Digital technology and managing Indigenous astronomical knowledge
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge is passed to successive generations through oral tradition, including story, song, and dance.
Much of this knowledge thrives today, but much has faced damage and fragmentation by the effects of colonisation. Many Elders and Knowledge custodians are working to preserve their traditional knowledge using the latest digital technologies.
Indigenous Knowledge, astronomy, and modern technology
Today, many Indigenous people live less traditional lives, but many strongly desire to maintain a meaningful connection to knowledge, country, and language. This is a global phenomenon, which holds a special place in the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Major efforts are being been made to preserve Indigenous Knowledge in accessible forms using modern technology.1 This involves documenting traditional knowledge, understanding its use and the modes of transmitting this knowledge (art, story, song, etc). This is done by working with elders and knowledge custodians, as well as retrieving previously documented information stored in institutions such as museum and library archives. Emerging digital and virtual technologies provide new opportunities to accomplish these efforts.2
Indigenous knowledge derives, produces, and renews its meanings through its practice in situ. Because this knowledge is committed to memory, it is active, performative, and narrated - not simply expressed through “facts”. It functions and expresses itself in very different ways to Western understandings, but there are similarities. When Western educators and researchers try to better understand traditional knowledge, properly managing it while maintaining full integrity and meaning can be easily overlooked or missed.
Another element of traditional knowledge, particularly in Australia, involves various restrictions of access. Some knowledge is for men or women only (often termed “men’s business” or “women’s business”), while other knowledge is restricted to people by initiation and/or seniority in the community. In general, this can be divided into (1) public areas (open-access), (2) peri-restricted areas (requiring negotiation for access and use terms), or (3) highly restricted or closed areas (secret-sacred knowledge sites, practices and documentation).
There are digital technologies that are allowing for aspects of traditional knowledge to be stored, displayed, and utilised for education, research, and cultural preservation. Two of the main examples are the WorldWide Telescope3, and Stellarium4.
Indigenous Astronomy before the digital age
Indigenous astronomy relies on keen observation of the movements of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets, with this knowledge being passed down to subsequent generations through oral tradition and ceremony. Carefully observing the movements of the celestial bodies over extended periods of time for timekeeping, calendars, and marking important events, requires two things: (1) a fixed place in the landscape from which to make observations, and (2) a stable and convenient reference frame from which the movements of the celestial bodies can be accurately observed. Fulfilling the first requirement are the many stone arrangement5 and ceremonial sites6 dotted around the landscape.7
Digital technologies play an important role in helping to recover and preserve Indigenous astronomical knowledge. Stellarium is one such program that is finding wide use by researchers, Indigenous artists, and knowledge custodians. It is a digital planetarium that can accurately display the night sky from anywhere in the world for any time period. It accurately portrays the movements of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars in real time. It includes 20+ pre-installed skycultures, ech containing imagery, nomenclature, and text describing the objects and its meaning in a given culture. Because of its open source architecture, it is fully customisable by the end user. This enables Indigenous artists to add and display their own skyculture information. To date, this has been done for Boorong (VIC) and Kamilaroi/Euahlayi (NSW), with more under development, such as Torres Strait Islander and Wiradjuri (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The Wiradjuri constellations displayed in Stellarium. Image: Stellarium. Art: Scott ‘Sauce’ Towney
Stellarium is also able to integrate with other astronomy software, such as Horizon.8 Horizon uses terrain height elevation data from the shuttle radar topography mission (SRTM) database, and converts it to a 3D rendered horizon profile as seen for an observer from any location. These horizon profiles can then be installed in Stellarium, thus allowing observation of the movements of celestial bodies against the horizon profile of the location in question (Fig. 2). Another aspect of Indigenous astronomical knowledge that can be integrated into digital technology is that many celestial objects have a multitude of meanings. A given star or group of stars in the sky can mean different things, depending on the narrative, or even the time of year. In the Years 5 and 6 Health module for Indigenous Astronomy, students learn about the celestial emu, and how it is position in the sky throughout the year means different things, including how it is perceived. In Autumn, it is seen as a female chasing a male for a mate, while in June/July it is seen as a male sitting on the nest. Stellarium accommodates for this by allowing the constellation image to change on a given date. This is not exactly reflective of the traditional knowledge, but it is a modification of the program that allows for this change. Further developments are in the pipeline.
Fig 2: (top) Kengal near Wagga Wagga, NSW, a culturally-significant place where Baiami was said to jump off and return to his sky home. (below) A Horizon program-generated profile of Kengal inserted into Stellarium showing how Baiami (as Orion) rises over it in the eastern sky. Image: Stellarium. Art: Scott ‘Sauce’ Towney.
Aboriginal artists and elders are working to share their traditional astronomical knowledge through digital programs like Stellarium. Modifications will need to be made to more accurately reflect Indigenous views and issues around knowledge restriction will need to be addressed. Within the WorldWide Telescope, which works in similar ways to Stellarium, archivists are working on enabling a login system where communities can upload their knowledge (including text, audio, video, and art) and dictate the various levels of restriction, allowing only those with protected passwords the ability to access peri-restricted or fully restricted levels of knowledge. Currently, Stellarium only provides public levels of knowledge.
Classroom activity - Technologies (Digital Technologies) Years 7 and 8
In these classroom activities students will use digital programs like Stellarium to investigate Indigenous astronomical knowledge in Boorong and Kamilaroi traditions. They will then examine how the effects of climate change or altering knowledge that links the stars with animals, plants, and seasonal change.
