Lights Above Us: Understanding astronomy through the eyes of indigenous cultures

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

Light pollution has removed a crucial element of our ancestry. For thousands of millennia, we watched the stars at night. Over time, we learnt to use these celestial beings as tools to help us navigate, tell time, or explore our spirituality. The modern human, though, gets only a rare glimpse at the Milky Way. Does this mean we’re losing – or have already lost – a part of our heritage?

Our relationship with the night sky is of great interest to thousands of scientists around the world. Archeoastronomy – the study of ancient peoples and the role the sky played in their culture – and ethnoastronomy – the study of modern societies’ sky-watching habits – are widely diverse sectors of the scientific community.

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

Light pollution has removed a crucial element of our ancestry. For thousands of millennia, we watched the stars at night. Over time, we learnt to use these celestial beings as tools to help us navigate, tell time, or explore our spirituality. The modern human, though, gets only a rare glimpse at the Milky Way. Does this mean we’re losing – or have already lost – a part of our heritage?

Our relationship with the night sky is of great interest to thousands of scientists around the world. Archeoastronomy – the study of ancient peoples and the role the sky played in their culture – and ethnoastronomy – the study of modern societies’ sky-watching habits – are widely diverse sectors of the scientific community.

A particularly noteworthy area of study for archeoastronomers happens to be based right in our backyard. Many indigenous cultures across the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and South East Asia (SEA) are masters of night-time navigation. The original settlers of these lands are evidenced to have navigated their way across vast lengths of the ocean using an innate knowledge of the night sky.

The leading theory describing who these settlers were, and where they came from, is known as the “Austronesian Expansion”. Analysis of the genetics of hundreds of cultures across the Indo-Pacific points to a common country of origin: Taiwan. Somewhere around 3000 to 1500 BCE, ancient Taiwanese people, who were the first to master oceangoing technology like catamarans and outrigger ships, set sail towards SEA (Meacham, 2008). Referred to as the “Austronesian-speaking peoples”, their descendants travelled huge distances, populating most of SEA as well as Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, Madagascar, Rapa Nui, and New Zealand. Even the Americas are thought to have been visited by this group, evidenced by the presence of the sweet potato – which originated in Peru – across the Pacific. Of all the cultures that stemmed from this fascinating mass migration, none are more famous than the Polynesians.

Referred to by James Cook as “the most extensive nation on Earth” (Crowe, 2018), Polynesians passed down the skills of navigation and wayfinding from generation to generation in an oratory fashion. Songs were sung and stories were told of how previous Polynesian explorers had made great journeys using their many navigational talents. They famously used seabirds to decipher the correct route to take between islands and in 1944 Harold Gatty, the Australian explorer and navigator, documented that Polynesians would often follow migration patterns of birds. For example, the long-tailed cuckoo could be followed to navigate from the Cook Islands to New Zealand.

The stars, though, were one of the Polynesian explorers’ greatest tools. Gatty explained that explorers would memorise the locations of stars – which they had correctly identified as fixed points in the night sky – corresponding to the locations of different islands across the Pacific. Stars rise and fall above or below the horizon as the Earth spins. Polynesian sailors would use this to their advantage by mapping the rising of different stars above the horizon to a specific route. Specific sequences of stars could be followed, which would reliably chart a course to the desired destination.

As Polynesian communities were primarily oratory in nature, these sequences were never documented. Star compasses could be constructed using lines drawn in sand and shells to mark constellations (as displayed by modern practitioners of Polynesian navigation), but these were clearly temporary. Thus, these sequences were memorised by each sailor. Latitudes of different islands were also memorised, and the patterns of movement of different stars were used to determine one’s current latitude in relation to the destination. It is incredible to imagine that the immense distances travelled by these peoples so long ago were done so instinctually and holistically.

An often-undiscussed piece of New Zealand’s history is Tupaia, a Tahitian star navigator who joined Captain Cook’s Endeavour in 1769. Tupaia joined the famous expedition at Ra’iatea, his home island, which, interestingly enough, is considered to be Havai’i (Hawaiki), the ancient homeland of Māori.

Tupaia was an expert at memorising star maps, and upon being questioned by Cook and his crew to demonstrate, he produced a map displaying 3,200 kilometres of ocean and 130 islands (Druett, 1987). Not only is it likely that Tupaia had a great deal of involvement in navigating the Endeavour to New Zealand, but that he was crucial in the first engagements with Māori peoples upon arrival.

As indicated by entries in Sir Joseph Banks’ journals, Tahitian and Te Reo are remarkably similar, both having descended from a common language (Higgins & Keane, 2013). Tupaia was thus able to establish efficient communication with much of the Māori chiefdom, who soon welcomed him as a tohunga (expert). The arrival of Tupaia to New Zealand marked a meaningful moment in the history of Māori: the strange, coincidental arrival of a man from the Māori homeland who assisted in the peaceful communication between two cultures. The study of the stars brought Tupaia from Tahiti to the Māori peoples, who themselves were brought to New Zealand from Tahiti by the very same lights in the night sky.

