Indigenous astronomy, geography, and star maps
Star maps are song series encoded to memory using the stars. In these maps, stars correlate with landscape features and places to find food and water, while their orientations represent the directions of the pathways for travelling.
Star maps are so crucial to navigation that even some modern highway networks and towns in parts of Australia are based on Aboriginal star maps.
The sky is a reflection of the land
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions describe the land, sea, and sky as a unified ‘cosmoscape’. The skyscape is often perceived as a reflection of the landscape, complete with rivers and forests inhabited with fish, birds, animals, and ancestral beings1. Fig. 1 shows aspects of the skyscape in the Narrindgeri sky (southeastern South Australia, south of Adelaide). In Wiradjuri traditions of central NSW, this place is called Wantanggangura (“beyond the clouds in the sky”) or Murriyang (“Skyworld”), where the primary sky ancestor Baiami lives”. The Milky Way is often seen as a river, and stars often represent waterholes, mountains, or other natural features.
These natural features, as well as human-made features, are used as waypoints for traveling people, revealing travel routes, places to stop for food and water, and housing. Travel across the landscape is encoded to memory in the form of songlines (song series). These are series of songs that tell the singer/traveller about the landscape, and where to find necessities. Song series can stretch from coast to coast across Australia. Because they cross different language boundaries, song series are also in multiple languages (which change when the traveller crosses into new country).2
Songlines specific to a story continuum criss-cross the country and intersect with other songlines at specific locations marking significant landscape features, such as a hill, a waterhole, or a cave. However, just as songlines cross the landscape and seascape, they also cross the sky, and traditions that appear at first glance to be describing a journey over land can similarly be describing a journey across the Skyworld, and vice versa.3 These are discussed in more detail in the Year 8 Indigenous Astronomy English module.
Kamilaroi and Euahlayi elders and knowledge custodians have shared some of their astronomical knowledge, which demonstrates the use of star maps as memory aids for navigating overland routes to important cultural ceremonies.4 The people had to find the best route from Point-A to Point-B (often separated by hundreds, or thousands, of kilometers) and know the best places to stop for shelter, food, water, and medicine. The people then had to find a way to encode all of the information about the journey to memory and pass it on to new generations.
The stars serve well for this function. Notable patterns of bright stars were used to represent important waypoints on the overland journey across country (Fig. 2). The star maps were not exact representations of the overland route. Rather, the relationship between the location of a star in relation to the other stars and corresponding landscape features represented, were committed to memory using the method of loci.5 This enabled the journey to be conducted during daylight, and at a time of year the relevant star map would not necessarily be visible. This method is more like navigation using GPS waypoints than with reading a physical map or following the pathway of a particular star. Ghillar Michael Anderson, a Euahlayi Senior Law Man, tells about a star map that goes from Goodooga, NSW to the Bunya Mountains in southeastern QLD, and to Carnarvon Gorge in central QLD.6 These star maps are a means of teaching navigation for travellers outside of their own local country. Travel to the Bunya Mountains was for an Aboriginal Bunya nut festival, which was held every three years until it was disrupted by European invasion. In the star map, stars are used as waypoints, much like GPS markers. They represent important places to stop for food and shelter, and for geographical landmarks that aide in navigating across country. The lines connecting the stars were used to denote the general pathways across the landscape, and travel was done by day, not night.
Travel to these ceremonies was planned in late winter (August and September) it was during this time those who had made the journey were tasked with teaching those who had not. The star map was used as a memory aid in teaching the route and the waypoints to the destination. Travellers would memorise the star map (in the Western constellations of Ares, Scorpius, and Sagittarius) while details about the journey were committed to songs the traveller would sing during their journey. These star maps made their way into modern colonial life, too. When colonists ventured out and met with Aboriginal people of the region, the people took the colonists on the same travel routes. Where the Aboriginal people stopped for food and shelter - usually near a prominent water source - became settlements and later towns. The pathways between these towns became roads and highways. So many of the highway networks across SE QLD are based on Aboriginal star maps.
