Teacher background information


Year 5 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Science involves testing predictions by gathering data and using evidence to develop explanations of events and phenomena and reflects historical and cultural contributions (ACSHE081 - Scootle )

  • learning how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use observation of the night sky to assist with navigation (OI.3, OI.5)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have navigated the lands and waters of Australia for many thousands of years using knowledge of astronomical phenomena and the omnipresent patterns in the sky as a navigational system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made repetitive observations of the patterns in the sky for thousands of years, collecting a significant bank of astronomical data in the process. As a result, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples recognised that many of these phenomena occur in regular, dependable cycles of known intervals. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples gathered data on astronomical events and phenomena. Students also learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples used this data to test the prediction that astronomical knowledge enables ‘over the horizon’ navigation techniques.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have navigated across the Australian landscape for many thousands of years and for many purposes, such as seasonal movement, trade, significant gatherings, and to manage Country/Place. These purposes often required Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to travel vast distances, further than the eye can see. Astral navigation of both land and sea was developed by the long-term observation of the night sky. Over thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples gathered data about the night sky through continual observation, and they recognised that patterns in the sky were aligned with a range of fixed landmarks. This recognition led to the understanding that these patterns can be used to navigate to specific geographical locations across land and sea. Some stars, constellations and celestial bodies were, and still are, used for guidance while at other times the sky was used as a star map to assist in remembering directions.

Star maps overlaid onto contemporary road maps of mainland Australia show significant overlap, indicating the critical contribution that Aboriginal Peoples’ astronomical knowledge played in assisting early European colonists to transverse the continent using established routes. Many of the routes that were originally established by Aboriginal Peoples are now major roads and highways.  For example, the star map from Goodooga in Kamilaroi Country in New South Wales to the Bunya Mountains in Waka Waka Country in Queensland overlaps with today’s Carnarvon and Warrego Highways. Euahlayi Elder Ghillar Michael Anderson continues to educate people about pathways, such as the Warrego, that connected communities prior to colonisation, and that these pathways are founded on navigational star maps.

Prior to colonisation, Aboriginal Peoples used the information gathered from thousands of years of unbroken observations of the night sky to navigate across the continent using the stars for direction or by using star maps. Observation of the night sky has provided many Aboriginal Peoples with knowledge and understanding about the pattern of stars, how the pattern rotates from east to west over the course of a night, and the changes over the course of a year. Star maps are a way of teaching information about navigation using the night sky in areas outside a person’s own Country/Place as they correlate star patterns and constellations with landscape features. During a particular season, the pattern of stars indicates the location of important landmarks, such as waterholes, or a traveller’s waypoint for stopping or turning.

One example is a star map that provides a navigation route from parts of New South Wales to the Sunshine Coast region in Queensland. This map has long been used to navigate to the Bunya Gathering. North-west of Brisbane, the Bunya Mountains are of immense significance to the Traditional Owners of the lands, the Waka Waka, Barrungam, Jarowair and Djaku-nde Peoples. The Bunya pine of this region produces large pine cones containing highly nutritious seeds in a triennial seasonal pattern. For millennia, thousands of Aboriginal Peoples travelled great distances to attend the Bunya Gathering. Traditional Owners sent messengers to invite selected groups to attend this important seasonal ceremonial gathering when the nuts ripened and were ready for harvesting. Invited guests, using a star map to guide their route, travelled distances in excess of 700 kilometres, from areas as far as Muruwari and Kamilaroi Nations in New South Wales. The star map indicated turning points so that travellers could navigate to the gathering place in the Bunya Mountains. The star map is committed to memory and may be preserved in a songline. Wardaman Elder Bill Harney and astronomer Ray Norris describe songlines as “effectively oral maps of the landscape, enabling the transmission of oral navigational skills in cultures that do not have a written language”.

Another example of a star map is one that has long been used by the Euahlayi Peoples in New South Wales that provides the navigation to a waterhole on the lands of the Maranganji Peoples near Quilpie in Queensland. This is another significant site for gatherings of Aboriginal Peoples from a wide area, including the Arrernte Peoples of the Central Desert region, who travel vast distances to this site. The star map of the Euahlayi Peoples provides several waypoints connected to the position of the stars that facilitated navigation to the meeting place. The presence of many Aboriginal groups at such a meeting place suggests that Aboriginal groups had their own star maps that provided ways of navigating to the location. A complex network of trade routes transverses Australia over long distances and has long been used to exchange resources of significance or those that may have been unavailable in particular geographical regions. Some trade routes were memorised and incorporated into songlines aligned with patterns in the night sky.

