The remains of the first known Australian, Mungo Man, today begin their return to the Willandra area of New South Wales, where they were discovered in 1974.
They’ll be accompanied by the remains of around 100 other Aboriginal people who lived in the Willandra landscape during the last ice age.
Their modern descendants, the Mutti Mutti, Paakantyi and Ngyampaa people, will receive the ancestral remains, and will ultimately decide their future.
But the hope is that scientists will have some access to the returned remains, which still have much to tell us about the lives of early Aboriginal Australians.
The Mungo discoveries
For more than a century, non-Indigenous people have collected the skeletal remains of Aboriginal Australians. This understandably created enormous resentment for many Aboriginal people who objected to the desecration of their gravesites.
The removal of the remains from the Willandra was quite different, done to prevent the erosion and destruction of fragile human remains but also to make sense of their meaning. In 1967 Mungo Woman’s cremated remains were found buried in a small pit on the shores of Lake Mungo.
Careful excavation by scientists from the Australian National University revealed they were the world’s oldest cremation, dated to some 42,000 years ago.
Several years later, and only several hundred metres from where Mungo Woman was buried, Mungo Man was discovered adorned in ochre that is thought to have been obtained from about 200km away to the north.
Mungo Man provided a further glimpse into a past that all of a sudden appeared far more complex than archaeologists across the world had previously thought possible. A picture was emerging that here, at a time when Europe was largely populated by Neanderthals, was an ancient culture of far more sophistication, full of symbolism with a thriving and complex belief system.
The discoveries made possible by the initial research of a young Jim Bowler rewrote our understanding of human history.
Limited research on the remains
While it is true that Mungo Man was excavated in 1975 and has been in Canberra ever since, the perception that scientists have been undertaking research on his remains since this time is not accurate.
In reality, very few scientists, probably fewer than ten, have been privileged with the opportunity to study the remains. Very little work has been published, which is unfortunate considering the importance of these remains to human history.
Before 2005 only a few papers from a couple of different authors were published, dealing mainly with dating and comparisons with other fossil human remains. None of these provided an actual description of the skeletal remains of Mungo Man.
Science works best when a variety of perspectives are collected by different scientists working on different questions. Science has not truly had this opportunity with Mungo Man.
We are fortunate to be working at a time when technology allows us to understand ancient human remains in ways that couldn’t have been imagined, even ten years ago. The collection of remains from the Willandra Lakes was CT scanned only four years ago, providing a wealth of new data that can be used to understand those populations.
Much to learn from further research
The study of ancient DNA has finally progressed to the point where we can potentially learn a great deal of information from ancient skeletons.
While DNA from contemporary populations can provide significant information, living people can never replace the information we can recover from people that lived 42,000 years ago.
Isotopes are geochemical signatures that can reveal how people may have moved across the landscape, from one different geological catchment to another. This type of work was recently applied to questions in other parts of Australia, where research revealed the ancient megafauna were probably migratory animals.
Further research may allow us to see how the ancient Australians interacted with the seasonal movement of the great megafauna herds and their migrations who we know now overlaped with people in the Willandra as recently as 32,000 years ago.
Only three of the ancient remains from the Willandra have been reliably dated, and there are more than 100 other skeletons that have no direct age estimates associated with them.
The early dates from Australia’s north raise the possibility that some of the ancient remains recovered from the Willandra system may be older than those of Mungo Man and Woman. This could further rewrite the history of the peopling of Australia.
Who knows what will be possible as science continues to progress? It is impossible to predict what else we may be able to learn from Mungo Man and the other individuals from the Willandra as technology advances.
Will the story continue?
The discovery of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman sent shockwaves through archaeology. Ancient burials with such sophisticated funerary rituals were unexpected in Pleistocene Australia.
The discovery forced a greater appreciation of the culture of the first Australians and was one of the main reasons that the Willandra Lakes area was given World Heritage status in 1981.
Those of us interested in the origins of the First Australians hope that the long overdue repatriation of Mungo Man will not mark the end of scientific work on his remains.
A keeping place at Lake Mungo would allow for scientific work to be done in the future in greater collaboration with the Traditional Owners, while preserving the remains in a culturally appropriate and respectful way.
The story of the people from the ancient Willandra has been told so far by a small handful of white scientists. One day soon there will be Aboriginal scientists who will bring an entirely different approach to studying the past. A keeping place will give future generations the opportunity to seek answers to those questions.
As scientists interested in the study of human remains, we understand and appreciate the sensitivity involved in our work, and strive to treat these remains with the respect and dignity they deserve.