Our new public holiday, Matariki, is itself a Polynesian tradition inherited into Māori culture. Across many different islands in Polynesia, it brings about different seasons and new gods to worship. The Cook Islands, as well as Rapa Nui, celebrate Matariki; parts of French Polynesia, however, celebrate Mata-ariki (Matamua, 2018). Makali’i in Hawaii ushers in a four-month new year festival called Makahiki. The Pleiades are still worshipped across the islands and are one of many parts of early Polynesian culture that have trickled into modern societies.

To Māori, Matariki marks the beginning of the new year, based on a lunar calendar rather than the traditional Gregorian solar calendar. Dr Rangi Matamua, the first Māori to be awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, has been pivotal in helping the nation recognise the importance of Matariki to Māori, as well as legitimising Māori astronomy itself. He explained during a lecture at Te Papa in 2017 that Māori would only read the many prophecies of the Pleiades at a very particular time. The moon must be at the end of its third quarter, beginning its last quarter; Māori astronomers are proficient at recognising this period of the lunar calendar. Celebrations could then begin and the prophecies of the coming year – be they positive or negative – could be read.

Across the Pacific, many different Polynesian cultures still practice Polynesian navigation. The most prominent practitioner in the modern era was Mau Piailug, who famously navigated his way from Hawaii to Tahiti – nearly four and a half thousand kilometres – with no seafaring instruments. He utilised only traditional techniques of navigating, using the Sun and stars as one of many guides across the treacherous journey, which he made in a period-accurate Hawaiian double-hulled canoe. It was thanks to Piailug that academics began to take Polynesian navigation seriously, and several studies soon proved the efficacy of his techniques. Piailug also mentored Nainoa Thompson, another famous navigator. The pair made the Voyage of Rediscovery across Polynesia, landing in New Zealand at one point throughout the journey. Thompson (2010) wrote that the trip was made to reignite the passion for celestial navigation and the like in younger generations of Polynesians. Tai Tokerau elder Sir James Henare stated that Thompson had proven to Māori that the traditional method of travel used by their ancestors was still possible. This marked the beginning of a renaissance of Māori culture, including a newfound passion for navigation and astronomy; the journey of Haiwiki-nui – a traditional Māori double-hulled waka – was made by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell soon after.

The Polynesian cultures aren’t the only ones to have spent generations gathered underneath the night sky. Across the ditch in Australia, the many unique cultures of Aboriginal Australians also revere the stars and planets above us. Indigenous Australians are demonstrably a collective of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. Anthropologists suggest the earliest humans may have arrived in Australia more than 60,000 thousand years ago (Crabtree, Williams, Bradshaw, White, Saltre, & Ulm, 2021).

Curnow (2011) describes that Aboriginal Australians are known to have used the sky as a tool to tell time, possessing similar techniques within certain tribes to those of the Polynesians. “The Dreaming” is the great creation story of Aboriginal mythology, and it often involves celestial bodies as ancestral heroes battling foes and forming the world we know.

The Dreaming touches on an important part of indigenous cultures and their perceptions of space. Many modern academics do not consider these kinds of mythology as real astronomy, separating the stories from the science and focusing on the facts that were discovered in the process. While many cultures did discover facts about the night sky that were later confirmed to be true, it seems a waste to discredit the rest of their efforts – attempts at explaining how the world came to be, to better understand the environment that early humans found themselves in, and to come closer to the meaning of their existence.

By understanding the roots of these astronomical beliefs and practices, we can better understand the core values that underline a given culture. It helps us modern humans align with what it felt like to be alive in those times and connects us to our ancestors in ways that aren’t possible with science alone. Polynesians, Māori, and Aboriginal Australians share a connection to one another through their love of and dependence on the night sky. Many Western cultures have left behind this aspect of our heritage, especially as our cities become brighter and the lights above us less visible. Perhaps the more widespread celebration of Matariki will encourage us to look up to the skies more often.

 

 

Sources: 1. Professor Kerry Howe: “Austronesians were first to sail the seas”, The Sydney Morning Herald 2. Pathway of the birds: The voyaging achievements of the Maori and their Polynesian ancestors 3. The Raft Book: Lore of the sea and sky. In Blakely, J. (2016). Be Your Own Navigator, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives 4. Tupaia – The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator 5. Te reo Māori – the Māori language – Pākehā engagement with te reo, 1769 to 1840s, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand 6. Matariki: The star of the year (2nd ed.) 7. Recollections of the Voyage of Rediscovery: 1985-1987, Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions 8. Hawaiki-nui, New Zealand Maritime Museum 9. We mapped the ‘super-highways’ the First Australians used to cross the ancient land, The Conversation 10. Aboriginal skies: how do Indigenous cultures interpret the constellations above? Australasian Science

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