This resource addresses the following content description from the Australian Curriculum:
- Analyse and visualise data using a range of software to create information, and use structured data to model objects or events (ACTDIP026)
- Plan and manage projects that create and communicate ideas and information collaboratively online, taking safety and social contexts into account (ACTDIP032)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 7 and 8 in Technologies (Digital Technologies):
- explain how text, image and audio data can be represented, secured and presented in digital systems
- plan and manage digital projects to create interactive information
- define and decompose problems in terms of functional requirements and constraints
- evaluate information systems and their solutions in terms of meeting needs, innovation and sustainability
- analyse and evaluate data from a range of sources to model and create solutions
- use appropriate protocols when communicating and collaborating online
Inquiry-based learning questions
- How can Indigenous astronomical knowledge be visualised in a digital environment?
- How can different digital technologies be used together to teach and learn about Indigenous astronomical knowledge?
- How can these technologies be used to help reconstruct astronomical knowledge that was fragmented or damaged by colonisation?
- What policies should be developed and protocols implemented to properly manage this information in digital environments?
Activity 1 – Examining traditional astronomy using Stellarium
Suggested timing for activity: 30-45 minutes, including class discussion
Required resources: computer with Stellarium software9, paper, notebook.
- Open Stellarium, go to Sky and Viewing options, then Starlore. Students should select Kamilaroi/Euahlayi. (ACTDIP026)
- Have the students read the background info when the culture is selected.
- Students can then pick one of the Culture Objects and explore the time of the year it rises at sunset or sets just before sunrise.
- For example, students could pick the emu. Set the Date/Time to 15 May 2019 at 21:00 and find the Celestial Emu (Gawaargay). Notice it has legs. This is the time of year the female emus are chasing the males prior to pairing up and nesting.
- Now set the Date/Time to 15 June 2019 at 21:00. Notice that the legs have now disappeared. This is the time of year the male emus are sitting on the nest, and hence the legs are no longer visible.
- Stellarium only shows public content. How might the program feature peri-restricted or highly restricted content in an ethical way?
- Is this even possible?
- Who should be consulted in this process?
- Examine what technologies exist that could solve this issue?
- Is the WorldWide Telescope 10 a useful alternative? 11
Activity 2 – Reconstructing fragmented knowledge using Stellarium
Suggested timing for activity: 30-45 minutes, including class discussion
Required resources: computer with Stellarium software12, paper, notebook.
In this activity, students will use the digital software Stellarium to identify stars described in Aboriginal traditions. Some of this knowledge is fragmented, and the equivalent identities of the stars are not known. In the Adelaide region of South Australia, the arrival of autumn was signalled by the heliacal (dawn) rising of a star the local Kaurna people call Parna. The appearance of Parna just before sunrise told the Aboriginal people that the annual autumn rains would soon arrive and that they needed to build their waterproof homes. The identity of the star in Western terms was never given. In this activity, students will draw from climate and weather data from Adelaide, and use that in conjunction with the digital Stellarium program to identify Parna. This activity is based on a published paper.13 (ACTDIP026)
- Ask students to look up details about the Kaurna Aboriginal people. Where is their country? What are the names of their seasons?
- Have the Students go to WeatherZone14 and pull up annual climate data for Adelaide. They should notice a clear trend that shows dry summers and wet winters. The students should be able to figure out when the rainfall begins to increase in autumn (by selecting a month).
- Teacher note: The autumn rains occur around the end of March and beginning of April. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the average monthly rainfall in the period from 1977 to 2010 increased from 19.9mm during the summer months (December-February) to 40.9mm in April, after which it surpasses the monthly average of 45 mm and increases throughout the winter to reach a peak of 79.7mm in June (see Figure 2). The March average (24.9mm) is just above the summer average (19.9mm), showing that the increase in rainfall during April rises significantly from that in March. This suggests that Parna would rise just before dawn in mid-March.
- Students should then pull up Stellarium, set the location to Adelaide, and the time to dawn around the date they derived in the previous point, just before sunrise.
- Have the students identify bright stars in the East that are visible above the horizon before the Sunlight drowns out their light.
- What stars do the students select?
- Teacher note: based on the previous data, Parna is most likely a bright star (probably 1st or 2nd order magnitude) that rises just prior to sunrise in mid-March in the southeastern sky. The only real option is the star Fomalhaut (Piscis Austrinus).
This activity encourages students to consider how the use of data and digital programs to help understand and reconstruct knowledge damaged by colonisation. Discuss policies about the use of this information. Who should be involved, and why?
1 Nakata, M. et al. (2014) Using Modern Technologies to Capture and Share Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 45(2), 101-110.
2 Nakata, M. and Langton, M. (2005) Introduction. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 36(2), 3-6.
5 Hamacher, D.W. Fuller, R.S. and Norris, R.P. (2012). Orientations of linear stone arrangements in New South Wales. Australian Archaeology, 75, 46-54.
6 Norris, R.P., Norris, C., Hamacher, D.W. and Abrahams, R. (2012). Wurdi Youang: an Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications. Rock Art Research, 30(1), 55-65.
7 Leaman, T.M. and Hamacher, D.W. (2018). A methodology for testing horizon astronomy in Australian Aboriginal cultural sites: a case study. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, 18(4), 431-438.
11 Nakata, M. et al. (2014) Using Modern Technologies to Capture and Share Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 45(2), 101-110.
13 Hamacher, D.W. (2015) Identifying seasonal stars in Kaurna Astronomical traditions. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 18(1), 39-52.
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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.