We are glad that Mungo Man will be returning to country, but equally we hope that he and the other 100 ancient people will be allowed to continue to tell the remarkable story of the First Australians.
In an era of centenaries associated with the first world war, one that might slip under the radar is the Warwick egg incident.
The Warwick egg incident of November 29, 1917, occurred during the second conscription referendum campaign. Two Australians of Irish descent, Pat and Bart Brosnan, threw eggs at the prime minister, Billy Hughes, whose train had stopped at Warwick in Queensland’s Darling Downs. Hughes was there to speak in support of conscription at a meeting on the railway platform.
One egg hit the prime minister’s hat, starting a fight as Hughes’s supporters laid into the assailants, who were removed from the station. After order was restored, Hughes began his speech. But Pat had returned and started interjecting. Hughes jumped off the platform and into the crowd shouting: “Arrest that man!”
Pat was again removed. Later he would claim he threw the egg because he did not want to be conscripted.
Although many incidents of political violence occurred during the conscription campaigns – meetings were disrupted and speakers attacked – this event stands out for three reasons. First, it involved an assault on the prime minister of Australia. Second, it led to the establishment of the Commonwealth police force – later the Australian Federal Police. More significantly, it was symptomatic of the deep divisions in Australian society, exacerbated by the hard-fought political campaign over conscription: Irish Australians versus British Australians; Catholics versus Protestants; labour versus capital; empire loyalists versus Australia-first nationalists; the Queensland government versus the federal government.
It is difficult to comprehend the depth of those divisions today, particularly those along ethno-religious lines. Sectarianism, in the sense of the conflict between Protestants, then mostly of British descent, and Catholics, then almost exclusively of Irish descent, was a significant factor in social and political discourse in early 20th-century Australia.
When war broke out in August 1914, such differences were put aside, as Protestants and Catholics joined together in support of the war effort. But the uneasy truce was shattered during Easter week 1916, when Irish rebels seized the GPO in Dublin.
At first, Australian Catholics deplored the rising. But when the British military declared martial law and began executing the rebel leaders and interning thousands of Irish men and women, Catholics began to criticise the British government, provoking a Protestant backlash.
The sectarian divide widened following the first conscription referendum in October 1916. Prime Minister Hughes and the mainly Protestant empire loyalists blamed the “disloyal” Irish Catholics for the referendum’s defeat.
Class divisions also emerged over conscription, as living standards declined as a result of wartime austerity. The failure of Labor governments to meet workers’ expectations led to industrial disputes that rose to levels not seen before or since.
Tensions rose during 1917, with the belligerent, Irish-born Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix criticising the war as an “ordinary trade war”. He engaged in a public slanging match with the prime minister, arguing that Australia had done enough, and that if Britain ended its occupation of Ireland it would not need Australian conscripts.
Another outspoken critic of the federal government’s war policy was the Labor premier of Queensland, Thomas Joseph Ryan, an Australian Catholic of Irish descent. Desperate to censor Ryan’s anti-conscription rhetoric, Hughes raided the Queensland Government Printing Office to seize copies of Hansard containing parliamentary speeches opposed to conscription.
To Hughes, the perceived influence of the Irish in Australia was alarming. In August 1917, he told the British prime minister, Lloyd George:
The Irish question is at the bottom of all our difficulties in Australia. They — the Irish — have captured the political machinery of the Labor organisations — assisted by syndicalists and I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World] people. The Church is secretly against recruiting. Its influence killed conscription.
(The Industrial Workers of the World was a revolutionary left-wing union-based organisation.)
Speaking of the general strike then taking place in NSW, Hughes added:
… [T]he I.W.W. and the Irish are mainly responsible for the trouble. In a sense it is political rather than industrial. … [T]hey are now trying to take the reins of Govt out of our hands.
It was against this background that Hughes found himself in Warwick, on his way back to Sydney, following the raid on the Queensland Government Printing Office. His worst fears were confirmed when a Queensland police officer, Senior Sergeant Henry Kenny, a Catholic of Irish descent, refused to arrest the egg throwers for breaching Commonwealth law, saying he answered to the Queensland government only.
This led Hughes to draft a regulation establishing the Commonwealth police force. In advising the governor-general on the regulation, Hughes wrote:
This will apply to Queensland where present position is one of latent rebellion. Police is honeycombed with Sinn Feiners and I.W.W … [T]here are towns in North Queensland where the Law … is openly ignored and I.W.W. and Sinn Féin run the show.
