CfArch journal header
Center for Archaeoastronomy Main Page
Find Out More
What is Archaeoastronomy?
More About the Center for Archaeoastronomy
More About ISAAC
Publications of the Center
Lost Codex Used Book Sale
Outside Links
History of Science

Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 29 September Equinox 1998


The Study of Ethnoastronomy in Australia
by Dr. Philip A Clarke, South Australian Museum, Dep. of Anthropology, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

In general, there has been little recording of Australian Aboriginal beliefs in astronomy. This is in spite of the predominance of astronomical themes in Aboriginal art (see Mountford 1956 & 1958, West 1995). The investigation of beliefs concerning the Heavens, considered by many Aboriginal groups to exist as a distinct Skyworld, is important to the study of the cultural perceptions of all space (Clarke 1991, 1997; Johnson 1998). This paper provides an overview of the study of ethnoastronomy in Australia.

For many areas of Australia, particularly southern and eastern Australia where the impact of European settlement upon Aboriginal culture has been the most intense and pervading, the accounts of the astronomical beliefs are chiefly based on sources from the early 19th century. This type of information is often unreliable, being compiled by observers who were unfamiliar with southern skies and were writing prior to the development of ethnographic field techniques as used later by anthropologists. This highly fragmentary record was confounded with imperfect descriptions of exactly what cosmic entities comprised the particular constellations perceived by Aboriginal people. In south eastern Australia today, indigenous cultural groups are heavily influenced by beliefs derived from North America, elsewhere in Australia and from contemporary European pagans and New Age people. For more remote regions, such as central and northern Australia where direct European influence has been less and more recent, there are anthropological and linguistic studies that can be used as sources for the study of ethnoastronomy.

Before the arrival of Europeans, about 300 distinct language groups occupied Australia. Amidst this cultural diversity, there was an immense variation in Aboriginal beliefs concerning the cosmos. Nevertheless, the perceived existence of the Heavens as an image of the terrestrial landscape is common. This is clear in records provided by Stanbridge (1857) for north western Victoria, Maegraith (1932) for Central Australia and by Sims (1978) for Melville and Bathurst Islands in the Northern Territory. This celestial region, called here the Skyworld, was considered by Aboriginal people to be a land that, to some extent, obeyed the same laws as those of terrestrial places. The yearly movements of the Heavenly bodies were linked to seasonal changes elsewhere, such as the movement of game and the flowering of plants, and to the weather pattern itself. Aboriginal seasonal behaviour was closely linked to changes they looked for in the night sky. The observed arrival and movement of cosmic bodies were important characteristics in determining how Aboriginal people visualised them as constellations in the sky. The close proximity of some indicated a special relationship. For instance, the Pleiades were recorded last century as being perceived by Lower Murray people of South Australia to be eggs that another constellation, a Turkey, was sitting upon (Clarke 1997). Colour was another significant property. For example, in central Australia the colour of some constellations was closely related to their kinship group classification (Maegraith 1932, Johnson 1998).

The Skyworld was perceived as a place where great knowledge could be attained. Aboriginal 'doctors' and 'sorcerers' in the early years of European settlement frequently claimed to have visited the Skyworld, often by climbing a tree or a large hill (Clarke 1997). In Central Australia, 'tribal' and linguistic boundaries were reflected in this cosmic landscape (Maegraith 1932: 20,26). The ancestors of living Aboriginal people were considered to dwell in the sky, thereby linking the cosmic bodies to the Aboriginal kinship system. The Aboriginal creation mythology that explains the formation of the terrestrial landscape is equally important for the Skyworld (see Berndt & Berndt 1989). For example, in many parts of arid inland Australia the Moon was considered to be a spirit being who, as a man, chased the Seven Sisters (Pleiades) across the landscape. Their terrestrial actions were repeated in the Heavens, appearing in the dawn sky during April/May at the start of an Aboriginal ceremonial cycle (Tindale 1959, Clarke 1997). Most beliefs concerning the Pleiades simply record a number of sisters, because the Aboriginal counting system before European contact had little use for figures that were greater than three. The Aboriginal cosmic landscape in Australia was generally dominated by the Milky Way, being considered by many groups to be a large river, with campfires along the banks upon which reeds were growing. Gaps in large constellations, such as the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, were generally believed to be the home of various mythical ancestral spirits who had important roles in Aboriginal mythology.

