When the tree goanna makes its way back down onto land, that’s the time to go hunting, according to Wiradjuri Dreamtime astronomy.
Long before the Babylonians and the Greeks and prior to both the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, there was Indigenous astronomy.
This makes the First Nations’ cultures of Australia the world’s oldest astronomers.
Millenia before the Greeks’ mathematically proved the Earth was round, Australian Indigenous stargazers had already noted that the position of the south celestial pole moved as they travelled north and south.
These lessons of the sky and relating Dreamtime stories are being rediscovered through the Australian Indigenous Astronomy team.
Cultural Astronomer Trevor Leaman is a University of New South Wales PhD candidate in the School of Humanities and Languages and is researching the astronomical traditions of the Wiradjuri people of Central NSW with the Australian Indigenous Astronomy team.
He says science and storytelling have always been part of the constellations covering the entire northern and southern sky.
“Sometimes the magic is lost when you don’t incorporate that cultural element,” he said.
“We’ve got 88 constellations and each one is a story, there is a reason for them and a narrative to them.”
Ancient stories in the stars
One of the most recognisable constellations is Orion, named after a hunter in Greek mythology.
In Indigenous culture that constellation is also a hunter with a belt that holds a boomerang, or in other Dreamtime narratives it is three brothers in a canoe, depending on the global position of the stargazer.
Tina Leaman is a researcher and Palawa woman from Tasmania.
She travelled alongside her husband, Trevor Leaman, to visit The Astronomical Society of Albury-Wodonga and view the Border sky through a cultural lens.
Ms Leaman said to understand culture meant to understand kinship and totemism.
“As a global citizen I look at the connection between things, like the stars and the seasons, and when resources are available,” she said.
Stars help establish time and place
Cultural astronomy has outlined Wiradjuri constellations including the wedge-tailed eagle, emu, and goanna, and how they relate to Earth.
Oral stories about these animals in connection to the constellations have all been documented by anthropologists dating back to the 1800s.
Mr Leaman said sometimes the Dreamtime stories about the constellations were specific, sometimes they were vague, but the movement of animals was part of the science.
In the case of the goanna constellation, as it appears high in the sky the narrative says the goanna is climbing a tree, and it is not considered a good time for the animal to be hunted.
“Goanna dreaming relates to the months when it starts to come down the tree [the sky] – that’s when it’s time to go hunting,” Mr Leaman said.
Wiradjuri elder and Albury cultural educator Darren Wighton said there was a lot to learn if people just looked up to the sky.
“We know other mythologies but our stories are there too and help us learn,” he said.
“There is Aboriginal stories explaining what to do, when to gather, when to hunt.
“Different animals and stories [are] reflected in the creatures of Australia in ways that help us learn.
“There are goannas, emus, eagles – all these different creatures we see every day – and they are used in a way to explain the constellations.
“Cultural astronomy is reflected in oral storytelling and in tradition, and knowing there is a project to capture these gives me a sense that I have not missed out and I can relearn them and pass them on.”