While in November 2017 we will rightly commemorate the centenary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), in which the Australian Imperial Force suffered more than 38,000 casualties, the centenary of the Warwick egg incident is a timely reminder of the “war” on the home front. It was arguably the most divisive period in the nation’s history.
In July, a new date was published that pushed the opening chapters of Australian history back to 65,000 years ago. It is the latest development in a time revolution that has gripped the nation over the past half century.
In the 1950s, it was widely believed that the first Australians had arrived on this continent only a few thousand years earlier. They were regarded as “primitive” – a fossilised stage in human evolution – but not necessarily ancient.
In the decades since, Indigenous history has been pushed back into the dizzying expanse of deep time. While people have lived in Australia, volcanoes have erupted, dunefields have formed, glaciers have melted and sea levels have risen about 125 metres, transforming Lake Carpentaria into a Gulf and the Bassian Plain into a Strait.
How are we to engage with a history that spans 65,000 years? There is a “gee whiz” factor to any dates that transcend our ordinary understanding of time as lived experience. Human experiences are reduced to numbers. And aside from being “a long time ago”, they are hard to grasp imaginatively.
It is all too easy to approach this history as one might read the Guinness Book of Records, to search the vast expanse of time for easily identifiable “firsts”: the earliest site, the oldest tool, the most extreme conditions. The rich contours of Australia’s natural and cultural history are trumped by the mentality that older is better.
To political leaders, old dates bestow a veneer of antiquity to a young settler nation. To scientists, they propel Australian history into a global human story and allow us to see ourselves as a species. To Indigenous Australians, they may be valued as an important point of cultural pride or perceived as utterly irrelevant. Their responses are diverse.
Recently, one of us, Lynette Russell, asked 35 Aboriginal friends and colleagues of varying ages, genders and backgrounds for their thoughts about Australia’s deep history.
Many of the responses were statements of cultural affirmation (“We have always been here” or “We became Aboriginal here”), while others viewed the long Indigenous history on this continent through the lens of continuity, taking pride in being members of “the oldest living population in the world” and “the world’s oldest continuing culture”.
As expressions of identity, these are powerful statements. But when others uncritically repeat such notions as historical fact, they risk suggesting that Aboriginal culture has been frozen in time. We need to be careful not to echo the language of past cultural evolutionists, who believed, in Robert Pulleine’s infamous words, that Aboriginal people were “an unchanging people, living in an unchanging environment”.
This article seeks to move beyond the view of ancient Australia as a timeless and traditional foundation story to explore the ways in which scientists and humanists are engaging with the deep past as a transformative human history.
Memories of time
The revolution in Australia’s timescale was driven by the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid-20th century. The nuclear chemist Willard Libby first realised the dating potential of carbon-14 isotopes while working on the Manhattan Project (which also produced the atom bomb). In 1949, he and James Arnold outlined a way to date organic materials from a couple of hundred years old to tens of thousands of years old. The key was to measure the memories of time preserved in carbon atoms.
By comparing the decaying isotope, carbon-14, with the stable isotope, carbon-12, they were able to measure the age of a sample with relative precision. The rate of decay and amount of carbon-14 provided the date.
“A new time machine has been invented”, Australian archaeologist John Mulvaney declared when he realised the implications of the method. In 1962, he used the new technique at Kenniff Cave in the central Queensland highlands and was stunned to discover that Australia had been occupied during the last Ice Age. The dates of 19,000 years overturned the long-standing idea that Australia was the last continent to be inhabited by modern humans and the artefacts he uncovered in his excavations revealed a rich history of cultural adaptation.
The following decade, at Lake Mungo, Australia’s human history was pushed back to the limits of the radiocarbon technique. A sample from spit 17 of Mulvaney and Wilfred Shawcross’ excavations at Lake Mungo revealed that the ancestors of the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa and Paakantji peoples had thrived on these lakeshores over 40,000 years ago. Geomorphologist Jim Bowler also revealed the dramatic environmental fluctuations these people endured: what is now a dusty and desiccated landscape was then a fertile lake system with over 1000 km2 of open water.
The date of 40,000 years had a profound public impact and announced the coming of age of Australian archaeology. The phrase “40,000 years” quickly appeared on banners outside the Tent Embassy in Canberra, in songs by Aboriginal musicians and in land rights campaigns. When the bicentenary of European settlement was marked on 26 January 1988, thousands of Australians protested the celebrations with posters reading “White Australia has a Black History” and “You have been here for 200 years, we for 40,000”. The comparison magnified the act of dispossession.
