's just digging up and destroying stuff. Well, I hope it's not going to be like that. That's one thing I got, the beauty of the breakaway country will still remain there. It looks like low impact with the little things that they explained that picks up the sound. All that sort of stuff was really interesting and then thinking that they're going to take an image from sound from outer space.' 

STEVEN TINGAY: It's one of the quietest places on earth. If you look at a map of the earth and look at a map that represents the man-made interference, there's this clear patch over Western Australia and so that's why we're here. It was significant for us to be able to bring artists from this country to this particular location which has significance for the Indigenous people, but also has significance for the scientists. 

RAY NORRIS: When we look at the sun and the moon, in nearly all Aboriginal cultures the moon is male and the sun female. So in Arnhem Land the moon is this man called Ngalindi. He's very fat and lazy and he made his wives and his sons get him his food for him and they got pretty angry about this and actually attacked him with their axes and chopped bits off him until he got thinner and thinner and died. Of course, that is the face of the waning moon. He stays dead for three nights, then he comes back to life again and gradually gets healthier and healthier till he reaches the full moon. 

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: The sun, we believe he's gone round, you know, and that's we say like he's gone sun, just gone round, you know? That's called jalala [black hole]. He's following the jalala all the way. 

CHARLES P MOUNTFORD: They have a calendar of their own making. The position of the flower they use for sunrise. There were certain other features.

RAY NORRIS: Interestingly in the 1940s, Charles Mountford was talking to people up in the Northern Territory and asked them that question - is the earth round? In Yolngu culture, like in many Indigenous cultures, the sun is female and she gets up in the east, goes across the sky, goes down in the west, and then moves under the ground back to the east. And Charles Mountford asked this guy, so how does she get back? And the guy picked up a box and said, "Like this." He had a clear idea that the earth was there in space and the sun moved around it, or appeared to move around it, which is interesting. It's not a flat earth. But, if you can go back to the '40s before people started to get a western education, then you find out what the traditional beliefs were. And, yes, the beliefs do seem to be a full recognition of how the earth and sun moved. They also had a recognition of how the moon moved, how it's linked to tides. A lot of understanding of the objects in the sky, a tremendous depth of knowledge.

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: I was taught to read and write from an old Scotsman, Peter Holmes. He taught me how to read and write with the charcoal on the flat rock. And every night when I went to sleep I was reading and taught myself. But when I was with old Joe in the bush and all the other grandparents living in the bush whenever you get lost, go out and you must use the stars to track you to where the waterhole is or where your camp is. The star will drag you all the way right up to where you are. That was our watch. Drovers themselves, or station managers, they didn't have a clock or a watch in those days. They used the stars. They could see the evening star, the morning star, the midnight star, will come along where the Milky Way swung from straight across right down. They knew what time it was going to be, daylight. 

RAY NORRIS: When you look up at the sky over a few hours in the night you see the whole sky moving around. Bill Harney talks about how Scorpio goes around like the hands on a watch and that's their clock. You just watch Scorpio move around. So you find so many people right across Australia understood how the sky goes around not just during the day, but during the course of the year as well and when different constellations are up that causes different seasons. When Scorpios is up it's the winter. When Orion is up it's coming to spring and the food starts coming out. And you get lots of people using this to regulate their seasons. 

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: You can see where we call Bonin. Bonin means the Milky Way. The world is spinning around. You know, each different hour the Milky Way is turning. Uca in the Milky Way where the Emu's beak standing over near the Southern Cross between the Pointers. We call that Nardi [Sky Boss] and Dungdung {Earth Mother]. And in front of that we say, that's Emu's footprints, which is the Southern Cross. When that Pointer coming down and looking down then we say that (WARDAMAN WORDS). That means he's having a feed of plum. (WARDAMAN WORDS) means bending over - you know, that's when he's having a feed. And we say he having a feed now. (WARDAMAN WORDS) means you're going to listen to the storm bird sing out. He'll go... (CHIRPS) That means all the black plum trees, we call them "boora", will have all her flowers. The plums start to develop and you still get the bird going... (CHIRPS) And later on when our fruits all become cooked he'll go... (GOBBLES) He's notifying the people all the foods are falling down. 

