Australian Indigenous People: 'World's first astronomers!'

Andrew Carswell and Robert Cockburn The Courier-Mail (Edited) February 05, 2011

Australia's most distinguished astrophysicists are starting to believe (that) a discovery could turn history and cultural books upside.

Dubbed Wurdi Youang, the strange stone arrangement was found on a property near Mt Rothwell, 80km west of Melbourne, its two points set in perfect alignment with the setting sun on a mid-summer's day.

CSIRO professors believe the ancient Aboriginal sundial could be more than 10,000 years old, an estimate that would have it pre-date the famous neolithic Stonehenge and the only remaining ancient wonder of the world, the Egyptian Pyramids.

Understandably, its exact location is a closely guarded secret.

CSIRO astrophysicist Professor Ray Norris said the precise alignment of the stones proved beyond a doubt it was constructed to map the movements of the sun, in order to track the seasons.

"What we have found with this stone arrangement, which is a circle of about 50m across, is it's aligned east-west and what is really interesting is that if you stand at the top and look through this particular gap over the stones, you look at the exact position of where the sun sets on summer and winter solstices and at the spring and autumn equinoxes," Prof Norris said.

"This can't be done by guesswork. It required very careful measurements.

"If it goes back, let's say, 10,000 years, that predates the Egyptians, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, all that stuff. So, that would indeed make them the world's first astronomers."

Head of Sydney University's Koori Studies, Janet Mooney, said the discovery would be an inspiration for young Aborigines and help address what she claims is a fundamental oversight of the skill of the ancient race.

"This discovery has huge significance for understanding the amazing ability of this culture that is maligned," she said.

"It's got the potential to change the attitudes of kids in the classrooms."

Aboriginal Stonehenge: Stargazing in ancient Australia

Stephanie Hegarty BBC World Service 6th October 2011

An egg-shaped ring of standing stones in Australia could prove to be older than Britain's Stonehenge - and it may show that ancient Aboriginal cultures had a deep understanding of the movements of the stars.

Fifty metres wide and containing more than 100 basalt boulders, the site of Wurdi Youang in Victoria was noted by European settlers two centuries ago, and charted by archaeologists in 1977, but only now is its purpose being rediscovered.

It is thought the site was built by the Wadda Wurrung people - the traditional inhabitants of the area. All understanding of the rocks' significance was lost, however, when traditional language and practices were banned at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Now a team of archaeologists, astronomers and Aboriginal advisers is reclaiming that knowledge.

They have discovered that waist-high boulders at the tip of the egg-shaped point along the ring to the position on the horizon where the sun sets at the summer and winter solstice - the longest and shortest day of the year.

The axis from top to bottom points towards the equinox - when the length of day equals night.

At Stonehenge, the sun aligns instead with gaps in the stones on these key dates in the solar calendar.

The probability that layout of Wurdi Youang is a coincidence is miniscule, argues Ray Norris, a British astrophysicist at Australia's national science agency, who is leading the investigation.

Prof Norris and his Aboriginal partners used Nasa technology to measure the position of each rock in relation to the sun, and to demonstrate the connection with the solstices and equinox.

"It's truly special because a lot of people don't take account of Aboriginal science," says Reg Abrahams, an Aboriginal adviser working with Prof Norris.

Giant emu

As happened with Stonehenge, the discovery could change the way people view early societies. It is only recently that it has been demonstrated that Aboriginal societies could count beyond five or six.

"This is the first time we have been able to show that, as well as being interested in the position of the sun, they were making astronomical measurements," says Prof Norris, who is also a faculty member at the School of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Other studies by Prof Norris, of Aboriginal songs and stories, have also indicated a clear understanding of the movements of the sun, moon and stars.

Indigenous customs vary among groups across Australia, but one story that appears in many local traditions is the tale of a great emu that sits in the sky.

The emu, which can be seen in the southern hemisphere during April and May, is a shape made by the dark patches of the Milky Way.

Its appearance coincides with laying season of the wild emu and for the storytellers it is a sign to start collecting eggs.

Prompted by historian Hugh Cairns, Prof Norris examined and photographed an emu-shaped rock carving in Kuring-Gai Chase National Park, near Sydney, which cleverly mirrors the celestial animal-like shape.

During the southern autumn, the constellation is positioned above the rock with the bird shape almost perfectly reflected by the engraving.

Intellectual leap

Other stories show more complex, intellectual understanding of the universe.

In the case of the solar eclipse, the Walpiri people in the Northern Territory tell the story of a sun-woman who pursues a moon-man. When she catches him the two become husband and wife together causing a solar eclipse.

The idea that the solar eclipse is caused by the moon moving in front of the sun is something only widely accepted by western scientists in the 16th Century.

"This is not about balls of flames going out, it's about one body moving in front of the other," says Prof Norris. "That is a giant intellectual leap."

Since solar eclipses are rare, the survival of this story, passed down through generations, also shows a remarkable continuity of learning.

These discoveries play a crucial role in helping Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians understand just how intellectually advanced their ancient society was.

"This discovery has huge significance for understanding the amazing ability of this culture that is maligned," says Janet Mooney, head of Indigenous Australian Studies at Sydney University.

"It makes not only me, as an Aboriginal person, but a lot of Aboriginal people around Australia very proud."

She hopes to be able to tell her students of an aboriginal site more ancient than Stonehenge.

Until it is dated however, Wurdi Youang could be anywhere from 200 to 20,000 years old.

Aboriginal stone structures in the region have a vast age range and are very difficult to date. Many of the smaller rock sites that have been found, such as shelters and cooking areas, have been moved over time by natural and human forces.

But given the size of the stones at Wurdi Youang and how deeply they are entrenched in the ground it is more likely they have been there for thousands of years, archaeologists say.

Dating requires archaeologists to test the soil under the rocks to see when it was last exposed to sunlight and the team hope to be able to do this in the next few months.

But Prof Norris believes he has already proven the real value of the stone circle.

"It is interesting to know how far back people were doing astronomy, if it is 5,000 years old it would predate Stonehenge," he says.

"But it is not quite as interesting to my mind as whether the Aboriginal people were doing real astronomy before British contact. That really tells us a lot about what kind of culture it is."