The discovery of 65,000 years of human occupation at Madjedbebe rock shelter on Mirrar land, at the edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment, draws on a different dating method: optically stimulated luminescence. This technique analyses individual grains of sand and the charge that builds up in their crystal quartz lattice over time. By releasing and measuring this charge, geochronologists are able to reveal the moment a grain of sand was last exposed to sunlight.
The archaeological site at Madjedbebe is far more than an old date; it reveals a long and varied history of human occupation, with evidence of profound cultural and ecological connections across the landscape, cutting edge Ice Age technology (such as the world’s earliest ground-edge axe) and dramatic environmental change.
Perhaps most evocatively, throughout the deposit, even at the lowest layers, archaeologists found ochre crayons: a powerful expression of artistic endeavour and cultural achievement.
In the wake of the discovery, in August 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seized upon the new date in his speech at Garma, singling out the possibilities of this deep time story for political reconciliation:
I am filled with optimism about our future together as a reconciled Australia. Last month scientists and researchers revealed new evidence that our First Australians have been here in this land for 65,000 years. … This news is a point of great pride for our nation. We rejoice in it, as we celebrate your Indigenous cultures and heritage as our culture and heritage – uniquely Australian.
Although Turnbull revels in the deep time story, his speech avoids reflecting on the more recent past. Here is a statement of reconciliation that does not address the estrangement that it is seeking to overcome. As such it opens itself up to being dismissed as simply a prolonged platitude.
We cannot engage with the past 65,000 years without acknowledging the turbulent road of the past two centuries.
A story of rupture and resilience
When Europeans arrived in Australia in the 17th and 18th centuries they were setting foot onto a land that had been home to thousands of generations of Indigenous men and women. These groups lived along the coasts and hinterlands and travelled into the mountains and across stone plateaus; they thrived in the harsh deserts and gathered in great numbers along waterways and rivers.
Although Australia is a continent, it is home to hundreds of different nations, over 200 language groups and an immense variety of cultural, geographic and ecological regions. To the newcomers these people were simply perceived as “the natives”, and despite the immense cultural diversity across vastly different environmental zones, the disparate groups became labelled with the umbrella term: “the Aborigines”.
There is a similar tendency today to homogenise the deep history of the first Australians. The dynamic natural and cultural history of Australia is too often obscured by tropes of timelessness. Tourism campaigns continue to tell us that this is the land of the “never never”, the home of “ancient traditions” and “one of the world’s oldest living groups”.
Such slogans imply a lack of change and hide the remarkable variety of human experiences on this continent over tens of thousands of years. While there is great continuity in the cultural history of Indigenous peoples, theirs is also a story of rupture and resilience.
The discovery of old dates at Madjedbebe does not make the history of the site any more or less significant. It simply reminds us that science, like history, is an ongoing inquiry. All it takes is a new piece of evidence to turn on its head what we thought we knew. Science is a journey and knowledge is ever evolving.
The epic story of Australia will continue to shift with the discovery of new sites and new techniques, and by engaging and collaborating with different worldviews. It is a history that can only be told by working across cultures and across disciplines; by bridging the divide between the sciences and the humanities and translating numbers and datasets into narratives that convey the incredible depth and variety of human experience on this continent.
The authors of this article will continue this conversation at a public event in Wollongong on Friday 24 November 2017 at the annual meeting of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science. There will be two other sets of speakers, exploring issues surrounding precision medicine and artificial intelligence. Register here.
Billy Griffiths, Research fellow, Deakin University; Lynette Russell, Professor, Indigenous Studies and History, Monash University, and Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts, ARC Australian Laureate Fellow and Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), University of Wollongong
Recent research presented at a maritime archaeology conference has revealed at least 48 shipwrecks – including WWII ships and some post-war vessels – have been illicitly salvaged in Southeast Asia. This figure is an astonishing escalation from the handful of wrecks already known to have been damaged or destroyed.
However, sources close to the issue suggest that the figure may be much higher still, with one Chinese company claiming to have salvaged over 1,000 wrecks in the South China Sea.
It is now a race against time to protect these wrecks and preserve the histories they embody. Museums can play a key role. For instance, exhibitions such as the Australian National Maritime Museum’s current Guardians of Sunda Strait testify to the continuing resonance of these ships’ stories even as the sites themselves are destroyed.
This exhibition, which looks at the WWII loss of HMAS Perth and USS Houston, is made more poignant by the fact that HMAS Perth, in particular, has been heavily salvaged in recent years.
