Australian Aboriginal astronomy has been passed down orally, through ceremonies, and in their artwork of many kinds. The astronomical systems passed down thus show a depth of understanding of the movement of celestial objects which allowed them to use them as a practical means for creating calendars and for navigating across the continent and waters of Australia.[1] There is a diversity of astronomical traditions in Australia, each with its own particular expression of cosmology. However, there appear to be common themes and systems between the groups. Due to the long history of Australian Aboriginal astronomy, the Aboriginal peoples have been described as "world's first astronomers" on several occasions.[2][3][4]

Many of the constellations were given names based on their shapes, just as traditional western astronomy does, such as the Pleiades, Orion and the Milky Way, with others, such as Emu in the Sky, describes the dark patches rather than the points lit by the stars. Contemporary Indigenous Australian art often references astronomical subjects and their related lore, such as the Seven Sisters.

Records of Aboriginal astronomy

One of the earliest written records of Aboriginal astronomy was made by William Edward Stanbridge, an Englishman who emigrated to Australia in 1841 and befriended the local Boorong people.[5]

Interpreting the sky

Emu in the sky

The Aboriginal "Emu in the sky". In Western astronomy terms, the Southern Cross is on the right, and Scorpius on the left; the head of the emu is the Coalsack.

A constellation used almost everywhere in Australian Aboriginal culture is the "Emu in the Sky", which consists of dark nebulae (opaque clouds of dust and gas in outer space) that are visible against the (centre and other sectors of the) Milky Way background.[6][7] The Emu's head is the very dark Coalsack nebula, next to the Southern Cross; the body and legs are that extension of the Great Rift trailing out to Scorpius.[6]

In Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, north of Sydney, are extensive rock engravings of the Guringai people who lived there, including representations of the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife. An engraving near the Elvina Track[8] shows an emu in the same pose and orientation as the Emu in the Sky constellation.

To the Wardaman, however, the Coalsack is the head of a lawman.[9]

Bruce Pascoe's book Dark Emu takes its title from one of the Aboriginal names for the constellation, known as Gugurmin to the Wiradjuri people.[10][11]

In May 2020, the Royal Australian Mint launched a limited edition commemorative one-dollar coin, as the first in its "Star Dreaming" series celebrating Indigenous Australians' astrology.[12]

Canoe in Orion

The Yolŋu people of northern Australia say that the constellation of Orion, which they call Julpan (or Djulpan), is a canoe. They tell the story of three brothers who went fishing, and one of them ate a sawfish that was forbidden under their law. Seeing this, the Sun-woman, Walu, made a waterspout that carried him and his two brothers and their canoe up into the sky. The three stars that line in the constellation's centre, which form Orion's Belt in Western mythology, are the three brothers; the Orion Nebula above them is the forbidden fish; and the bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are the bow and stern of the canoe. This is an example of astronomical legends underpinning the ethical and social codes that people use on Earth.[13][14]

Seven Sisters

See also: Pleiades in folklore and literature § Australia

The Pleiades constellation figures in the Dreamings and songlines of several Aboriginal Australian peoples, usually referred to as the seven sisters. The story has been described as "one of the most defining and predominant meta-narratives chronicled in ancient mainland Australia", which describes a male ancestral being (with names including Wati Nyiru, Yurlu and others[15]) who pursues seven sisters across the middle of the Australian continent from west to east, where the sisters turn into stars. Told by a number of peoples across the country, using varying names for the characters, it starts in Martu country in the Pilbara region of Western Australia (specifically, Roebourne[15]), and travels across the lands of the Ngaanyatjarra (WA) to (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara, or APY lands, of South Australia, where the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples live. The story also includes Warlpiri lands, the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory.[16]

The Yamatji people of the Wajarri language group, of the Murchison region in Western Australia, call the sisters Nyarluwarri. When the constellation is close to the horizon as the sun is setting, the people know that it is the right time to harvest emu eggs, and they also use the brightness of the stars to predict seasonal rainfall.[12]

In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, the eagle hawk chases the seven sisters up into the sky, where they become the star cluster and he becomes the Southern Cross.[17]

