After moving from the US to study in Australia, astrophysicist Associate Professor Duane Hamacher now works to increase Indigenous representation in the astronomical and space sciences
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Scientists have often dismissed Indigenous knowledge as myth and legend, with little or no scientific value or application. It is important that we recognise this is not the case, and understand that Indigenous knowledge is inherently valuable without requiring the validation of Western science. Elders routinely state that they are a people of both culture and science, having developed deep and complex knowledge systems over tens of thousands of years through deduction, observation, experimentation, and application.
I'm Duane Hamacher, I'm an Associate Professor of Indigenous Astronomy and Science at the School of Physics here at the University of Melbourne.
Duane works closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and communities to learn about their astronomical knowledge and teachings, and mentors and supports Indigenous students pursuing studies in astronomy, physics, and space science. During NAIDOC Week recently he held a seminar that focused on Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge and Truth-Telling — acknowledging and discussing the complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander star knowledge to reconsider the ways we think about orality, science, and the history of knowledge.
Duane Hamacher sat down to chat with our reporter Dr Andi Horvath.
Duane, science and astronomy and Indigenous cultures knowledge, they seem like poles apart but they're not really.
Oh, what a great topic. It's been interesting because in the last week or so there's been quite a bit of media kerfuffle about the topic of Indigenous science. What is Indigenous science, how does it relate to Western science, can we even put them on the same level, is it political correctness gone mad, am I just another social justice warrior interested in pushing a culture war? Funny for a white American astrophysicist to be accused of that.
It's really interesting, these types of discussions that come up so it's a really good opportunity now to set the record straight a little bit. What it is that we're trying to do in this space, how we go about doing it and what the larger implications are for outcomes, for education and for the history and philosophy of science as a whole.
Tell me about how you work closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and communities?
I've spent the better part of 11 years now immersing myself into the world of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous science. I came to this from a background of astrophysics knowing nothing about Indigenous knowledge. I'm American, I didn't move to Australia until I was in my late 20s, so my knowledge of Australia was limited to Steve Irwin and Crocodile Dundee. I'm actually serious about that.
And I decided that I wanted to step outside of the world of astrophysics and get involved in the world of cultural astronomy as we call it - the crossroads of astronomy and culture. I thought well I'm in Australia, why not check out and see what Aboriginal people look at in the sky, how they interpret that sort of stuff. As I started doing that, I realised there's a whole level of scientific knowledge that just was not being recognised. It was really bizarre because when I'd ask people about it, they just say oh no, there's nothing there. I'm like well clearly there is, it's right here. We can see it in the records.
Was it there because they're the first ever astronomers on planet Earth?
I mean the funny thing is we don't know who the first astronomers are but we certainly know the oldest astronomers are most certainly the Indigenous people of Australia and now New Guinea. It's amazing when you look back and see how old these cultures are and how far back some of this knowledge stretches. I'm about to publish a paper with some colleagues about an oral tradition from Tasmania that goes back over 13,000 years and that's just a small fraction of the time that people have been in Australia. When you look at these knowledge systems and you see how long this has been developed, it's actually gobsmacking.
So what did they use the stars for? Was it things like navigation or calendars or weather?
All of the above, everything. A number of major themes came out when I was learning from the Elders. I was very fortunate to be able to learn directly from, many Elders mentored me and taught me because I was the ignorant American so they were very happy to come in and teach me. Over the years three major themes kept coming out. Number one, everything on the land is reflected in the sky and you see that with First Nations in North America, as is above is below.
So the sky serves as a textbook, a logbook, a mnemonic a way of remembering everything on the earth you can see in the sky so that was quite fascinating. The other two topics were... Elders would often tell me your ability to be an astronomer depended on your ability to read the stars. So reading the stars means how you can observe changes in their positions and properties and know how to interpret that to be able to tell things like changing weather or animal behaviour or navigation.
The third one that I've focussed on the most, more than anything, is Professor Martin Nakata who is a Torres Strait Islander academic. He's the PVC Indigenous at James Cook University. He told me many years ago when he was my boss at UNSW that we are not just a people of culture, we are also a people of science. This is something that every single one of the Elders has explained to me that yes, we have culture here but we also have science and Indigenous traditions, they're inextricably linked.
In some ways that's the ultimate form of communication by oral traditions, song and dance. I can't think of a better way of doing science communication then singing about it or storytelling. So Duane, I'm going to ask you are you able to share a story with us?
