Apr/May 2022  •   Reviews & Interviews

The First Astronomers

Review by Ann Skea

The First Astronomers.
Duane Hamacher with Elders and Knowledge Holders.
Allen & Unwin. 2022. 304 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76087 720 0.

We are part of the environment: the Sun, stars, rain, trees… even the noise of a bird and the wind that rustles through the trees. We are part of that. —Uncle Alo Tapim, Meriam Elder

Duane Hamacher is an astrophysicist who has worked with First Nation Elders around the world to collect the knowledge of the skies passed down for generations among their people. He records the knowledge of the "sky-persons" (the "Zugubau Mabaig") of the Torres Strait islands; the "Tiaborau" of Tonga; the "sacred star medicine" of Lakota Elders in Midwest USA; and that of other "Knowledge Holders," ancient and modern, around the world.

This knowledge has always been of practical and vital importance for navigation, hunting, fishing, and the planting and tending of crops, and it ensured human survival for centuries before Western scientists began to study the skies. It is also a rich source of traditional stories, songs, beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals through which knowledge is passed on, and which enriches the lives of the people and teaches them traditional customs and cultural laws.

As Hamacher writes:

Indigenous astronomers knew about the movements of the Sun, eclipses, sunspots, solstices and the seasons in enormous detail through daily observation... They understood the phases of the Moon, the cause of eclipses, sounds associated with auroras, and so much more.

The First Astronomers shows clearly how our ancestors watched and recorded the changing positions of the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets; how they related these changes to the seasons, the movement of tides, the availability of foods, and the habits of animals. They understood the complex patterns of movement of planets, noted landmarks matching the rising and setting of the Sun at different times of the year, saw changes in the brightness of stars and their appearance and disappearance, recorded the position and orientation of the Moon, and could predict eclipses.

For indigenous astronomers, everything seen in the skies is reflected on earth—"as above, so below" is their belief—and for indigenous cultures the position of particular constellations in the sky has specific meaning, and the stories associated with them are used as mnemonics for recognizing their shapes and importance. In a chapter on navigation, Hamacher describes, for example, how this can be used to help navigation of long distances overland, and how this relates to the "songlines" known to Australia's indigenous people.

Indigenous Australians identify the dark nebulae clouds of the Milky Way as the Dark Emu, and its movement across the sky is their guide to the times for the hunting out and eating the nutritious emu eggs.

Among the Tupi people of the Brazilian Amazon and the Moquit people in Argentina, these same dark spaces are seen as the celestial rea, a flightless bird similar to the emu. For them, the protector or "master" of each species "regulates human access to the plants and animals as resources, ensuring a sustained balance." Tupi stories tell of the master of the rea, Mañic, who is dangerous. He is pursued across country by a powerful ancestor and, "When cornered, the rea climbed up the trunk of the ombú tree into the sky." It is this rea—Mañic's soul-shadow—which the Tupi see in the dark spaces of the Milky Way.

In the traditions of the Meriam people in the Torres Strait islands, the story of Tagai "informs them about changing seasons, traditional Law, and the behavior of animals—all through the movement of the stars." Tagai, the great warrior, hunter and fisher, is represented in the night sky by a group of constellations Western astronomers identify as Corvus, The Southern Cross, Lupus, Centaurus, and Hydra. Duane Hamacher provides a diagram of Tagai spread-eagle in the sky with his limbs linking the constellations. He stands above the canoe (Scorpio) in which he and 12 shipmates set off on a fishing expedition. The crew, so it is told, disobeyed Tagai by drinking all the water ration, so he punished them by bundling them into two groups of 6 and throwing them into the sky as far from him as possible. There they remain—six of them as Usiam, the stars known to Western astronomers as the Pleiades, and the other 6 as Seg, the belt and scabbard of Orion.

The names of stars and constellations used by astrophysicists and Western astronomers derive from Latin and Greek mythology where they, too, have stories linked to them. Unlike the stories still told by indigenous peoples, however, any practical lessons linked to these stories have been long forgotten. Hamacher notes, too, scientists have often dismissed indigenous stories and traditions as "folklore" only to find there is truth in them.

The traditions of First Peoples ranging from Australia to Greenland tell of strange sounds associated with the auroras. They are reported as whistling, crackling and hissing...

Inuit traditions from Iglulik associate the sound of an aurora with the noise made by spirit ancestors playing a ball game in the sky...

...a Tlingit woman from Hoonah, Alaska, said her grandmothers taught her to listen for the northern lights when she was a child. "It's our ancestors letting us know. 'We crossed over but we are still here with you.'"

Scientists were skeptical. Only in 2016 did a team of Finnish scientists prove these sounds exist, but unlike the First Peoples, whose knowledge has been gained by experience and long-term holistic observation of the sky and earth, they used a "complex multi-microphone system" to do so. Astrophysicists, as Hamacher admits, rely on sophisticated equipment to "see" the sky, and what they "discover" often confirms things the First Peoples have known by direct observation for centuries and have put to practical use.

The First Astronomers includes clear, if a little dry, scientific explanations; fascinating star-stories from many cultures; first-hand knowledge provided by Elders; art-works and photographs; and a few personal recollections by Duane Hamacher. I particularly enjoyed his account of getting lost in the Australian bush after visiting the site of a meteor crater and rescuing himself and his companion by using his shadow, a technique he had been told of by an Aboriginal Elder. As Hamacher says at the end of the book, "there is a great deal more we can learn if we simply listen."

This is a book which is full of information and interest but above all it is a plea for the continuing acknowledgement, collection and recording of the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Indigenous Elders and their peoples. All royalties from this book will go to charities supporting these endeavors.

The Elders and Knowledge Holders who contributed to the book are identified, with brief biographies, at the beginning of the book and many other sources are quoted and referenced.


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