Archaeoastronomy in Oceania

I spent the past few days reading articles on archaeoastronomy in Oceania and will present some interesting finds in this blog post. I have never studied Aboriginal Australians or other Pacific island cultures in the past and found it worthwhile to explore new views on ancient astronomy. Australia was first inhabited at least 40,000 years ago. These peoples then traveled outward from Australia and moved toward the many islands of the Pacific. Fiji was populated in 1800 BCE, and Easter Island, the last of the Pacific islands to be populated, was colonized in 1000 CE.

Indigenous Australians are grouped into hundreds of tribes with different languages living in different regions. Folklore in regards to astronomy is equally diverse. A common trend among the different Aboriginal groups is the concept of Skyworld in which the sky is a different land inhabited by many people, represented by stars. I gathered several Aboriginal astronomical explanations that intrigued me and will share them here:

  • The Milky Way, seen as a band across the sky, has several different representations. Most commonly, it is considered to be a river, but it is also viewed as a tree or canoe. Some tribes view it as a separation between two camps. The Milky Way is also considered to be inhabited by disembodied spirits.
  • A shooting star foretold a relative’s death.
  • The Skyworld could be accessed by climbing a rope. Shooting stars represent the descent of this rope. Large trees and hills were also possible passageways to the Skyworld.
  • The stars are organized by family relations, for example, a man would be near his wives and family in the sky.
  • The Moon is male and subordinate to the female Sun.
  • The Sun turns into a fish at night and swims underneath Earth to return to the east in the morning.
  • Some tribes believed there are two suns— one in the winter and one in the summer.
  • The Moon got in an argument with his wife. She threw hot coals at him resulting in craters.
  • The Moon is partially covered in water and tides affect the phases that are viewed from Earth.
  • Women were not allowed to look at the Pleiades on winter nights because it would make the night colder.

Little archaeological evidence of astronomical importance is discussed in the articles, but I did learn that the Ngemba people of central New South Wales buried their dead “with the body in a sitting position, leaning back, with the head facing toward sunrise” (Clarke 2008). One article focused on Aboriginal geomythology, the study of how geological events are incorporated into the oral tradition. Aboriginals have several stories to explain craters left on the land from cosmic impacts. In one story, a woman in Skyworld placed her baby down in a wooden basket which fell towards the Earth, forming a crater. Three craters are dated to within the past 40,000 years (the minimum amount of time that Australia is known to be inhabited), yet there are virtually no mentions of these events in the oral tradition. It is thought that either the Aboriginals place little emphasis on these recent cosmic events or stories of recent impacts are sacred and cannot leave the tribe.

“In Search of Mahutonga: A Possible Supernova Recorded in Maori Astronomical Traditions” analyzes the term “Mahutonga” in the astronomical record of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Mahutonga means “a star of the south that remains invisible” which may refer to a possible supernova in the southern sky. The Maori first occupied New Zealand in 1000 CE, so this observed supernova should have occurred within the past thousand years. However, no young supernova remnants have been observed near the celestial southern pole within this time period. This term either does not refer to a supernova or is referring to a supernova of 185 CE. It is unlikely that records of the 185 CE supernova would exist in the Maori tradition and not be present in other cultural records.

Another article studies archaeoastronomy in island cultures. Stellar navigation was necessary to travel across the Pacific. A ship would be aligned with a setting or rising star indicating the direction of the island destination. Islands were often associated with the star(s) that passed over their zenith.

A substantial archaeoastronomical record exists at Easter Island, the most remote of the Pacific islands and the last to be inhabited. The indigenous people of Easter Island used a lunisolar calendar, with the year beginning at the new moon following the heliacal rising of the Pleiades or possibly the summer solstice. The temple of Ahu Uri A Urenga points to all solstice and equinox risings and settings, and is one of the only ahu to have astronomical alignments.

 

Clarke, Philip A. “An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Ethnoastronomy.” 2008, The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Volume XXI.

Esteban, César. “Astronomy in Island Cultures.” 2000, The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Volume XV.

Green, David A. & Orchiston, Wayne. “In Search of Mahutonga: A Possible Supernova Recorded in Maori Astronomical Traditions.” 2004, The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Volume XVIII.

Hamacher, Duane W., & Norris, Ray P. “Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: Eyewitness Accounts of Cosmic Impacts?” 2009, The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Volume XXII.

Comments

  1. This sounds like a fascinating subject! Aboriginal culture, and the Western anthropological works that have built up discussing them, are always intriguing, and this appears to be no different. I especially found the gendering of the celestial bodies an interesting factoid, as well as the placement of the female Sun as superior. The link you seem to develop between cultural takes on astronomy and the vital importance of the stars for navigation amongst the seafaring peoples of Oceania is also very intriguing. Do you have anymore info on such connections? I was also wondering if you felt, or found research that said, that Oceanic ancient astronomical traditions somehow tied into other ancient cultures’ views on astronomy. A kind of Hero with a Thousand Faces for astronomy would be a great book.

  2. mfrichards says:

    This is really interesting research. I too have never learned much in depth about Australia, and I know little about your topic area, but I have always been a fan of mythology and I was interested to hear how the Aboriginal Australians tied astronomical events into their myths. I particularly like that the moon is seen by some as a fish which swims under the Earth as it reminds me of the Egyptian myth of Ra carrying the sun around the world in a boat. I hope you enjoyed your research!