I'm in a really tricky position because sharing stories from particular communities is usually restricted to people from those communities so what I often focus on is highlighting elements of a tradition. I'm not really a storyteller but I highlight the elements of those traditions and I talk about the scientific layers of knowledge encoded within that.
Let's do one.
Excellent. So one of the things that we have to remember is that science is a human endeavour. It's about trying to understand the world around us, how it formed, how it changes and how we can utilise that for some kind of a predictive purpose. How we can use that to predict weather and seasonal change, the behaviour of plants and animals, whatever we want. That is done through observation, empirical observation, deduction, experimentation, trial by error and you build that up into a system of knowledge where you see how all those things are interconnected. That at the core is science and that's what we're talking about when we say science at any level. Of course Indigenous science and Western science sort of diverge into two different areas but we're looking at the crossroads of that.
So one of them in particular that I find fascinating is the idea of observation and deduction so a priori, a posteriori types of knowledge in the philosophy. There are traditions about meteorite impacts around Australia. Some of them like the Henbury meteorite impacts which formed from an asteroid that came into the earth's atmosphere and broke apart before it hit the ground creating about 15 or 16 impact craters - this is about 120 kilometres south of Alice Springs out in the central desert. It happened I don't know, 4,000 - 4,500 years ago so on human time scales fairly recently.
In the traditions the Luritja people talk about how it was a fire devil that ran down from the sun, hit the ground, set the land on fire, killed a bunch of people and created these big holes. Even though a couple of the craters would fill with water during rain events - which was sort of like a creek that flowed into it - they were forbidden from collecting water out of it because they were afraid the fire devil would fill it with iron again. So you have a very clear unambiguous description of a meteorite impact that people would have witnessed, we know people would have witnessed it and it's been recorded and preserved in oral tradition for 4,000/4,500 years. So that's observation and showing that connection between this big hole in the ground and what happened as an object fell out of the sky.
Not far from that about 150 kilometres west of Alice Springs is Gosses Bluff, known to the Western Arrente people as Tnorala. It is the remnant of an ancient asteroid impact - actually that was probably formed by a comet - a very similar process, just the composition of the object is a bit different. That according to Western science formed about 145 million years ago - 142 million years ago so very, very ancient. At the time the level of the ground was two kilometres higher than it is now. So through differential erosion over 140 million years, what you see today is this ring-shaped mountain range about 150 metres high and five kilometres wide. The traditions talk about how there were a group of women dancing a corroboree in the Milky Way. They were in the form of stars.
One of the women who was carrying a baby, put her baby in a turner - a sort of wooden basket, a wooden cradle - and sat the baby down on the edge of the Milky Way. While the women were dancing it shook the Milky Way and the baby fell off the Milky Way. So the baby and the turner came pummelling down to the earth as a star hitting the ground, the turner fell on top of it. There was a massive explosion and it drove all the rocks upwards and the baby's parents, the morning and the evening star, continue to search for their lost child today.
So some of the traditions out in that country talk about how children aren't supposed to look at the morning star or the evening star because they're afraid if they do, they're going to come down and mistake them for their lost child. It also ties in with people discussing things like min min lights and stuff so all this kind of stuff links together.
The formation of that object - Gosses Bluff, Tnorala in the traditions - is parallel. They're pretty much the same but of course the way that we understand them are quite different. It's curious because obviously nobody would have seen this thing 142 million years ago form but it's deduction.
It's amazing because it's contributed to our worldly knowledge of astronomy and we've got it from a source that has a tradition of oral history storytelling. There are obviously many examples of Indigenous knowledge that has informed astronomers of previous events. What about things like supernova or when planets do that funny loop de loop like the retrograde and all that. Do we see all of those also mapped in traditional knowledges?
Absolutely. The planets thing is quite interesting. So Bill Yidumduma Harney - he's a Wardaman, Senior Wardaman Elder, fully initiated - that's a community a couple of hours outside of Katherine in the Northern Territory. He's written a couple of books on his people's knowledge of astronomy and other things. The man's a walking encyclopaedia like you wouldn't believe.
He talks about, in his book Dark Sparklers, about this sky road of the ancestors. So in his traditions the sun and the moon are a wife and a husband and their children are the planets. The planets of course are different because they're always wandering. The original name of planet means wandering star. So they're constantly moving around in the sky and because the earth - I'm sorry, because the solar system is in a plane - all the planets are orbiting within a few degrees of each other around the sun in the same plane - when we look up at the sky, we see all the planets sort of clustered along this imaginary band in the sky. Astronomers call it the zodiac.
