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Australian Aborigines 'understood movement of Sun, Earth and Moon'

June 16, 2011 - Melbourne

Researchers who analysed historic Aboriginal accounts of lunar and Solar Eclipses have found that many traditional communities in Australia understood the movement of the Sun, Earth and Moon.

Duane Hamacher from Sydney's Macquarie University said that Aboriginal communities in different parts of Australia often have similar traditional stories to explain these events.

According to him, Aboriginal Australians were careful observers of the night sky, possessing a complex understanding of the motions of astronomical bodies and their correlation with terrestrial events. This included the passage of time, the movement of tides, changing seasons, and the emergence of particular food sources.

"Aboriginal people used the sky for navigation, marriage and totem classes, as well as cultural mnemonics", the ABC Science quoted Hamacher as saying.

According to him, lunar eclipses are generally seen to have a fairly negative connotation around the world, and aboriginal traditional culture is no different.

"Many viewed eclipses negatively, frequently associating them with bad omens, evil magic, disease and death," said Hamacher.

"In many communities, elders or medicine men were believed to have the ability to control or avert eclipses by magical means, solidifying their role as provider and protector within the community."

"That's often because of the reddish colour the Moon takes on during an eclipse is seen in some traditional culture as blood, meaning someone's been killed or the 'Moon Man' is going into the graves of the diseased and emerging covered in the blood of the dead," added Hamacher.

"Most Solar Eclipse stories describe the Moon covering the Sun," according Hamacher.

"Unless you were paying close attention you wouldn't normally see that, because it happens in the New Moon phase when we can hardly see the Moon".

"In northern and central Australia, it's seen as the Moon Man and Sun Woman making love. Other parts of Australia see it as a black bird or possum fur covering the Sun, or the use of some magical means to make the Sun disappear," added Hamacher.

Hamacher also said that some groups, especially in south eastern Australia see the sky as a canopy being held up by spirits.

"In some cases eclipses were caused by these spirits intervening in the affairs of the Moon man and Sun woman. The woman was pursuing the man across the sky and when she catches him, the spirits would intervene allowing him to escape for at least a while," said Hamacher.

Hamacher said the same stories are often used to explain the same celestial events different parts of the world.

"So there's automatically a bias there, we don't know how much and it's hard to quantify," said Hamacher.

"But the important thing is looking at the overall perceptions, similarities and differences and comparing those across different indigenes cultures across Australia and around the world," added Hamacher.

The study will be published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage.


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