OLIVE BODDINGTON: Early in the year you'll just see his head and the head is where the Southern Cross and the little star is the eye of the emu. As the months go by the emu gets bigger and bigger. When you see the whole emu and it's lying, they tell us that's when the emu is laying eggs and sitting on the nest. 

WOMAN: Around March, April, when the first rains come. So we've got the weather included with the stars. But non-Indigenous people, they can't see it. So we told our friend from Radio MAMA, we said, "Just look for something that's not there." 

RAY NORRIS: One of the big differences between some of the Aboriginal constellations and the European constellations is that European constellations are all made of stars. You join the dots between the constellations. The emu in the sky is made of the dark clouds in the Milky Way. And you find it right across Australia this emu in the sky. So, the people in Ku-Rin-Gai National Park they saw the emu. We think they engraved this picture of an emu on the ground. This picture happens to be in the right orientation, so that when the emu in the sky is above this picture it's just the time the emus are laying their eggs. So it's the right time to harvest their eggs. 

CHARMAINE GREEN: We watch the Milky Way to tell us when the emus are laying and when they're nesting and that's when we go out for emu egg hunting season. That was the main focus on how as kids we'd go out. We'd watch the Milky Way first and then go out with my old uncle and my brothers and sisters and my mum and that and then track and get eggs. When you see the breaking dawn, the first star come up in the breaking dawn. That told us it's going to be daylight... 

RAY NORRIS: I just find it riveting to listen to Bill telling these stories. They're the same objects in the sky, some things that I'll have a scientific explanation for and he has this waterman explanation for. I love seeing the way these come together, not for their similarities. He has a star being a tunnel in the sky and we compare that with the idea of a black hole and things like this. So the similarities, you can't push these similarities too far. But it's interesting the way these ideas come together from completely different parts of the globe from two people with completely different backgrounds. What I really, really like and I haven't found it yet would be if their Aboriginal stories, which tell us about things that happened in the past - supernovae, meteor impacts, things like this. 

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: Meteorites, we call them (INDIGENOUS WORD) are big shooting stars. Comets, that's the one that's got the tail. "Modol" we call the tail. But it is real bright, bright see? We're not allowed to look at them. "They'll blind your eyes," we say to the kids.

RAY NORRIS: A supernova is when a star explodes. It's this really bright thing up in the sky for maybe days. Eyewitness observations of these from the past, we very rarely see them, it's one every few hundred years. So, if there were Aboriginal stories of supernova in the past it'd be fantastic to hear them. 

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: And this comet, he doesn't turn up often. Now and again he comes up whenever. Sometimes you can see him in the daytime. Right up top. Now, when you see that shooting star taking off that's all the people in your family that have passed away. Sit still and you can hear it go oomph! That's somebody's family that's passed away. He's the number one to let you know that your family passed away. That's what everybody can read in that. 

MARGARET WHITEHURST: My parents used to talk about, like, when somebody dies in the family they always get together and go out and look at the sky and always pick a star and say, "That's her out there. That's him out there right out there in the bush." We used to stand and watch the stars. 

CHARMAINE GREEN: A lot of people when they take their kids out, and a lot white people as well, say when someone dies, "That's them. That's them up there. That's them that star in the sky." A lot of Aboriginal people think the same, that's where their loved one now is in that part of the world. 

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: When they find their mum we call that in Aboriginal name (WARDAMAN WORD). The white man word, they call it reincarnation. And it comes back to find your mum. That's why all our children are star-born. But we say all our spiritual people born there, all their spirit taken up there, they gone in there to that hole and Rock Cod collecting them all. And that's why they are there.

STEVEN TINGAY: Are you able to tell me something about The Seven Sisters? 

WOMAN: The hunter at the back is trying to catch up to the sister that's meant to be behind. You don't see her. You actually see six. 

RAY NORRIS: Orion, what we call the constellation Orion, in most Aboriginal societies is either a hunter or a group of young men. The details vary. It's nearly always a group of young men or hunters or fishers or something like that. The Seven Sisters is nearly always a group of young girls. Again, the details vary. But in many Aboriginal cultures there are stories about the young men in Orion chasing these girls, The Seven Sisters. It's fascinating, you find this right across Australia. 