The planets as we're moving around the sun, we see the planets from different perspectives. So Mercury and Venus are closer to the sun and Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are further away. It's this weird optical illusion. As we're going around the sun, the planets position compared to the background stars can seem to change direction. So it can be sort of moving west to east and then they go backwards from east to west for a ways and then back forward again.
That's that loop de loop.
Exactly, astronomers call this retrograde motion.
It's just an illusion.
It's an illusion but it's an observational property of the planets. In Wardaman traditions Uncle Yidumduma talks about how these are the sky ancestors walking down a road and just like any of us would walk down the street, sometimes we walk and we pass each other, sometimes we slow down, sometimes we dropped our wallet, we turn around, we walk back or chat with somebody and move forward again - it's the same dynamic with the planets. So it's really interesting how that sort of phenomena which you have to pay careful attention to - you're not going to notice that if you never pay attention to the sky. But if you pay attention to the sky and the positions of objects, you're going to notice this over time and that's really an interesting I think way of describing retrograde motion.
As an anthropologist or ethnographer are there things that are lost in translation because I know the Indigenous languages there are a gazillion of them. It must be an incredible task to bring the two knowledge systems together.
It is. There are hundreds of different Aboriginal groups all across Australia so there's no such thing as - the Aboriginal word for the moon or the Aboriginal story for the seven sisters or Pleiades - there are literally hundreds. There are some similarities between communities, there's also great vast differences between them.
It's been a real challenge for me as a non-Australian, as a non-Indigenous person and as an astronomer who's done some anthropology in the past - and I've certainly learned a lot about social theory and all that kind of stuff in the last decade or so. When I came in to do a PhD in this subject, I'd taken a few archaeology courses in the US but I didn't know that much about cultural anthropology or ethnography so it was a real eye opening experience for me to go through and just look at the archival records - so not going out necessarily and interviewing Elders, but just looking at the archival records and the archives are very problematic.
This is becoming a really hot topic in academia at the moment. What are the archives? What do they record? Who are the gatekeepers of the archives? What kind of sacred status do we give the archives despite the fact that there are often times filled with inaccuracies? Forty per cent of all the research I publish is going back through the archives and correcting a lot of the stuff that early ethnographers got wrong.
Really? That's extraordinary. So you're kind of like a historic fact checker.
I am and this goes both ways. It's really interesting to see what early - I say ethnographers - some were anthropologists, some were missionaries, some were just local farmers - it could be anybody. Back in that day and that time, 1800s - the first half of the 20th Century even - people would learn stories or learn about stuff and just publish it in a newspaper. They didn't necessarily have these high-end academic Oxbridge kind of books and stuff like that.
A lot of these people had a limited knowledge of astronomy, sometimes very little. Sometimes they demonstrated they had some knowledge but what happened a lot of times is objects would be misidentified, terms would be conflated which would cause confusion down the road, sometimes the facts are just inaccurate. With the eyes of an astronomer and I'm reading the accounts of what they're describing the Elders are telling them, there are many times I can tell very clearly what the Elders are talking about but what the ethnographer wrote down was wrong.
Tell me more about educating one another - is it two-way communication with the communities and yourselves as astronomers?
There is very much a two-way process here and it's also important to acknowledge how this work is done. In the past - and I'm talking 18th, 19th - well 19th and 20th Century in particular - a lot of it was done in ways that today wouldn't pass basic ethics protocol. A lot of secret sacred stuff was shared, a lot of language is used. If you go back to some of these older records, it just shocks the system to see the language that people used. Even when they were trying to be speaking about the stuff in a positive way, it was still shocking so today we work very differently. Today I work by invitation from the communities.
It's not so much just me knocking on people's door and say please share your knowledge with me, it's about an invitation and a process of them - the communities and the Elders - deciding what they want done, how they want it done. They ask me how I can do it; I give options and they choose how they would prefer me to do it and what the outcomes of this are going to be. So it's very much driven by the needs and desires of the Elders and the communities but at the same time there is giving back as well.
So when I go to these communities - you know buy a telescope and take it up there. I take the Elders and the families and the students outside and show them the stars and teach them a little bit about the Western scientific way and the Elders love that. They don't like - I mean in most cases, it's not all about one-sided. If they're giving me a lot of information, they want something in return and if I'm not giving them anything, thinking oh they don't want to know about this stuff, I'm not going to get very far.
