17 mins read 11 Apr 2022

The First Astronomers - The journey behind the book

'The First Astronomers' is an insightful read into the depths of astronomical knowledge held by Elders across rich and diverse Australian Indigenous cultures. Think it’s not based on science? Think again.

The book launch for 'The First Astronomers' with Dr. Duane Hamacher, Uncle Ghillar Michael Anderson and Prof. Alan Duffy. Credit: Facebook/ Andrew Kelly, Kevin Orrman-Rossiter and Mike Flattley.

Every now and then, a book comes along that captivates the mind so much, that you can’t help but continue to think about it, long after finishing. 'The First Astronomers' is just that - an eye-opening insight into the depth of astronomical knowledge held by Elders across the rich and diverse Australian Indigenous cultures. It challenges the idea that the Australian Indigenous cultures are removed from science and instead inspires another way of looking at how knowledge is held and how science is both understood and applied to everyday life.   

The book, written by Dr. Duane Hamacher, and guided by the Elders and Knowledge Holders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, shares some of the traditional star knowledge that has been collected over the past 10 years. Six Elders, in particular, are named as co-authors, having shared knowledge within the book -  Ghillar Michael Anderson, John Barsa, David Bosun, Ron Day, Segar Passi and Alo Tapim. While the focus of the book is on Australian Indigenous Astronomy, Dr. Hamacher also includes star knowledge and stories from cultures around the world. 

In the prologue, Dr. Hamacher tells us that the level of knowledge across the reading is considered ‘lower level’ which is around primary school level. Yet, even at this level, the depth of information is encapsulating, as is the practical application of this knowledge and the way in which the knowledge is held and passed down through the generations through storytelling, ceremony, art, and knowledge holders. 

Through one chapter, the storytelling weaves through something we’ve taken for granted for most of our lives - Twinkling Stars. ‘The First Astronomers’ explains how star twinkles can help to predict weather events, and used both alone and in conjunction with other environmental markers such as insect behaviour, can predict season changes, when to plant, harvest or hunt. Another chapter, ‘The Wandering Stars’, describes how the movements of planets inform ceremony, navigation, seasonal changes and philosophical teachings while displaying in-depth scientific knowledge. 

The book could have quite easily have become a textbook, but instead, Dr. Hamacher navigates around this by including personal accounts of how he came to learn some information, stories from the Elders and stories of seeing the knowledge system in action, particularly on Mer. It brings a deep sense of storytelling to the book.

So how did an astrophysicist and astronomer from Missouri find himself in Australia writing a book about Indigenous Astronomy? Dr. Hamacher sat down with to talk about ‘The First Astronomers’. 

You visited Australia in 2003, and that's when you started to think about Indigenous Astronomy. What made you veer away from your original field of interest into Indigenous Astronomy?

When I was working on my physics degree at the University of Missouri I was drawn to this area called Archeoastronomy which looks at astronomical practices in ancient cultures. So I started taking some courses in anthropology, and archaeology. We can do that in the US as our degrees are very broad. Of course, it takes a lot longer, but they are very broad. So I could do these extra subjects and I found it to be a fascinating topic. 

When I came to Australia I was an undergraduate student, and I had taken some courses and upper-level courses in astrophysics, astrobiology and geology. At that time in August 2003 in the second semester at Macquarie University, Mars was at its closest approach to the Earth in 60,000 years. So it was going to be this really cool thing to see through the telescope. It was going to be a little bit bigger, brighter than normal. When I was there I asked somebody about some of the Aboriginal knowledge about astronomy, ‘cause I didn't know anything about that at all. 

The response I got was pretty horrific and the other student that I went with, she was a Study Abroad student from a different university in the US, she reacted the same. We sort of looked at each other thinking ‘What just happened?’ and we sort of smiled, backed up and walked away thinking ‘What in the hell was that?’. We were really taken aback and that just planted that seed in my mind about ‘hang on how can all these ancient cultures that can rave about their star knowledge in their astronomy and yet the cultures here, who have been here for tens of thousands of years, not a few thousand years, how come nobody’s acknowledging that?’ And that is what planted the seed in my mind.

And so from there, how did you go from that experience to being in Australia permanently and doing research into Indigenous Astronomy here?

I went back to the US, and my experience being in Australia for that one semester, besides from that one incident, was phenomenal. I fell in love with the place and I was desperate to get back, so I completed my degree and was accepted into a Ph.D program in Astrophysics at the University of New South Wales. I moved back to Australia on Valentine's Day of 2006.  

I was doing a Ph.D searching for planets orbiting other stars, so exoplanet research, specifically transient exoplanets. At that time only a handful had been discovered, now there are like 1000s, but back in 2006 it was still a relatively new area and for all these reasons I just kept getting drawn back to that area of astronomy and culture, and that was pulling my interest away from exoplanet research. 

I would spend more time thinking about this question of Indigenous Australia than I was trying to find distant planets. I finally decided that this is what I really want to do. I looked for a Ph.D program. I went to three different universities and eight departments before I finally approached the one department that everyone said don't go to, which was Indigenous Studies. 