STEVEN TINGAY: Orion the hunter was very arrogant. He thought he was really invincible and really impressive and he was. So he's like a really strong man, but to teach him a lesson a scorpion came along and bit him and killed him. And the gods put Orion the hunter over here and they put the scorpion on exactly the other side to keep them apart so they wouldn't fight in the sky.

BILL "YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: What we call today the Seven Sisters, the Merrerrebena people, Merrerrebena, we call today, the Cave Lady still living in the cave today. We say to the young boy, if you go out the Merrerrebena might grab you and take you away into the top. There's all the young boys walking round. And these seven girls come down, grab 'em, take off what we call (WARDAMAN WORD) - means they grab them led him and took off with him up into the sky.

RAY NORRIS: All this Aboriginal astronomy is this about stories and explanations of what's going on in the sky, or did people actually make measurements as well? And interestingly there's a site down in Victoria, a place called Wurdi Youang, it's a big stone arrangement - about 50 metres across. They're underneath the place on the horizon where the sun sets - the mid-winter sun, mid-summer sun, and the equinoxes. So there's fairly strong evidence now that this site was actually built by the Aboriginal people hundreds or thousands of years ago to point towards these places in the horizon, where the sun sets these special times of the year. There are still sceptics and if you really want to convince those sceptics I think what we really need to do is to find other sites like that.' 

BILL “YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: From the creation time to creator, they're the ones that made this thing work. We said to the archaeologists, "Could you tell us what do you mean about that, footprints in the rock?" We said, "Look at that. That's really normal footprints which were put in the mud and it's there. No-one scratched that and put it in there." That sort of got them stuffed a bit. But for us, we said, "From creation time back in the Dreamtime that's when the footprints were in the mud and are there now." We can justify everything, you know, what we can see in front of us. Bush medicine, rock formations, and all that. Their professor reading that in a book. We're bush professors. We all got it from a song and a story from creation and it's still there today. And passing that information to the young ones from word-of-mouth. 

STEVEN TINGAY: It was about seven months ago that the idea for this project was cooked up and the idea was to get scientists together with Indigenous artists. Scientists and artists together had a really nice opportunity to sit around the camp fire and trade different stories about the night sky. So The Seven Sisters, the emu in the sky, and also the western myths and legends about the night sky. So we had a really excellent exchange of ideas, a really nice cultural exchange. And tonight you're seeing the pieces of art that have been produced by these amazing artists expressing that. I think, without exception, all of the pieces that have been produced - 90 plus pieces of art - are absolutely astounding. I hope that in the future we can continue this relationship and continue to work together. 

CHARMAINE GREEN: All of this experience, coming out to Boolardy and talking to the scientists and looking at the actual site, makes me really proud to be a Yamaji person. But also really proud to have this opportunity with the rest of the artists to be able to bring them out on country and to get the feeling and be in the space and we can get that down to some beautiful artwork and meaningful artwork that's good for our culture, good for our people, and just good for the soul collaboration with the scientists. 

RAY NORRIS: I hope by studying astronomy, lots of people get an interest in this and that the kids in Bill's group will realise this is something that lots of other people are interested in.

AMERICAN GALLERY REPRESENTATIVE: Bill is an elder of the Wardaman tribe from the Northern Territory in Australia. It's Bill's work that we're presenting here tonight. It's his knowledge, his traditional knowledge. 

RAY NORRIS: In the US there's a much longer tradition of, I think, recognising Indigenous culture and Indigenous astronomy. So when Bill Harney goes over to Colorado and talks about Aboriginal astronomy, people already know about Native American astronomy and so they have a context. 

BILL “YIDUMDUMA" HARNEY: We shared the knowledge from both sides - Aboriginal astronomy and white astronomy. He brought up everything from England and I brought up everything from Australia and Aboriginal astronomy. We put those two together and made it work. Now with the story telling about the stars, a lot of people, because we told them what you in the house, you in town, you see the stars, you just walked past the stars. You don't know what that means to you and all that. All you see is the glare of the stars. This is a story about the stars. Then we give it to them, you know. We give them the white man side, Aboriginal side, and they were happy.

MIRIAM COROWA: If you'd like further information about the show or to watch other Message Stick episodes, check out our website. See you next week.

Please note: Original research and photo at Wurdi Youang provided by John Morieson

Return to Before Galileo