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The world's first astronomers might have been Australian Aborigines

Illustration for article titled The worlds first astronomers might have been Australian Aborigines

The ancient world was home to many accomplished astronomers, included the Greeks, Mayans, Polynesians, and maybe Stonehenge's mysterious builders. But perhaps more than 10,000 years before these cultures looked to the sky, Australian Aborigines were the world's first stargazers.

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In general, ancient astronomers used their knowledge of the stars for utilitarian purposes, such as timing the passage of seasons or navigating across great distance. Of course, even these strictly practical applications required extensive astronomical knowhow, with some specially trained ancients keeping star maps in their heads so detailed that only modern computers can really rival them.

And now we may discovered the world's first known astronomers: the indigenous people of Australia. According to Ray Norris of Australia's Commonwealth Science and Research Organization, aboriginal culture was deeply intertwined with the stars, dating back several millennia before we see the first evidence of astronomical activity elsewhere:

"We've established there is all this astronomy, what I don't know is how far back this goes. If it goes back 10,000 or 20,000 years, that makes (Aborigines) the world's first astronomers. We know there's lots of stories about the sky: songs, legends, myths. We wondered how much further does it go than that."

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Norris believes ancient Aborigines encoded fairly complex scientific understanding into their oral histories, as well as using their understanding of the stars to optimize their food gathering:

"People were nomadic so when Pleiades (the Seven Sisters star cluster) was up they would move to where the nuts and berries are. Another sign and it would be time to move to the rivers to fish for barramundi, and so on. Clearly some thinker in the past has been sitting down in the bush, watching an eclipse and trying to figure out how it works. Those thoughts are then encoded in the songs and ceremonies. If you take a lunar eclipse, the story in Arnhem Land is it's the Sun Woman and Moon Man making love, and when they make love the body of one covers the other."

Human habitation of Australia is thought to date back to between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. Norris admits we can't definitively date when Aborigines first gained this astronomical knowledge, and we won't know until we can find some material evidence that provides a concrete date. He's hopeful ancient depictions or rock carvings of celestial phenomena like a meteor shower or comet might provide just such a date.

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DISCUSSION

It's not really a shock if you know this place and them.

If you live out here, the sky is just this huge, massive thing. It's an enormous part of your world. Couple that with the fact that Arnhem land Aboriginal folks didn't live indoors ever - caves are evil in their mind so they never lived in caves, and they never built structures because that sort of drastic alteration to the world was 1) unnecessary and 2) violated the spirits of the world.

The sky at night here is impossible to describe. It's glorious. You've never seen anything like it unless you've been on a boat in the middle of the ocean and turned off all your lights, or you live in Antarctica or Siberia. This place is so remote and the air is so dry (most of the time), that the milky way is perfectly clear every single night that there aren't' clouds. And by perfectly clear I mean it looks like someone took a finger, dipped it in cream, and smudged the sky. You can take a (careful) walk by it's light even without the moon.

With it being such a massive, obvious, permanent part of their environment, the fact that they knew a metric assload about the night sky is kind of a given. For them to not know astronomy would be like someone from England not knowing anything about rain, or someone from Canada being confused as to when it snowed.

(I use past tense because the modern aboriginal folks generally aren't living the old lives and have lost most of the old knowledge.)