Cultural Astronomy

Cultural Astronomy, which combines the disciplines of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, seeks to understand the role of the night sky in various cultures and societies of the past (archaeoastronomy) and present (ethnoastronomy). This interdisciplinary subject draws from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, physics, geology, sociology, and history. Research in Australia deals primarily with Aboriginal Astronomy.

From Dreamtime stories, totemism, and initiation rites, to season cycles, timekeeping, and food economics, the night sky played a vital role in many Aboriginal cultures and continues to do so today. The colonization of Australia led to the decimation and destruction of much of this knowledge. While examples of rock art, stone arrangements, ethnographies, and Dreamtime stories give clues as to the sky’s role in various Aboriginal cultures of the past, much has been lost to the sands of time. Research in Aboriginal Astronomy focuses on understanding the role of the night sky in Aboriginal cultures of both the past and present, with hopes of preservation for the future.

This research attempts to answer questions such as:

  1. What role, exactly, did the night sky have in the 300+ Aboriginal groups of Australia?
  2. Did Aboriginal peoples use the movements of celestial objects to develop calendars for food economics or seasonal migrations?
  3. Do archaeological records or oral traditions exist that relate to, or explain, re-occurring or transient astronomical phenomenon, such as comets, meteors, supernovae, Aurora, lunar phases, solstices, or planetary motions?
  4. Did Aboriginal peoples witness cosmic impacts in Australia or make use of meteorites or tektites?
  5. Do any Aboriginal stone arrangements or rock engravings orientate to celestial phenomenon, such as solstices or lunar phases?
  6. Did Aboriginal people of the past or present incorporate the night sky into religious ceremonies or Initiation rituals?

Research in Aboriginal Astronomy is being conducted at the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, Adelaide Planetarium, and Curtin University. For details, please visit the Aboriginal Astronomy website.