The emotional echo of the stories of courage and sacrifice told here – such as that of HMAS Perth veteran Arthur Bancroft, who was shipwrecked not once but twice, and USS Houston’s Chaplain Rentz, who insisted a young signalman take his lifejacket after the ship sank – is amplified, not diminished, by the accompanying contemporary tragedy.
Some countries, such as the US, have enacted legislation to protect their sunken military craft, regardless of where they rest.
At an international level, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea states that, unless explicitly abandoned, a flag state (the country where the vessel is registered) is entitled to exclusive jurisdiction over shipwrecks. This is also irrespective of whether the vessel sank in foreign waters or not.
For ships that have not been completely destroyed, there is a strong case to be made for the recovery of “touchstone objects” such as the ship’s bell on naval vessels – an item with which every officer and sailor, irrespective of rank, would be familiar.
In 2002, in response to concerns about the illicit salvaging of British wrecks in Malaysian waters, a team of Royal Navy divers oversaw the recovery of the bell from HMS Prince of Wales. This vessel was part of British naval squadron Force Z, established to protect Britain’s colonial interests in Southeast Asia. The force was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese aircraft. Reports indicate that the illicit salvage of HMS Prince of Wales, as well as nearby HMS Repulse, is ongoing.
Such strategic recovery initiatives must be the prerogative of the flag state, and strict conditions would need to apply. In many countries, this would require legislative changes. In instances where sunken war vessels are known to be underwater graves, the recovery of objects would also need to be conducted in consultation with survivors and descendants.
Snapping the past
Although we now know that many wrecks have been damaged, there are still some that remain untouched and even unlocated. For instance, the whereabouts of Australia’s first submarine, AE1, remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands, HMAS Canberra rests upright and intact at the bottom of “Ironbottom Sound”. Scuttled after a damaging encounter with the Japanese in August 1942, the wreck was located in 1992 by Robert Ballard (better known for his discovery of RMS Titanic).
There is also a mystery hanging over the ship: with some suggesting the possibility that it was the victim of friendly fire. It is not known whether HMAS Canberra is at risk from salvagers, but there is no question that the ship will eventually succumb to natural degradation.
Well-preserved wrecks such as HMAS Canberra are prime candidates for one of the most exciting developments in maritime archaeology: digital preservation through photogrammetry. This involves a diver or a remote-operated vehicle taking thousands of photographs of a wreck and its debris field. These images are then digitally “stitched together” to create 3D visualisations, reconstructions and even replicas.
There is significant potential for such technology in a museum environment, not least of all because it enables new audiences to virtually access wreck sites while eliminating the challenges of depth, currents and poor visibility. Photogrammetry also surmounts legal barriers to access.
Curtin University’s HIVE facility is using big data, sophisticated algorithms and the processing power of a supercomputer to digitally preserve the wrecks of HMAS Sydney, lost in 1941 with all on board, and the German ship that sank her, HSK Kormoran. These wrecks are protected sites under Australian legislation, and are not accessible by the general public.
Nor is photogrammetry limited to those with access to a supercomputer. Maritime archaeologist Matt Carter is currently developing a 3D model of the Japanese mini-submarine M-24, located off Sydney’s Bungan Head, using little more than high-resolution cameras, off-the-shelf software, and a lot of patience.
Gone, but not forgotten
The responsibilities of museums become more acute the more that heritage is threatened – not just by thieves and pirates, but by climate change, rising sea temperatures, the impact of both coastal and deep-sea development, and natural degradation. And, as with many terrestrial sites, underwater heritage is now increasingly threatened by the effects of tourism.
Heritage objects and sites are not ends in themselves. The real value of these things and places is in how they can be used to make meaning, to reflect on the past, and to translate and interpret it anew for future generations.
For me, the destruction of these 48 ships does not preclude their stories from being told. Illicit salvaging of underwater heritage, particularly the unauthorised disturbance of human remains, warrants strong condemnation.
But our ability to derive meaning from these wrecks is not diminished by their absence. Some scholars even go so far as to propose that the destruction of heritage, as distressing as it is, provides an incentive for more active and conscious forms of remembrance.
Guardians of Sunda Strait will be on at the Australian National Maritime Museum until November 19.
Aboriginal Australians have been observing the stars for more than 65,000 years, and many of their oral traditions have been recorded since colonisation. These traditions tell of all kinds of celestial events, such as the annual rising of stars, passing comets, eclipses of the Sun and Moon, auroral displays, and even meteorite impacts.
