An Adelaide scientist known as the ‘Star Man’ has been working with indigenous people across Australia to preserve ancient myths on visible constellations.
Since the earliest days of humankind, the night skies have been a source of fascination.
For many, the stars told a story. In ancient times they were often the subject of myths, from the kernel of creation, to the end of the world.
Nowadays, too, scientists are conducting similar searches for meaning, in the hope that the stars might hold the secrets to the origin of the universe and the future of the cosmos.
But as modern life progresses and science becomes more sophisticated, there are some who fear the traditional tales of ancient cultures could be lost.
Self styled star man Paul Curnow lectures at the Adelaide planetarium.
“Primarily we are looking at some of the groups in South Australia, but we certainly try and talk about groups from around Australia in general and make comparisons to how the night sky is seen by these groups as opposed to how astronomers use the night sky and see the constellations today,” he told SBS.
He says it’s easy to overlook the extraordinary diversity of indigenous culture which has given rise to many different star stories.
Each group can have a completely different view of the night sky.
Desert dwellers see reptiles and birds, while those by the coast have an aquatic view complete with stingrays and sharks.
Even that most familiar constellation – the Southern Cross – can have myriad interpretations.
“The Kaurna people of the Adelaide plains, they see it as the footprint of an eagle, and the Arrente people from central Australia also see it as the footprint of an eagle, and the Adnyamathanha from the Flinders Ranges.
“For the Ngarrindjeri people from the Coorong and the lower Murray Valley region, it’s stingray,” he says.
The top star in the Southern Cross has been seen as a possum sitting at the top of a tree by some of the groups in Victoria.
Mr Curnow says the indigenous stories are more than simply constructing an image from a particular cluster of stars.
They can actually have enormous relevance to the political, social and cultural frameworks of the various groups, he says.
“The night sky is a giant cosmic storyboard. Keep in mind we’re talking about a time when there was no television, no books, so one of the ways you could educate people was by talking about stories and relating it to the night sky, and some of these patterns were a way of passing on knowledge,” he told SBS.
“Also in a country like Australia where survival is very important you needed to monitor the seasons quite closely so watching the night sky’s a very good way to know what plants are growing at a certain time of year, what animals were around and so on, so it was important not just for spiritual reasons but for very practical reasons as well”.
There are significant differences between the way old cultures view the sky compared with modern astronomers – even though today’s interpretations are based on the observations of the ancient Sumerians.
The modern description of the constellations was set in 1922 by astronomy’s governing body, the International Astronomical Union – effectively ignoring other perspectives.
Now the ‘Star Man’ is in a race against time to preserve the stories of the starry skies for their original custodians.
“It’s actually taken an awful lot of research.
“It’s taken a lot of time speaking to people, a lot of time looking at records by early missionaries and ethnographers and explorers and so on, because sadly a lot, particularly in South Australia for example, a lot of the information has been lost over time,” he said.
“So it’s something we’re trying to bring back together to be able to share with indigenous communities and bring back to the people”.