Fig. 2 Star maps as memory aids. The stars in the constellation Scorpius (left) were used to memorise the route from Goodooga to Carnarvon Gorge (right). The star Sargas was used as the junction waypoint marker for another overland track to the Bunya Mountains for the important Bunya nut festival. Used w/ permission after Fuller et al. (2014).
Classroom activity - Humanities and Social Sciences (Geography) Year 8
Students will learn how Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Aboriginal star maps function, how the stars are used as waypoints on the landscape, and examine the correlation between the pathways and camps along the journey, noting how they are connected to waterholes and valleys.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
- Different types of landscapes and their distinctive landform features (ACHGK048)
- Spiritual, aesthetic and cultural value of landscapes and landforms for people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (ACHGK049)
- Interpret geographical data and other information using qualitative and quantitative methods, and digital and spatial technologies as appropriate, to identify and propose explanations for spatial distributions, patterns and trends, and infer relationships (ACHGS059)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 8 in Humanities and Social Sciences (Geography):
- students explain geographical processes that influence the characteristics of places and explain how places are perceived and valued differently
- explain interconnections within environments and between people and places and explain how they change places and environments
- select, record and represent data and the location and distribution of geographical phenomena in a range of appropriate digital and non-digital forms, including maps at different scales that conform to cartographic conventions
- analyse geographical maps, data and other information to propose explanations for spatial distributions, patterns, trends and relationships, and draw reasoned conclusions
Inquiry-based learning questions
- How do Aboriginal star maps work as a form of navigation?
- How do Aboriginal people associate landscape features in a star map?
- What cultural values do Aboriginal people place on the landscape?
- How can one use digital geographical technologies to investigate landscape features and spatial patterns in the stars, and infer relationships between them?
Activity – Examining landscape features and star maps
Suggested timing for activity: 30-45 minutes
Required resources: computer, Google Maps or Earth, Stellarium or star chart, pen, notebook
In this activity, students will examine the landscape, noting geographical features in the star map, and how they correlate to star positions, waterholes, and landforms.
- Students should be introduced to the concept of star maps. Teachers can provide the students with the background information in this module, or they can have the students read The Conversation article.7
- Students can use Google Maps or Google Earth to look at the modern highway network, downs, and compare that to the Aboriginal star maps. They should use this to answer the following questions, or others posed by the teacher.
- Students will notice the star maps are not a perfect representation of the travel routes across the land. Looking at star maps online, ask the students if they can find other star patterns or constellations that are visible in the evening in August and September that would be useful teaching aides? (The goal here is to show students that one cannot simply pick any random patch of sky and expect it to work.)
- What important water and food sources do you find at these towns/stars/camps?
- What sorts of terrain do the star maps take the people across in their journey? The terrain feature on Google Maps/Earth is useful here. (i.e are they travelling over mountains or through valleys?)
- Using the maps of Aboriginal languages, what Aboriginal language groups do these two routes cross?
- The teacher can open a discussion with the students about the broader meaning of the star maps, how landscape features and resources guide travel routes and overnight stays, how this links to star maps, and what will happen if the landscape is damaged or destroyed.
1 Clarke, P.A., 2007/2008. An overview of Australian Aboriginal ethnoastronomy. Archaeoastronomy, 21, 39-58.
2 Norris, R.P. and Harney, B.Y. (2014). Songlines and navigation in Wardaman and other Australian Aboriginal cultures. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 141–148.
3 Clarke, P.A., 2015. The Aboriginal Australian Cosmic Landscape. Part 2: Plant Connections with the Skyworld. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 18(1), 23–37.
4 Fuller, R.S., Trudgett, M., Norris, R.P. and Anderson, M.G. (2014). Star maps and travelling to ceremonies: the Euahlayi people and their use of the night sky. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 149–160.
5 Kelly, L. (2016). The Memory Code. Sydney, Allin & Unwin Press.
6 Fuller, R.S., Trudgett, M., Norris, R.P. and Anderson, M.G. (2014). Star maps and travelling to ceremonies: the Euahlayi people and their use of the night sky. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 149–160.
7 Fuller, R.S. (2016). How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia’s highway network. The Conversation, April 7 2016. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/how-ancient-aboriginal-star-maps-have-shaped-australias-highway-network-55952
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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.