Astronomy Without A Telescope – Indigenous Australian Astronomy

Article written: 6 Nov , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Eta Carinae is a massive binary system – of which the dominant member is an eruptive luminous blue variable star. The system’s last significant eruption – also known as the ‘great outburst’ – made Eta Carinae briefly the second brightest star system in the night sky after Sirius over the period of 1837 to 1845, after which it faded again. The great outburst left behind the Homunculus Nebula – and also left an impression on the indigenous Aboriginal people of Australia who observed it at that time.

Hamacher, with research interests in Australian archaeoastronomy – and Frew, an astrophysicist with research interests in the light curves of variable stars over long time periods, have collaborated on a paper which draws on historical records to build a case that the Boorong people of northwest Victoria incorporated the observation of Eta Carinae’s great outburst into their oral traditions.

This is of general interest as the only known observation of the Eta Carinae outburst by indigenous people – and of particular interest to Hamacher to support his assertion that Australian Aboriginal oral traditions are dynamic and evolving – and often incorporate transient astronomical events.

The Boorong clan apparently no longer exists as an entity and much of their traditional knowledge may have been lost. However, William Stanbridge published records of his encounters with them around 1860, particularly detailing their astronomical knowledge. His records include Aboriginal star names and stories associated with them – against which he either wrote down the relevant European star name or otherwise at least indicated the general vicinity of the star in question.

Of particular interest here is the star named Collowgullouric War by the Boorong – described as a ‘large red star in Rober Carol, marked 966’ by Stanbridge. In Boorong oral tradition at that time, Collowgullouric War was the wife of War – which Stanbridge directly identified as the star Canopus – and which today we consider the second brightest star in the night sky.

There are other examples of husband and wife pairings in Aboriginal astronomy – where the stars are generally closely associated in the sky and of similar apparent magnitude. Stanbridge noted Collowgullouric War as the third brightest star in a list that included Sirius as brightest, Canopus as second brightest and Alpha Centauri (or Rigil Kent) as fourth brightest. Today we would agree with most of that statement, except that Alpha Centauri is the third brightest star – and what the heck is Collowgullouric War?

The reference “large red star in Rober Carol, marked 966” refers in short-hand to a now-defunct constellation Rober Carolinum – and 966 is almost certainly a designation drawn from one of the first southern sky star catalogues, produced by La Caille in 1763. Lac 966 is actually the Carina nebula, while the Eta Carinae star is Lac 968 – but since it’s unlikely Stanbridge had his own copy of the rare La Caille catalogue, there is the possibility of a transcription error. And, in any case, in referring to a star associated the Carina Nebula, it seems reasonable to assume he really meant Eta Carinae.

Argo Navis (the ship Argo) was one of Ptolemy's 48 constellations - since split into the modern constellations Vela (the sails), Puppis (the stern) and Carina (the keel). Another now-defunct constellation, Robur Carolinum (the Oak of King Charles) introduced by Edmond Halley, also overlies this region of the sky. Around the 1840's, Eta Carinae (red arrow) might have been classified as a star of the Robur Carolinum constellation - but is now considered part of the Carina constellation. Canopus (or Alpha Carinae) is the large, bright star to the right of the drawing of the ship's rudder. Credit: Johannes Hevelius' star catalogue Firmamentum, circa 1690 - as sourced from Hamacher and Frew. And... for reasons unknown, Hevelius did his star catalogues from the point of view of an outsider looking in, so this map is kind of back the front. The same approach is used on the flag of Brazil - for reasons unknown. What a long caption this is.

So for a brief period of a decade or so – Eta Carinae rivalled Canopus in brightness, during the period of its variable brightening from 1837 to 1845.

On this basis, it is reasonable to assume that an indigenous people with an interest in the night sky would certainly have noted the Eta Carinae outburst – and might well have developed a story based on its close association with the similarly bright star Canopus, which was present in the sky nearby.

It remains to be discovered what other southern sky events the Indigenous Australians may have gained a privileged view of during their 40,000 year colonization of the Australian continent.

Further reading: Hamacher and Frew An Aboriginal Australian Record of the Great Eruption of Eta Carinae

12 Responses

  1. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Sorry to be a party pooper again. But I have to say the same on archaeoastronomy as on alleged conspiracy theories, miracles and parapsychology – show me the evidence for one. I don’t care for pattern matching, I want my theories tested.

    I browsed that paper when it made the rounds a few days back just to make sure (:-o), or have a laugh rather, and it was all tenuous. Most damning, aside from the non-testability of the “just so” story, is that this short term (well, a few years) outburst is identified as “a star” and that the likeliest object identifiable as the sought for long-time normal star with the same color is explained away as not having “obvious” color. Just so.

  2. Member

    @ TL
    Not sure I get your point. What’s the evidence for Galileo observing the moons of Jupiter? Just old documents and anecdotes passed down the generations. Unless you have a time machine, how do you get more evidence?

    It is a bit implausible that people in the southern hemisphere could have failed to notice Eta Car – and here’s some old documents that suggest they did notice it.

  3. Member
    Aqua says

    Drums beating… a trance is induced… The Shaman wants to know… the people want to know… What could be the meaning of the new star? The priest wavers in the smoke from the sacred urn as it is refilled with rare spice and the ashes of the ancestors…

  4. Salacious says

    Good to see cultural sensitivities being exploited by by the of’ the “commertariate.”