In the Western Desert cultural bloc in central Australia, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion, the hunter. In these stories, the man is called Nyiru[18] or Nirunja,[17] and the Seven Sisters is songline known as Kungkarangkalpa.[19] The seven sisters story often features in the artwork of the region,[18][20] such as the 2017 painting by Tjungkara Ken,[19] Kaylene Whiskey's 2018 work "Seven Sistas",[21][22] and the large-scale installation by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers commissioned as a feature of the National Gallery of Australia's 2020 Know My Name Exhibition.[23] The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney holds a 2013 work by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers called Minyma Punu Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters Tree Women).[24] In March 2013, senior desert dancers from the APY Lands (South Australia) in collaboration with the Australian National University's ARC Linkage and mounted by artistic director Wesley Enoch, performed Kungkarangkalpa: The Seven Sisters Songline on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.[18][25][26]

In the Warlpiri version of the story, the Napaljarri sisters are often represented carrying a man called Wardilyka, who is in love with the women. But the morning star, Jukurra-jukurra, a man from a different skin group and who is also in love with the sisters, chases them across the sky. Each night they launch themselves into the sky, and each night he follows them. This story is known as the Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa.[27]

The people of around Lake Eyre in South Australia tell how the ancestor male is prevented from capturing one of the seven sisters by a great flood.[17]

The Wirangu people of the west coast of South Australia have a creation story embodied in a songline of great significance based on the Pleiades. In the story, the hunter (the Orion constellation) is named Tgilby. Tgilby, after falling in love with the seven sisters, known as Yugarilya, chases them out of the sky, onto and across the earth. He chases them as the Yugarilya chase a snake, Dyunu.[28]

1 dollar commemorative coin issued in 2020 by the Royal Australian Mint, with the seven sisters on the reverse[12]

The Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nation of Victoria tell the Karatgurk story, which tells of how a crow robbed the seven sisters of their secret of how to make fire, thus bringing the skill to the people on earth.[29]

In another story, told by peoples of New South Wales, the seven sisters are beautiful women known as the Maya-Mayi, two of whom are kidnapped by a warrior, Warrumma, or Warunna.[17] They eventually escape by climbing a pine tree that continually grows up into the sky where they join their other sisters.[30]

In 2017, a major exhibition entitled Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters was mounted at the National Museum of Australia,[16] afterwards travelling to Berlin (2022) and Paris (2023).[31]

In September 2020, the Royal Australian Mint issued its second commemorative one-dollar coin in its "Star Dreaming" series celebrating Indigenous Australians' astrology (see Emu in the sky above).[12]

The Milky Way

The Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains of South Australia called the (centre and other sectors of) the Milky Way wodliparri in the Kaurna language, meaning "house river". They believed that Karrawirra Parri (the River Torrens) was a reflection of wodliparri.[32]

The Yolŋu people believe that when they die, they are taken by a mystical canoe, Larrpan, to the spirit-island Baralku in the sky, where their camp-fires can be seen burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way. The canoe is sent back to Earth as a shooting star, letting their family on Earth know that they have arrived safely in the spirit-land. Aboriginals also thought that god was the canoe.[14]

The Boorong people see in the Southern Cross a possum in a tree.[14]

Sun and Moon

Many traditions have stories of a female Sun and a male Moon.[33]

The Yolŋu say that Walu, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn.[34] She paints herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the sunrise. She then lights a torch and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. At the end of her journey, as she descends from the sky, some of her ochre paints again rubs off onto the clouds, creating the sunset. She then puts out her torch, and throughout the night travels underground back to her starting camp in the east.[33] Other Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory call her Wuriupranili.[35] Other stories about the Sun involve Wala, Yhi, and Gnowee.

The Yolŋu tell that Ngalindi, the Moon-man, was once young and slim (the waxing Moon), but grew fat and lazy (the full Moon). His wives chopped bits off him with their axes (the waning Moon); to escape them he climbed a tall tree towards the Sun, but died from the wounds (the new Moon). After remaining dead for three days, he rose again to repeat the cycle, and continues doing so till this day. The Kuwema people in the Northern Territory say that he grows fat at each full Moon by devouring the spirits of those who disobey the tribal laws.[33][34][36] Another story by the Aboriginals of Cape York involves the making of a giant boomerang that is thrown into the sky and becomes the Moon.[37]

A story from Southern Victoria concerns a beautiful woman who is forced to live by herself in the sky after a number of scandalous affairs.[37]

The Yolŋu also associated the Moon with the tides.[14]


The Warlpiri people explain a solar eclipse as being the Sun-woman being hidden by the Moon-man as he makes love to her.[33] This explanation is shared by other groups, such as the Wirangu.

