On a good night, I can name about 20 stars. Bill Yidumduma Harney can name roughly 3000. I am originally from Hertfordshire, UK, and studied astronomy at university in Cambridge and Manchester. Bill grew up in a remote Aboriginal community in northern Australia, and learned his astronomy in the bush.
Bill and I have become good mates. For several years we appeared together in a stage show, The First Astronomers, which toured arts festivals in Australia. Bill can certainly tell a good story about the night sky. For thousands of years, he and his ancestors have built an impressive body of knowledge. It is knowledge that, without any written language, has passed from generation to generation through rote learning.
The word “astronomy” implies a quest to understand the heavens: to measure heavenly bodies and use them for practical purposes such as navigation or timekeeping. Bill and other Indigenous Australians certainly do that today, but how long has astronomy been part of their cultures? The lack of written records means answers are hard to come by – but a growing body of evidence suggests it is a very long time indeed. Can they claim to have been the first astronomers?
“Colonial snobbery meant Aboriginal astronomy was often underestimated”
Humans arrived in Australia at least 50,000 years ago. Unlike in Europe and Asia, however, there were no further major waves of immigration until the British invasion of 1788. Until that time, the Australian Aboriginal peoples were isolated from the rest of the world, making theirs the world’s oldest continuous cultures. Each of roughly 300 groups