But new research, recently published in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, reveals that Aboriginal oral traditions describe the variable nature of three red-giant stars: Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Antares.
This challenges the history of astronomy and tells us that Aboriginal Australians were even more careful observers of the night sky than they have been given credit for.
What is a variable star?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in 350BCE that the stars are unchanging and invariable. This was the position held by Western science for nearly 2,000 years.
It wasn’t until 1596 that this was proved wrong, when German astronomer David Fabricius showed that the star Mira (Omicron Ceti), in the constellation of Cetus, changed in brightness over time.
In the 1830s, astronomer John Herschel observed the relative brightness of a handful of stars in the sky. Over the course of four years, he noticed that the star Betelgeuse, in Orion, was sometimes fainter and sometimes brighter than some of the other stars. His discovery paved the way for an entire field of astrophysics dedicated to studying the variable nature of stars.
But was Herschel the first to recognise this?
There is evidence that ancient Egyptians observed the variability of the star Algol (Omicron Persei).
Algol consists of two stars that orbit each other. As one moves in front of the other, it blocks the other star’s light, causing it to dim slightly. This is called an eclipsing binary. It can be seen in the sky as the winking eye of Medusa’s head in the Western constellation Perseus.
Are there any clear records from oral or Indigenous cultures that demonstrate knowledge of variable stars?
Emerging research reveals two Aboriginal traditions from South Australia that show the answer is a clear “yes”.
Nyeeruna and the protective Kambugudha
A Kokatha oral tradition from the Great Victoria Desert tells of Nyeeruna, a vain hunter who comprises the same stars, in the same orientation, as the Greek Orion.
He is in love with the Yugarilya sisters of the Pleiades, but they are timid and shy away from his advances. Their eldest sister, Kambugudha (the Hyades star cluster), protects her younger sisters.
Nyreeuna creates fire-magic in his right hand (Betelgeuse) to overpower Kambugudha, so he can reach the sisters. She counters this with her own fire magic in her left foot (Aldebaran), which she uses to kick dust into Nyreeuna’s face. This humiliates Nyreeuna and his fire-magic dissipates.
Nyreeuna is persistent and replenishes his fire-magic again to get to the sisters. Kambugudha cannot generate hers in time, so she calls on Babba (the father dingo) for help. Babba fights Nyeeruna while Kambugudha and the other stars laugh at him, then places a row of dingo pups between them. This causes Nyeeruna much humiliation and his fire-magic dissipates again.
The story explains the variability of the stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran. Trevor Leaman and I realised this in 2014, but we did not realise until now that the story also describes the relative periods of these changes.
Betelgeuse varies in brightness by one magnitude every 400 days, while Aldebaran varies by 0.2 magnitudes at irregular periods. The Aboriginal people recognised that Betelgeuse varies faster than Aldebaran, which is why they say that Kambugudha cannot generate her fire-magic in time to counter Nyreeuna.
Waiyungari and breaking sacred law
The second oral tradition comes from the Ngarrindjeri people, south of Adelaide. The story tells of Waiyungari, a young initiate who is covered in red ochre.
He is seen by two women, who find him very attractive. That night, they seduce him, which is strictly against the law for initiates. To escape punishment, they climb into the sky where Waiyungari becomes the star Antares and the women become the stars Tau and Sigma Scorpii, who flank him on either side.
The Ngarrindjeri people say Waiyungari signals the start of Spring (Riwuri) and occasionally gets brighter and hotter, symbolising his passion for the women. It is during this time that initiates must refrain from contact with the opposite sex. Antares is a variable star, which changes brightness by 1.3 magnitudes every 4.5 years.
What does this tell us?
Ruddy celestial objects hold special significance in Aboriginal traditions – from red stars to lunar eclipses to meteors – which may be one of the reasons why these stars are so significant.
Red objects are often related to fire, blood and passion. Psychological studies show that the colour red enhances sexual attraction between people, which may explain why both stories relate to sexual desire and taboos.
The Aboriginal traditions change the discovery timeline of these variable stars, which historians of astronomy say were discovered by Western scientists.
We see that Aboriginal people pay very close attention to subtle changes in nature, and incorporate this knowledge into their traditions. Astrophysicists have much to learn if we recognise the scientific achievements of Indigenous cultures and acknowledge the immense power of oral tradition.
Duane Hamacher is giving a plenary talk on this research into Aboriginal observations of red-giant variable stars at the Australian Space Research Conference, to be held at the University of Sydney on November 15, 2017.