In the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park there are a number of engravings showing a crescent shape, with sharp horns pointing down, and below it a drawing of a man in front of a woman. While the crescent shape has been assumed by most researchers to represent a boomerang, some argue that it is more easily interpreted as a solar eclipse, with the mythical man-and-woman explanation depicted below it.[33]


The rising of Venus marks an important ceremony of the Yolŋu, who call it Barnumbirr ("Morning Star and Evening Star"). They gather after sunset to await the rising of the planet. As she reappears (or in other nearby weeks appears only) in the early hours before dawn, the Yolŋu say that she draws behind her a rope of light attached to the island of Baralku on Earth, and along this rope, with the aid of a richly decorated "Morning Star Pole", the people are able to communicate with their dead loved ones, showing that they still love and remember them.[38]


The Dja Dja Wurrung call Jupiter "Bunjil's campfire". The planet features in the Dja Dja Wurrung Aboriginal Clans Corporation logo, as a symbol of the Creator Spirit.[39]

Eta Carinae

In 2010, astronomers Duane Hamacher and David Frew from Macquarie University in Sydney showed that the Boorong Aboriginal people of northwestern Victoria, Australia, witnessed the outburst of Eta Carinae in the 1840s and incorporated it into their oral traditions as Collowgulloric War, the wife of War (Canopus, the Crow – wɑː).[40] This is the only definitive indigenous record of Eta Carinae's outburst identified in the literature to date.

Astronomical calendars

Aboriginal calendars tend to differ from European calendars: many groups in northern Australia use a calendar with six seasons, and some groups mark the seasons by the stars which are visible during them. For the Pitjantjatjara, for example, the rising of the Pleiades at dawn (in May) marks the start of winter.[41][42]

Stories enrich a custom-linked calendar whereby the heliacal rising or setting of stars or constellations indicates to Aboriginal Australians when it is time to move to a new place and/or look for a new food source.[41]

The Boorong people in Victoria know that when the Malleefowl (Lyra) disappears in October, to "sit with the Sun", it is time to start gathering her eggs on Earth. Other groups know that when Orion first appears in the sky, the dingo puppies are about to be born. When Scorpius appears, the Yolŋu know that the Macassan fisherman would soon arrive to fish for trepang.[41]

It is not known to what extent Aboriginal people were interested in the precise motion of the sun, moon, planets or stars. However, it likely that some of the stone arrangements in Victoria such as Wurdi Youang near Little River, Victoria, may have been used to predict and confirm the equinoxes and/or solstices. The arrangement is aligned with the setting sun at the solstices and equinox, but its age is unknown.[43][44]

There are rock engravings by the Nganguraku people at Ngaut Ngaut which, according to oral tradition, represent lunar cycles. Most of their culture (including their language) has been lost because of the banning of such things by Christian missionaries before 1913.[45][41]

In contemporary culture

A great deal of contemporary Aboriginal art has an astronomical theme, reflecting the astronomical elements of the artists' cultures. Prominent examples are Gulumbu Yunupingu, Bill Yidumduma Harney, and Nami Maymuru, all of whom have won awards or been finalists in the Telstra Indigenous Art Awards. In 2009 an exhibition of Indigenous Astronomical Art from WA, named Ilgarijiri was launched at AIATSIS in Canberra in conjunction with a Symposium on Aboriginal Astronomy.[46]

Other contemporary painters include the daughters of the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who have the seven sisters as one of their Dreamings. Gabriella Possum and Michelle Possum paint the Seven Sisters Dreaming in their paintings. They inherited this Dreaming through their maternal line.

