Exploding star recorded in Aboriginal Dreamtime

By Heather Catchpole 11 November 2010
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Aboriginal Australians recorded an eruption of a bright star 150 years ago and wove it into their Dreamtime stories.

LONG BEFORE THE WORD astronomy was even coined, Aboriginal Australians  were gazing into the night sky and documenting its events, weaving them into their Dreamtime stories.

Australian researchers have recently discovered that the eruption of a huge star 150 years ago was recorded and incorporated into the traditions of an Australian Aboriginal community living near Lake Tyrell in north-western Victoria.

“This event is a prime example that Aboriginal Australians were astute observers of the night sky,” says Duane Hamacher, a PhD candidate studying Aboriginal astronomy at Macquarie University in Sydney.

In the late 1830s, the larger of the twin stars of Eta Carinae in the constellation Carina, about 8,000 light-years away from Earth, began a two-decade outburst that ejected hot gas with a mass nearly 20 times as much as the Sun. “At its peak it was the second brightest star in the night sky, after Sirius,” says Dr David Frew, an astronomer at Macquarie University. After the outburst, the star’s brightness faded until recent decades.

The constellation Carina (left) and a sketch (right) of how John Morieson believes the Boorong
would have seen the wife of Crow, as a bird in flight, a graceful one at that,
probably with the wind coming from the left of the picture. The larger dot is Eta Carinae.

Connecting the dots

The Boorong people of Lake Tyrell appear to have woven the event into their oral traditions as the character ‘Collowgullouric War’, the wife of the crow called ‘War’ (pronounced “Waa”), who is identified as the star Canopus. War was described as the first being to bring fire from above and give it to the Aboriginal people.

Prior to the supernova-like outburst of the star, it is unclear which star may have been attributed to War’s wife, Duane says. In the Boorong legends, husband and wives were often represented by stars of equal brightness.

This astronomical knowledge was told to Victorian pastoralist and philanthropist, William Stanbridge, who presented the first paper on Aboriginal astronomy to the Philosophical Society of Victoria in 1857. William Stanbridge himself was unaware of the link between the oral tradition and the star’s eruption, says Duane, and it took 150 years for someone to finally make the connection.

Duane and David have published their findings in the November issue of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage.

Amateur historian John Morieson has worked in Victorian Aboriginal communities for many years, and wrote an unpublished thesis on the Boorong people in 1996 while at Melbourne University. He says that the star was likely known to the Boorong before it brightened with the outburst.

Evolving Dreamtime

As with many celestial events which gave rise to new Dreamtime stories, the Carinae eruption may have led to the adaptation of the crow legend. Duane says the fact that William Stanbridge described the star as “bright red” is significant, as it was neither bright nor red prior to its outburst, and could mean it wasn’t noted by the Boorong before that time. “It’s a good example of how Aboriginal Dreamings are dynamic and evolving, sometimes incorporating significant celestial events,” he says.

Aboriginal Australians understood and incorporated transient celestial phenomena into their culture, in some cases making clear connections between meteors and meteorites, for example, or the mechanics of the Sun-Moon-Earth system during an eclipse, he adds.

Duane’s supervisor, astronomer Ray Norris, from CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science in Sydney, says traditional stories of eclipses, describe the ‘Sun woman’ and ‘Moon man’ making love, explaining why the light from one is covered by the body of another. “This is exactly how we understand it in western science but couched in a different language,” he says.

Aboriginal artist Esther Kirby’s impression of the story of constellation Canis Major. The moon, Mityan (quoll), 
lusted after one of Unurgunite’s wives. Unurgunite fights him and the Moon has been forced to wander the heavens ever since.