On the Island of Mabuaig in the Torres Strait, gathering information about the appearance of stars has long been the responsibility of expert astronomers in the community. When the appearance of a star was expected the astronomers would rise early and watch the sky until daybreak, observing patterns in the appearance of the stars and constellations. The setting of stars was observed in the same way. Such observations and the information gathered over long periods of time led to detailed knowledge of these star patterns informing navigation among the Islands of the Torres Strait. European surveyors considered the Torres Strait to be a dangerous area to navigate and it was recorded that errors in navigation by the compass would result in wreckage. However, Torres Strait Islander Peoples used the patterns in the night sky to develop routes of safe passage through the Strait. For example, the warrior constellation of Tagai is important for navigation between the Islands. The Erubam Le People of Erub Island sail to Mer Island steering the vessel towards the left hand of Tagai. The constellation of Baidam (the Shark) and Tagai are used by Torres Strait Islander Peoples to orientate navigation to the north or south. The stars in these constellations provide a reference point on the horizon to orient navigation. The Peoples of the Torres Strait Islands have recorded information about phenomena in the night sky for millennia and continue to observe the sky to gather information today. The unbroken collection of observations of Torres Strait Islander Peoples has resulted in accumulated evidence that recognises the patterns in the night sky and how they can be used as positional markers to accurately navigate across land and water, including predicting weather conditions.

The concept of cardinal points is also evident in Aboriginal cultures. The Warlpiri Peoples of the Central Desert in the Northern Territory use cardinal directions that closely align with the Western cardinal points of north, south, west, and east and have terminology to describe position through these points of reference (yatuju, kurlulu, karlu, and kakarru respectively). The Wardaman Peoples of the Katherine region in the Northern Territory also use cardinal points for navigation. Many Aboriginal Peoples have terminology that describes the directions of east and west that are based on the observations of the rising and setting sun.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to understand how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ observations over millennia have connected astronomical phenomena with landscapes to accurately navigate over vast distances. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples acquired information over many thousands of years to understand the patterns of the night sky and predicted that such patterns were connected to patterns and landmarks on the ground. Testing this prediction created an evidence base that supports this correlation. The result is the development of a sophisticated system of navigation that has long been utilised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to accurately travel across challenging land- and sea-scapes.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have contributed to, and continue to contribute to, understandings about the astronomical phenomena of the southern hemisphere.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. (2019). Navigation and star maps. Retrieved from http://www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au/content/topics/starmaps/

Australian Government, The Indigenous Affairs Group. (2018). The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Curricula Project: Astronomy. Retrieved from https://www.indigenous.gov.au/teaching-guides/curricula-project/astronomy

Fuller, R. S., Trudgett, M., Norris, R. P., & Anderson, M. G. (2014). Star maps and travelling to ceremonies: The Euahlayi People and their use of the night sky. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage,17(2), 149-160.

Fuller, R., Anderson, M., Norris, R., & Trudgett, M. (2014). The Emu Sky knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 171-179.

Jukes, J. B. (1847). Narrative of the surveying voyage of H.M. S. Fly, commanded by Captain F. P. Blackwood, R.N., in Torres Strait, New Guinea, and other islands of the eastern archipelago, during the year 1842–-1846: Together with an excursion into the interior of the eastern part of Java. London: T. & W. Boone.

Laughren, M. (1978). Directional terminology in Warlpiri. Working Papers in Language and Logistics, 8, 1-16.

Leaman, T. M., & Hamacher, D. W. (2014). Aboriginal astronomical traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 1: Nyeeruna and the Orion story. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 180-194.

Norris, R. (2016). Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal astronomy and navigation. Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 33, 1-39. https://doi.org/10.1017/pasa.2016.25

Norris, R. P., & Harney, B. Y. (2014). Songlines and navigation in Wardaman and other Australian Aboriginal cultures. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17(2), 1-15.

State Library of Queensland. (2019). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Language wordlists: Waka Waka body parts. Retrieved from https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/sites/default/files/0010-285175-waka-waka-body-parts-revised.pdf