See also


  1. ^ Norris, Ray P. (2 August 2016). "Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation". Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. 33: 39. arXiv:1607.02215. Bibcode:2016PASA...33...39N. doi:10.1017/pasa.2016.25. S2CID 119304459.
  2. ^ Steffens, Maryke (27 July 2009). "Australia's first astronomers". Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  3. ^ "Aboriginal astronomy: The science of mapping the sky and the seasons". NITV. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  4. ^ "Australia's first astronomers". BBC Earth. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  5. ^ Aboriginal Astronomers: World's Oldest? Archived 1 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Australian Geographic, 28 May 2010
  6. ^ a b Peter D'Arcy (1994). Margo Sutton (ed.). The Emu in the Sky: Stories about the Aboriginals and the day and night skies. The emu in the sky is shown in the dark space between stars° - The Emu. The National Science and Technology Centre. pp. 15, 16. ISBN 978-0-64618-202-5.
  7. ^ "Emu in the Sky". Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  8. ^ "Elvina Bay Aboriginal Engraving Walk". Wild Walks. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
  9. ^ Yidumduma Harney (2005)[full citation needed]
  10. ^ Kendall, Ross (15 October 2020). "65,000 years of star gazing for Indigenous Australians". Echonetdaily. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  11. ^ Pascoe, Bruce (2014), Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, Magabala Books, ISBN 978-1-922142-43-6
  12. ^ a b c d "The Royal Australian Mint looks to the stars to honour Australian Indigenous stories". Royal Australian Mint. 3 September 2020. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  13. ^ "The Canoe in Orion". Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  14. ^ a b c d "Australian Aboriginal Astronomy". What is Aboriginal astronomy?. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  15. ^ a b Glynn-McDonald, Rona (25 October 2022). "Songlines". Common Ground.
  16. ^ a b Nicholls, Christine Judith (20 December 2017). "Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is a must-visit exhibition for all Australians". The Conversation. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  17. ^ a b c d "The Story of the "Seven Sisters"". Honey Ant Gallery. 2017. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  18. ^ a b c "Seven Sisters Dreaming". Aboriginal Art & Culture: An American eye. 24 March 2013. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  19. ^ a b "Prizes: Archibald Prize 2017: Tjungkara Ken". Art Gallery of NSW. 2017. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  20. ^ "Kungkarangkalpa – Seven sisters". Art Gallery of South Australia. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  21. ^ "2019 Winners - Telstra NATSIAA". MAGNT. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  22. ^ "Kaylene Whiskey". ABC News. 9 August 2019. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  23. ^ Bell, Delia (9 October 2020). "Tjanpi Desert Weavers celebrated at National Art Gallery exhibition". NITV. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  24. ^ "Minyma Punu Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters Tree Women)". MCA Australia. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  25. ^ "About". Kungkarangkalpa: Seven Sisters Songline. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  26. ^ "Kungkarangkalpa : Seven Sisters Songline" (Video (1 hr 8 mins)). Kungkarangkalpa: Seven Sisters Songline. 2 March 2013. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  27. ^ "The Seven Sisters (Pleiades) Star Dreaming Story". Japingka Aboriginal Art Gallery. 30 October 2019. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  28. ^ Hamilton, Jodie (7 October 2020). "Seven Sisters stars creation story reconnecting people to their country after clifftop massacre taboo lifted". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 11 November 2020.
  29. ^ Mudrooroo (1994). Aboriginal mythology: An A-Z spanning the history of the Australian Aboriginal people from the earliest legends to the present day. London: Thorsons. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-1-85538-306-7.
  30. ^ Peter D'Arcy (1994). Margo Sutton (ed.). The Emu in the Sky: Stories about the Aboriginals and the day and night skies - The Seven Sisters (The Pleiades). The National Science and Technology Centre. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-64618-202-5.
  31. ^ Goerling, Samantha (18 June 2022). "Acclaimed Martumili artists' work lights up the Opera House for Vivid festival". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 20 June 2022.
  32. ^ "Reconciliation". Adelaide City Council. Retrieved 26 February 2020.
  33. ^ a b c d e "Sun, Moon, and eclipses". Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  34. ^ a b Wells (1964)[full citation needed]
  35. ^ Peter D'Arcy (1994). Margo Sutton (ed.). The Emu in the Sky: Stories about the Aboriginals and the day and night skies - The Sun. The National Science and Technology Centre. pp. 3, 4. ISBN 978-0-64618-202-5.
  36. ^ Hulley (1996)[full citation needed]
  37. ^ a b Peter D'Arcy (1994). Margo Sutton (ed.). The Emu in the Sky: Stories about the Aboriginals and the day and night skies - The Moon. The National Science and Technology Centre. pp. 7, 8. ISBN 978-0-64618-202-5.
  38. ^ "Banumbirr, and the Morning Star ceremony". Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  39. ^ "Dja Dja Wurrung Settlement Agreement" (PDF). 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 March 2015. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  40. ^ Hamacher, D. W.; Frew, D. J. (2010). "An Aboriginal Australian Record of the Great Eruption of Eta Carinae". Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. 13 (3): 220–234. arXiv:1010.4610. Bibcode:2010JAHH...13..220H. doi:10.3724/SP.J.1440-2807.2010.03.06. S2CID 118454721.
  41. ^ a b c d "Calendars". Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  42. ^ Clarke (2003)[full citation needed]
  43. ^ Andrew Carswell and Robert Cockburn (5 February 2011). "Wurdi Youang rocks could prove Aborigines were first astronomers". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
  44. ^ "Wurdi Youang". Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  45. ^ "Ngaut Ngaut: a tally of lunar cycles?". Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  46. ^ 'Things belonging to the sky': a symposium on Indigenous Astronomy Archived 12 November 2009 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading