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.
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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.
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