I finally approached them and they said ‘Yes, we'd love to have you’. This was great because it's a studies program. It's broad. You know trying to do a degree in archaeology or anthropology with a physics background in Australia just wasn't going to fly. But with Indigenous Studies, they were very open to that. So I just jumped headfirst right into this world of Indigenous Australia knowledge, and it's been an ongoing 14-year journey.

The Milky Way Galactic arc is represented as an emu in the sky, with the Kurin-gai Emu rock carvings displayed in the foreground. Credit: Barnaby Norris and Ray Norris.

In the prologue of the book, you mentioned that the information shared by the Elders is the tip of the iceberg - like primary school information. Considering the 14 years that you've spent studying this, how much more is there to learn about what the Elders know about Indigenous Astronomy? 

The best word I can use would be infinite. I mean seriously, it might not be a technically accurate word but for all intents and purposes when you've got hundreds of distinct cultures around the country that has their own astronomy… So really, we should be calling this ‘Indigenous Astronomies’.  

Each one of those cultures goes back tens of thousands of years potentially. Colonisation came and punched it hard in pretty much all the wrong ways. It really caused a lot of damage and some places fragmented, but Elders still maintain the knowledge and in a lot of places it was kept in secret. The communities knew that by sharing this information it was never going to benefit them. 

Things are starting to move in a different direction now, which is why this is starting to happen but even that's a bit slow, and that's why it takes a long time to do this work. You can build up years of trust and they (the Elders) want to see the outcomes. Not the promise of the outcomes, but they want to see the outcomes, see their inclusion, that it's been done right. Then, once that happens, they’ll start opening up and sharing more. With some communities, star knowledge can be highly restricted. It’s Secret Senior Men's business, period. Fullstop. That's it. And if I went in there asking questions they’d be like ‘get lost’ you know.

You talked about trust and the trust between you and the Elders sharing information is really evident in the book. It really comes across.  Who decides how much should get shared? 

The Elders decide. The approach to all of this has been moving away from this old school ethnographic anthropological approach of going to communities, take a bunch of knowledge then run off and then do whatever you want with it. We don't do that. 

What I do is work for the communities. Usually, I do these things by invitation. They say OK this is what we’re looking for, this is what we want. These are the outcomes that we're interested in. We have a discussion, but sometimes they’re not always sure what outcomes we can deliver. 

Sometimes, as has been the case with this, there have been all kinds of outcomes the Elders have loved, that none of us expected to have. The commemorative coins and asteroid names and things like that. We wouldn't in a thousand years have thought that was going to be an outcome of it. We were thinking more about education or teaching materials, but as we work with those others in the communities, I should say as we work for these others in the community, they guide what is shared and they know at the beginning that they are only going to tell me stuff they are happy to share. 

Meriam people on Mer Island performing a ceremonial dance. Credit: Dr Duane Hamacher.

You're the course coordinator and lecturer of Australia's only University level Indigenous Astronomy course through the Uni of Melbourne and you worked with Professor Marcia Langton who led initiatives to develop education modules for primary and secondary schools linked to the National Curriculum. How would you like to see Australian education in the future in regards to Indigenous Astronomy and how we teach it? 

The future plans of that Indigenous knowledge of the Stars, Indigenous Astronomy needs to be incorporated into educational curriculum for the schools, and for the public, from early primary, like early childhood all the way up through the top-level to Ph.Ds. That's the goals that we're trying to accomplish, and that means we developed these modules for teachers to use for the Australian National curriculum whether it’s for a preschool or all the way through to year 12, and then we're developing all of these programs for the universities here at the University of Melbourne. 

I actually developed a third-year version of the subject at the University of New South Wales but when I left, there was nobody there who could teach it, so it hasn’t been offered since then. So here (Uni of Melbourne) it is the only place in the country where it is being taught at the moment, but there are other universities that are starting to pick this up and other people are incorporating this into some larger programs. 

And of course, the public sphere means that we've got these books out, we’ve got tourism programs, like the one I worked on, we've got exhibitions and museums and galleries and planetariums and TV shows documentaries. That's going to be out there everywhere. Everybody in Australia and around the world, to learn about and learn from Indigenous Astronomy. That's the major goal, and that's what we’re accomplishing right now. 

And is this happening in other countries with other Indigenous Astronomies?

Yes, it is and that’s what’s been fantastic about seeing this field gain the momentum that it has been. I started working on my PhD 14 years ago back in 2008, there was this group of people around the world doing this same kind of research that I was, but hadn’t really gained a foothold outside of that little group of people doing a scholarship. 

There was decent stuff on archeoastronomy because everyone had an obsession with ancient cultures and their knowledge, but living Indigenous cultures, there just wasn't a lot of things happening, but the interest in that area was obvious. That's been one of the great things about seeing how things have been done in Australia. With the media, anything Indigenous always gets some kind of negative connotation to it, so we’re trying to change the narrative about it and focus on something positive and astronomy is a great way of doing that. 

And there are programs happening in the US and Canada, programs happening in South America and South Africa, even in Scandinavia. It's happening in Southeast Asia, it’s happening all around the world. Of course, Aotearoa (New Zealand) is another amazing place where this is being done. So it's really taken off all around the world. 

