Duane Hamacher with Elders and Knowledge Holders

Allen & Unwin   RRP $34.99

When people hear or read about some indigenous “myth, legend or story”, some react with scorn, whilst others with a respectful, albeit somewhat patronising smile. Few people seem to ever consider that such stories might be factually accurate and based upon years of careful observation. 

When studying science, school children in Western societies are taught about the “scientific method” which Wikipedia describes in these terms:

“The scientific method is an empirical method for acquiring knowledge that has characterised the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous scepticism about what is observed…It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; the testability of hypotheses, experimental and the measurement-based statistical testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings.”

This unusual but brilliant book, which concentrates on astronomy, is really an eye-opener in which the author, in association with six First Nations Elders from various backgrounds, “takes us on a journey across space and time to reveal the wisdom of the first astronomers”. The book challenges the common view that Indigenous ways of knowledge are not scientifically based. It also suggests that “Indigenous knowledge demonstrates that science can be understood to have a much broader scope than what is usually considered to be Western science.” We are told that “Indigenous scholars conducting research combine formal academic training and personal lived experience that bridges Indigenous and Western ways of knowing.”

In the book’s foreword, Professor Marcia Langton has this to say:

“Significant to understanding the interconnectedness of Indigenous knowledge is recognising the important role of story, song, dance and ceremony. Many dismiss these cultural expressions as myth and legend, but they are not. They are interwoven narratives that bring together systems of knowledge. The interconnectedness of star knowledge with understandings of patterns and phenomena in nature, including seasons, weather, plant and animal behaviour, is revealed in each of the accounts provident by Elders herein.”

Duanne Hamacher was born in the Mid-West of the United States who now lives and works in Australia. He is Associate Professor of Cultural Astronomy in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne. 

The six Elders are all from Australia, mostly the Torres Strait, but the book draws upon the knowledge and learning of Indigenous peoples from other parts of the world including North and South America, Africa, the Pacific and Aroteora/New Zealand. 

Chapter 1 deals in a general way with Indigenous knowledge of the stars and the role of Indigenous cultural practices, and makes the important point that:

“Those who criticise the notion of Indigenous science will argue that culture is irrelevant to science, that the behaviour of atoms or the formation of galaxies is not based on culture. But the rules that govern nature are distinct from the process by which we come to learn abut them. As a human endeavour, science is inseparable from culture.”

Western scientific knowledge is shared through formal education, learned papers and conferences whilst Indigenous knowledge has traditionally been shared via story, song and dance. 

Chapter 1 also makes the point that Indigenous sciences are all highly connected which contrasts with modern Western science which is highly compartmentalised.

The book provides many examples of an apparent myth having a sound scientific basis. One interesting early example is as follows:

“In Zambezi traditions of Mozambique in Southern Africa, the Moon is a woman who was deeply jealous of the Sun-man, who was adorned with glittering feathers of light. One day, when the sun was looking away to the other side of the world, the Moon-woman took advantage of this and stole some of his feathers to decorate herself. When the Sun-man discovered her transgression, he threw mud at her. This stuck to her face as the moon’s maria (dark basins) and has remained there ever since. Seeking eternal vengeance, the Moon-woman perpetually waits until the Sun-man is distracted. Utilising the element of surprise, she throws mud back at his face. The people say that when this happens the Sun has large spots and has some difficulty shining. But the sun does not retaliate, as this only happens every ten years or so.”

This is of course describing sunspots and their cyclical nature, something that Western science only discovered in the eighteenth century.

Several First Peoples tell stories about strange sounds being associated with auroras and that the brighter the aurora, the stronger the sound. For years this correlation was dismissed by the scientific community as nothing but ‘folklore’ until 2016 when a team of Western scientists found that the sound was being made by an ‘overload’ of electrical particles in the lower atmosphere discharging. 

Chapter 3 is titled The Moon, and in it we read that Indigenous peoples from Alaska to Zimbabwe use the rings around the Sun and the Moon as a weather forecasting tool. A ring around the moon is a sure sign of bad weather, of wind and rain.

Chapter 4 which is titled The Wandering Stars deals with the planets. The word planet is derived from the Greek word planetes which means ‘wanderer’. The difference between planets and the rest of the stars was recognised by Indigenous peoples all over the world, and their properties “are important in understanding the role they play in culture and how they are conceptualised.”

The subsequent chapters of this fascinating read examine different particular astronomical aspects, with titles such as The Twinkling Stars, The Variable Stars and the Falling Stars. 

Chapter 9 is titled The Navigational Stars, and explains how stars have been used by Indigenous peoples to navigate over long distances over land and sea and that this requires knowledge of positional astronomy as well as mathematics. Most of us are familiar with the way that the Māori travelled over the sea to Aroteora/New Zealand. Was this just sheer luck? It was not. We read:

“The Pacific Islanders’ traditional systems of science and knowledge about the stars, for instance, enabled them to navigate sea-voyaging craft across the vast Pacific.”

Australia’s Astronomer-at-Large, Professor Fred Watson AM had this to say about The First Astronomers:

“The thorough exploration of Indigenous Astronomy reveals a deep understanding of celestial events and what they can tell us – a brilliant and inspiring read.”

I certainly agree with his assessment. This book is a very accessible and enlightening read which I highly recommend.

John Watts.

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