The study of ethnoastronomy offers greater insights into important ceremonial cycles and mythological beliefs of the Aboriginal people in Australia. Aboriginal seasonal patterns can only be understood when considered in relation to the movement of the cosmic entities observed in the skies. Aboriginal people were intensely interested in the Heavens and had considerable knowledge of it. Ethnoastronomical studies are able to contribute to the wider investigation of how notions of space are formed by culture.


BERNDT, R.M. & BERNDT, C.H. 1989. The Speaking Land. Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia. Penguin, Melbourne.

CLARKE, P.A. 1991. Adelaide as an Aboriginal Landscape. Aboriginal History, 15(1): 54-72.

CLARKE, P.A. 1997. The Aboriginal cosmic landscape of southern South Australia. Records of the South Australian Museum. 29(2): 125-145.

JOHNSON, D. 1998. Night skies of Aboriginal Australia. Oceania Monograph 47. The University of Sydney.

MAEGRAITH, B.G. 1932. The astronomy of the Aranda and Luritja tribes. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 56: 19-26.

MOUNTFORD, C.P. 1956. Arnhem Land: art, myth and symbolism. In Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. Vol.1. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

MOUNTFORD, C.P. 1958. The Tiwi, Their Art, Myth and Ceremony. Phoenix House, London.

SIMS, M. 1978. Tiwi cosmology. In Hiatt, L. (ed) Australian Aboriginal Concepts. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

STANBRIDGE, W.E. 1857. On the astronomy and mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria. Philosophical Institute of Victoria. Transactions, 2: 137-140.

TINDALE, N.B. 1959. Totemic beliefs in the Western Desert of Australia - part 1: women who became the Pleiades. Records of the South Australian Museum, 13(3): 305-332.

WEST, M. 1995. Rainbow, Sugarbag and Moon. Two Artists of the Stone Country: Bardayal Nadjamerrek and Mick Kubarkku. Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.


Correction: In the Volume of Proceedings of the 1996 SEAC Meeting at Salamanca, Dr. Arnold Le Beuf is the only author of the article "Une nouvelle approche de la table d'eclipses du codex de Dresde" (A New Approach of the Eclipse Table in the Dresden Codex) The author and the editors appologize for attributing to this paper a common authorship with Prof. Anthony Aveni. Prof. Anthony Aveni disclaims any responsability of paternity for this article.

Commission 41 (History of Astronomy) of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is now on the Web. You may access it directly at , or you may link to it from the IAU Web site Commission page at . The site contains a list of officers, members and their current addresses, newsletters, and the Bibliography on History of Astronomy, compiled by Ruth Freitag of the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C.

A Galileo web source is now available. For research purposes, the BNCF Codex Ms. Gal. 72 (Folios 33 to 196) can be seen at: High quality scanned images of the folio pages, transcriptions of the textual material, expansions of the origianl Italian and Latin texts, rendering of the line drawings and calculations, translations into English, cross referencing links, bibliographies, and other support material are available.

The Linda Hall Library invites applications for 1998-1999 humanities fellowships for research in the library's collections on the history and philosophy of science, engineering, and technology. Short term fellowships are available for up to eight weeks, offering a stipend of $450 per week to assist researchers with travel and living expenses. These fellowships support advanced and independent studies, dissertation research, and post-doctoral research. The fellowship may be for two to eight weeks, and may be broken into more than one session if longer than two weeks. The project proposal should demonstrate that the Linda Hall Library has resources central to the research topic. Candidates are encouraged to inquire about the appropriateness of a proposed topic before applying, and to consult the library's online catalog, Leonardo, available through the library's homepage: Applications may be sent at any time. Fellowships will be awarded quarterly. To apply, please send a curriculum vitae, a one to two-page description of the proposed project, and a single letter of reference to Bruce Bradley, Librarian for History of Science and Special Operations, Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64110.