Milky Way star map by Bill Yidumduma Harney, Senior Wardaman Edler. Image: Bill Yidumduma Harney, CC BY.

I thought it was fascinating that the star stories from the different cultures around the world are so similar in a lot of ways. Why do you think that is? 

That's a phenomenal question and funnily enough, it's one that we have been trying to answer here for a couple of years and just this week we’ve published a couple of papers on this very topic. I'm working with a team of psychologists here at the University of Melbourne and we've been looking into explaining this through human perception and pattern recognition because the applications for the knowledge as you can see in the book are very very similar around the world. The way we process patterns and associate colours with meaning - it's a very human way of seeing stars, and seeing the world around us.  

So we actually published this paper in Psychological Sciences and another in Nature Astronomy just a couple of days ago then go in to try to explain using human perception and mathematical psychology to explain why this is the case. It seems to be very well supported. So there are other possibilities and we’re going to be exploring those in different ways, but I really love working at this trans-disciplinary crossroads because when you look at astronomy cultures in particular Indigenous Astronomy, it relates to everything.

My last question to you isn't actually a question, but it's about the Wandering Stars chapter in the book. A lot of the chapter focused on Venus and its cycles, and its relationship between the Sun and the Moon from our perspective on Earth. You explain in your book the complexity of the cycles and the amount of observation that needed to occur for it for all of this to be understood. I just couldn’t comprehend how this was done. That this complex knowledge is being built on, through the generations and transferred over generations. Is it all done through storytelling and in the ceremony? Is it a direct sharing of information to Knowledge Holders? As I said, I can't actually articulate my question around this, but I just found it boggling. 

I think I know what you mean. Modern astrophysics focuses on written documentation, it’s tangible. We are recording things that we can, I guess, see. And a lot of the history of astronomy focuses on what’s been written down - star charts, star catalogues, star maps, whatever. But what we have failed to see and failed to acknowledge is that you can do a lot of this from memory and these systems of orality, passing things down through oral tradition are how human brains evolved. We didn’t evolve to write things down with the structure of written language. We've evolved literally to associate memory with place. It's something called the method of loci and we can associate memories with an object tangible or intangible, and when we do that means we can associate memory to an object, a landscape, the stars whatever and we can pass that down through narratives through song, through dance through material, what people think of as art, in Indigenous art. 

It is very pretty but that’s not the main function of it.  The main function is to pass on knowledge but has to be something that’s going to be memorable. Ugly art is not going to be memorable right? Boring stories, long lists of facts are not memorable.  That's why these narratives include things like you know, supernatural, and humans morphing into animals, and sex, and violence, simply because it's memorable. That’s why these narratives being stories have all these different layers of information and knowledge that are passed on in multiple generations of teaching at the same time. There are strict rules about it and it’s one of the reasons why the ceremonies work the way they do. 

Today we don't think about memory and we don't think that we can't even pass on the kind of knowledge that would be required to work out the synodic period of Venus if you have these structural systems of orality you can do that and the evidence is there people have been doing that, than cultures have been doing that for thousands of years. 

Is it still being built on today? Is the learning still happening because this type of knowledge - it can just go on and on? Are they still learning and are they still delivering that through new ceremonies and new stories? 

Yes, absolutely and you know, I've had Elders tell me that there is city dreaming. Traditional knowledge, Indigenous knowledge is not static. It's not some relative of the ancient past that is just a frozen archaeological artifact. It is a living dynamic system of understanding the world around us. The world around us changes. It changes in the short term, it changes in the long term and humans in Australia aboriginal people have gone through major changes like sea level rises and, ice ages, mountains turning into islands, meteorite impact and that impacts the ecology. All that knowledge is dynamic and has to change. The stars shift in the sky, the Earth wobbles on its axis. All of these things mean that knowledge is constantly changing and you have to adapt to that and that's what these knowledge systems are all about and a lot of them do adapt.  

New things are happening now, and that is one of the reasons why it is so strong. Yes, it is absolutely still being passed on right now. It is absolutely still being applied on a daily basis. That might vary from community to community of course. The major problem that we’re facing with all this now, one of the major aspects of ongoing colonisation besides separation of people from language and country and culture, is that we are whitewashing the stars, erasing the skies. If the sky is your map, if they are your textbook, your logbook, your memory space, and somebody comes with light pollution and just erases it, you gonna have some problems. You’re going to be losing that knowledge, and that's the major thing we’re facing today. It’s a major problem.

Astrophysicist Dr. Duane Hamacher has been guided by Elders and Knowledge Holders, Ghillar Michael Anderson, Segar Passi, John Barsa, David Bosun, Ron Day and Alo Tapim.

The book was developed from a collaboration with Torres Strait Islander scholar Professor Martin Nakata, a leading authority on the intersection of Indigenous and Western ways of knowing.

100% of author royalties go to charities supporting First Nations people and programs in astronomy.

'The First Astronomers' is available from any good bookshop. Find out more on 'The First Astronomers' website.