So late last year - actually it was in the middle of last year - I went up to Mer, Murray Island in the Torres Strait. This is the home of Eddie Mabo. I've been doing work there for five years now and the Elders have been very happy to share knowledge and information with me. I noticed sometimes it can be a little bit tricky trying to get interviews set up. There's always a little bit of reservation there because you're never quite sure what this person is going to do with that knowledge. You're never quite sure what you were getting out of it. There's all kinds of promise being made but you want to see something tangible. We've published a few papers where the Elders are co-authors and the titles are in Meriam Mir, the language, and things like that, which are good, but the community hadn't really seen what they were getting back out of this yet.
Last year we purchased a telescope and had it shipped up there. I put it together and when the Elders come in and saw that the whole dynamic changed. They were very excited. The entire week every single night we had different year groups of students, families, Elders, all coming up to look at the telescopes. The reactions of some of the Aunties when they look through their - I don't know if I can even use the same language - but you show them Saturn through a telescope and one of the Aunties just - she was amazed because she could see the rings. It was the first time she'd ever seen that. They were really happy and all of a sudden, instead of me calling up the Elders to try and set up an interview, they were calling me and wanting to be interviewed.
One of the Elders I asked - I said Uncle why has this changed like this? He says well Duane, you've been coming here for a few years and we've been happy to share information with you. We've seen some stuff, you know some papers come out which is nice but we haven't really seen what we as a community are getting out of this. But now that we see this telescope and we know this is here and we see the impact it's having, now we're excited and now we're really happy to share.
That's such a beautiful story about positive relationships as a researcher with Indigenous communities and making a connection. Talking about relationships, I was inspired by your paper on how the planets and the sun and the moon all have relationships with each other.
Yeah, it's really fascinating. One of the things that I found that was really interesting from a scientific perspective, Western or Indigenous, is long-term observations of rare astronomical events and what that tells you about the dynamics of celestial objects like the sun and the moon. So just a few days ago there was a total solar eclipse that went over South America.
I've got a whole lot of colleagues who are all down in Argentina right now enjoying themselves having filmed that. During my PhD I wanted to research what do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know about eclipses? What are their traditions about this? Is it acknowledged? Is it recognised, how do they describe it - I had no idea. I just wanted to know some of the basics and they're very rare events.
From any given place on the earth a solar eclipse, a total solar eclipse, only occurs once every few hundred years and it only will last a maximum of seven minutes, often at times just a few minutes. So they're very short and very long between. Given that, would traditions of these things even be noted and if they were, how long would they survive oral traditions and if both of those are the case, how do the people describe the eclipse? What was the explanation for how it worked? So I was just curious and I went looking through all the books and archives and everything and some major themes kept coming out of that. Yes, they were certainly well known.
They were well described and the communities, the Elders, talked about how it was a super position of the sun and the moon. Many of them because - not all but I'd say a majority of Aboriginal traditions - the sun is a woman and the moon is a man and a total solar eclipse was them embracing in an act of love - sometimes slightly more explicit than that. Some traditions say you're not supposed to look at it because it's the sun and the moon being husband and wife together, quote unquote.
What that really tells us is something Aboriginal people have already known, it's something that we're trying to get across to the public who don't know about Indigenous science, something we're trying to get across to other scientists, is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people paid very close attention to the positions of the sun and the moon all the time because during an eclipse the moon is in its new phase. We can't see it. The lit side of the moon is facing the sun. We're literally looking at the dark side of the moon but if you know where the moon is going to be in the sky you can predict when eclipses are going to happen. You'll know when that happens that it is an eclipse so these traditions demonstrate that Aboriginal people have known this.
Of course this brings up another interesting issue, Indigenous science is valid and it's important and it has value and it's totally separated from any kind of value that Western science can give it. It's not dependant on the value that we as Western scientists can say oh, well we weren't sure but since we confirmed that this was right, then we'll agree with it. It's totally separate from that but it is still good to see these two knowledge systems intersect and it's good to show where they can inform each other. I've even talked to Elders who've said we don't need Western science to validate our traditions but it's nice when you do.
Duane, what's the future of this work?
There's some really great things happening in this space right now and one of the most important aspects of this is the shift away from people like myself. Non-Indigenous people, often at times not even Australian, being the faces and the quote unquote experts in this area, which I can never call myself an expert in anything Indigenous-related. It seems absurd to me. What we have now is a whole generation of Aboriginal students who are studying astrophysics, who are studying Indigenous astronomy, who are paving the way in this space to do something that I can't do and people like me cannot do.
I can come in with the eyes of an astronomer or a physicist and I can look at the science but I cannot come in with the eyes of someone who is in that culture, the lived experiences. I can't do that. These Aboriginal students who we're mentoring and supporting are now becoming the faces of Indigenous astronomy all across Australia. You will have heard of Karlie Noon who was on Stargazing Live with Brian Cox. You will have heard of Kirsten Banks who has been in the media quite a bit - Q&A and The Drum. Krystal De Napoli, a young Gomeroi woman studying astrophysics, there's a couple of other gentlemen. One named Peter who is at ANU studying astrophysics.