Japanese Star Maps (from material by Steve Renshaw): Images of a recently discovered star map on the ceiling of a tomb in Kitora (Nara Prefecture) can be seen at The tomb, dated to the Asuka period (roughly 590 to 710 AD), was only recently entered for critical research, and no academic publication has yet been forthcoming. However, a bulletin from the Asuka Mura Kofun Gakujutsu Chousadan (Asuka Village Kofun Academic Research Group) has been released. It indicates that the Kitora tomb is probably of the same "lineage" as that of Takamatsu Zuka Kofun. The similarity of the tombs is remarkable though Kitora may have much richer detail. History of Science professor Yamada of Kyoto University (quoted in the bulletin) indicates that the actual evidence seems to point to the paintings being copied from similar perspectives of Chinese/Korean origin. To wit... the angle of observation of the some 422 stars and 22 constellations found on the ceiling indicates an observer latitude of about 38 to 39 degrees, roughly equivalent to that of the Kokuri region of Korea in the early "Christian era", not Asuka. The discerned point of the crossing of the ecliptic with the celestial equator in the map also supports a view that the paintings were of Chinese/Korean origin and probably copied uncritically.

The Naval Observatory Library catalog is now available online. With one of the most complete historical collections in the US, it should be useful students of history of astronomy. Close to 80% of their records are now in the online catalog, including the rare books collection (pre-1800) and the 19th century collection. You may access the catalog directly at: Brenda G. Corbin hopes to add an option soon which will allow one to search only the Rare Books collection or the 19th century collection. A java compatible browser must be used, for example, Netscape 4.x or Internet Explorer 4.

Western Astrolabes by Roderick and Marjorie Webster, has been published by the History of Astronomy Deparment of the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum. As home to one of the world's great collections of astrolabes, this book is the inaugural volume of a project documenting the Adler s collection of historic scientific instruments and rare books. . The authors have carefully documented 47 astrolabes, astrolabe-quadrants, and mariner s astrolabes. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs showing the front, the back, and additional details (such as the maker s signature) of each instrument. Introductory essays by the Websters and Sara Schechner Genuth explain the use of the astrolabe and its role in cultural and social history. For more information, please go to the web site . Future volumes currently underway include: Eastern Astrolabes, Sundials (2 volumes), Star Charts (2 volumes), and Optical Instruments. Later volumes will include: Clocks and Watches, Globes and Armillary Spheres, Navigational Instruments, and more.


(If you know of a recent publication of interest that we have missed, please let us know, and include all information necessary for our readers to be able to find the article)

"Looking For Answers in the Skies", by Daniel Brocious, American Archaeology, 1998, Vol 2 Number 2, pp11-17.

"Time and What We Make of It", by Anthony Aveni, and Steven Lagerfeld, WQ, 1998, Volume 22, Number 3, pp 44-57.

"Celestial Analogy and Cyclical Renewal", by E. C. Krupp. 3rd Stone, July-September 1998, Issue 31, pp23,27.

"Women at Risk; Numerous far-flung traditions predict tragedy for pregnant women during comet apparitions and eclipses", by E. C. Krupp, Sky and Telescope, Aug 1998, pp 94-96.

"Moonlit Highways; Exploring the ancient byways of Middle Eastern Moon Worship", by E. C. Krupp, Sky and Telescope, Sept 1998, pp 94-96.

The Tale of Crazy Harman, the Musician and the Concept of Music in the Turkmen Epic Tale, Harman Dali by Slawomira Zeranska-kominek with a chapter about "Cosmology of Love Madness" by Arnold Le Beuf. Published by Academic Publications DIALOG Editions, Warsaw 1997.

Copyright © 2002 Center for Archaeoastronomy. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.