    Archaeoastronomy may not be at the very cutting edge of astronomical investigation, but it does tell us of origins of astronomy in indigenous populations.

    It is as Clive Ruggles says in his paper “Indigenous Astronomies and Progress in Modern Astronomy”;

    “In a modern world where widespread public perceptions include many that are unscientific in the broadest sense of the term, I shall argue that there are actually a range of positive benefits for progress in scientific astronomy to be derived from the mutual awareness and comprehension of ‘genuine’ cultural world-views whose goals—in common with those of modern science—are to make sense of the cosmos within which people live. While two-way education is clearly a prerequisite, I shall argue that the necessary level of reconciliation can only be achieved through more fundamental attempts by modern astronomers to understand, and ultimately to respect, both the non-Western frameworks of thought that give rise to other cultural perspectives and the heritage associated with them. One of the most obvious potential benefits could derive from common attitudes towards the natural heritage of astronomy, namely dark skies.”

    He properly concludes;

    “In a modern world where widespread public perceptions include many that are unscientific in the broadest sense of the term, there are actually a range of positive benefits in terms of public support for progress in scientific astronomy (and all that follows from that) in recognizing, acknowledging, and respecting ‘genuine’ cultural world-views whose goals—in common with those of modern science—are to make sense of the cosmos within which we live.”

    Really. Acting like uneducated narrow-mnded peasants does you no favours!

  5. Member

    One more point I could have added to the caption. The Robur Carolinum was an oak tree which Charles II hid up after being defeated by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester (1651). Edmond Halley may have been expressing some republican tendencies in drawing attention to this regally unflattering incident.

  6. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Not sure I get your point. What’s the evidence for Galileo observing the moons of Jupiter?

    I’m not sure I get *your* point. That Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter is because a) he modeled their orbits well b) others confirmed his predictions. It was a proper observation leading to experimental testing, that it was done before we lived is neither here nor there. It is exactly what I asked for!

    Archaeoastronomy is a putative historical subject, trying to elucidate history. What have postdiction to do with prediction? Nothing what I know of, it is mere pattern matching (“that suggest”, in vain as there is no testing to secure actual knowledge).

  7. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Also, more deeper on the subject lest I forget: show me solid evidence for one archaeoastronomy case, preferably a successful test of archaeoastronomy predictions. This isn’t it.

  8. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Ahh, my bad. I shouldn’t have answered the Galileo question, since I already put the pertinent point. But I guess a question should always be answered in good faith, perhaps it wasn’t meant to deflect. (It started “Not sure”, after all.) So no harm, no foul.

  9. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Torbjorn, you are completely missing the point. Archaeoastronomy is far from just pattern matching. It is more to do with how ancient cultures knew and used astronomy such as the sun, moon, planets or stars. Equally important is understanding the cultural significance and symbolism of such phenomena.

    I suggest you might also read the article by Hamacher and Norris entitled “Comets in Australian Aboriginal Astronomy”, where learning about the Australian aboriginal oral traditions of passing down recent astronomical events, means we can learn more about how past significant astronomical events are woven into their rich mythology.

    Considering how western society has in the last few centuries have obliterated many ancient cultures throughout the world, it is fairly arrogant to dismiss such lines of scientific study as just some “putative historical subject.”
    Sorry. Your whole line of reasoning here is really almost offensive for its open prejudice.

  10. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    “Also, more deeper on the subject lest I forget: show me solid evidence for one archaeoastronomy case, preferably a successful test of archaeoastronomy predictions. This isn’t it.”

    But there is….

    Eta Carinae behaviour is odd. What we want to know is brightness fluctuations periodic or a one-off event. The outburst prior to the 1843 we know little about, and there are a few observations. If we know of the past behaviour, perhaps we could learn about η Carinae future.
    In recent years the star has begun to brighten across the entire spectrum at all wavelengths, whose visual magnitude is 4.5, that peaks occasionally around 3.7v. Naked-eye!!
    If the Aboriginal named this star as the Collowgullouric War, does this not infer that the brightness fluctuations were known by them — possibly as a long history of the the highly variable past of the star. I.e. Long-term observation suggest η Car is periodic and has had many brightening in the unrecorded past.

    If this isn’t a predictive mechanism, then what is??

  11. Member

    @ TL OM

    ” show me solid evidence for one archaeoastronomy case, preferably a successful test of archaeoastronomy predictions”.

    Do you have a problem with the much older observation recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry depicting events in 1066 (Halley’s comet)?

  12. Duncan Lunan says

    The Hevelius map is drawn ‘from the outside’ to conform to the celestial sphere, which in positional astronomy is drawn from the imagined viewpoint of an observer looking at a solid sphere from the outside. Traditionally, actual celestial spheres follow this convention – I have two from the 1970s on which the constellations are ‘back-to-front’ in this way. Classical star maps were drawn with the same convention and often printed in gores so that they could be cut up and pasted on to a globe. The star map ceiling of Grand Central Station is laid out ‘back-tofront’, copying a classical map, but shouldn’t be because from below the ceiling is concave, not convex!

    Archaeoastronomy prediction verified: Dr. Euan MacKie’s excavation at Kintraw, which found the observing platform looking towards Jura as predicted by Prof. Alexander Thom. And I’ve been there and seen it for myself.

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