There's a whole number of students coming through here and of course the only Aboriginal PhD qualified astrophysicist that I even know of is Doctor Stacy Mader. He's a Gidja man from the very tip of WA but he's actually a CSIRO astronomer who works out at the Parkes Radio Telescope, so that's the new generation of people who are coming in to the space.
You're seeing this transition from a bunch of white scientists and white anthropologists to people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and scientists in this space, who are going to be able to do a much more comprehensive study and bring a whole new approach to this kind of work. You can learn more about them and all the work that we do on Indigenous astronomy at the website www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au.
Next time we happen to be out in the country or it's a lovely cloudless night and we can see the night sky, what would you like us to think about?
I want you - you have to get out in really dark skies, preferably when there's no moon out and have a look up at the Milky Way. The Milky Way is seen from Australia anywhere in the southern hemisphere. It is breathtaking. You can see the Milky Way; you can see the Magellanic Clouds - those a couple of small dwarf galaxies that orbit our Milky Way. You don't really see this stuff very well from the northern hemisphere. So when I was growing up the Milky Way was this very thin little wisp across the sky but from Australia it's an astounding thing to see in the sky.
It's also fascinating to look and see the constellations embedded within the Milky Way - the dark constellations. These are not constellations that are traced out by the bright stars - I mean you will see some of those. You can see Sagittarius; you can see Scorpius - they're right in the centre of the Milky Way. But what you're going to notice when you're in really dark skies and there's no moon out are all these amazing and dark spaces and lanes, sort of dust lanes within the Milky Way. These are areas of cool gas and dust where stars are formed according to Western science.
In Indigenous traditions, these can be a whole range of things. It can be a sky river, it can be a cave. I can give endless examples but one of the most famous and most common examples of a dark constellation you'll see across the sky is a celestial emu. So the head of the emu is this dark patch called the Coalsack right by the Southern Cross. Its neck extends down to the pointer stars and the whole middle of the Milky Way outlines a beautiful silhouette of an emu. When the emu rises and sets throughout the year at dusk it tells you about the behaviour of the emu, about changing seasons, about when to collect food, about when to hold ceremony - all these things are seen right there in the Milky Way but you need those beautiful dark skies.
Even some of the Gunnai traditions talk about how there was a man, he was hunting an emu and long story short, they ended up in the sky. Whenever the moon comes out as that man, the emu hides away. Whenever the man leaves, the emu comes back out. What they're talking about is the light pollution of the moon clouding out the emu, which is why you need to go out when there's no moon in the sky.
But just go out and see that, you don't have to even necessarily know all the science or the traditions behind it but as soon as you see that emu it will stand out. You're never going to see it as anything else again. It's important to remember that you're going to find that emu all across Australia but you're also going to see it in South America.
The Taupi people of the central part of South America - Brazil and Bolivia - see that exact same shape as a rhea - a large flightless bird just like an emu - a very similar species to an emu, very similar behaviour patterns, remarkably similar traditions.
Duane, thank you for your insights and your inspirations. A truly remarkable story.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you to Duane Hamacher, Associate Professor of Indigenous Astronomy and Science at the School of Physics, University of Melbourne. And thanks to our reporter Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on July 9, 2019. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Audio engineering by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2019, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, drop us a review on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis, producer and editor. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
Associate Professor Duane Hamacher has spent 11 years immersing himself in the world of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous science.
Working closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and communities to learn about their astronomical knowledge and teachings, Associate Professor Hamacher also mentors and supports Indigenous students pursuing studies in astronomy, physics and space science.
“I was very fortunate to be able to learn directly from many Elders,” says Associate Professor Hamacher.
“The sky serves as a textbook, a logbook, a mnemonic a way of remembering. Everything on the earth, you can see in the sky.
“So, reading the stars means you can observe changes in their positions and properties and know how to interpret that to be able to tell things like changing weather or animal behaviour or navigation.”
He says we now have a whole new generation of Aboriginal students who are studying astrophysics and Indigenous astronomy.
“They are paving the way in this space to do something that I can’t do and people like me cannot do.”
Episode recorded: July 9, 2019.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Image: Galactic Emu, Aboriginal astronomers mapped the sky by creating shapes from the dark clouds of dust in front of the centre of the Milky Way/ Shutterstock
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