Aboriginal Astronomy

The material on this page comes from John Morieson. John has been working with Aboriginal communities for over thirty years, and has specialised in archaeological and cultural heritage research. He originally trained as a historian but has ventured into the realm of archaeoastronomy. John is a member of the VMRG.

This article, written by John, appeared in 'Lowan Behold', the Journal of the Ouyen Malleefowlers, in May 1999. It forms part of his first-class Masters thesis which identified 40 different entities of the Aboriginal Zodiac, including birds and animals, of which the Malleefowl is one.

Neilloan

Lake Tyrell is located in north-western Victoria, on the eastern edge of Malleefowl country. It is immediately north of Sea Lake and about 150 km south of Mildura.

Let me tell you about the ancestral Malleefowl found in the night sky. Called Neilloan by the Boorong people who lived at Lake Tyrell, she is the creator of all the Malleefowl. Neilloan taught the Boorong clan when to to look for Malleefowl eggs.

William Stanbridge said in 1857, "When the Loan eggs are coming into season on earth they are going out of season with her. When she sits with the sun the Loan eggs are in season."

Willian Stanbridge took up the first grazing licence on the eastern side of Lake Tyrell in the 1840's and befriended the local Aboriginal people. He sat with them at their campfire at night and they taught him about their astronomy. He wrote it down and later it was published as an address to the Philosophical Institute in Melbourne. Because he knew Western astronomy he was able to state the equivalents to the major stars in the Boorong constellations. With one of them, Neilloan, he knew the name of the actual constellation. It is called Lyra.

Lyra appears in the southern hemisphere only between March and October, coinciding with the mound building period of the Malleefowl. This is the first of a series of remarkable parallels between the bird in the sky and the bird on the ground.

There are a number of dynamic sky charts available for use on computers, some of them freeware. One example is CyberSky.

But first let us look to where we can find Neilloan. The best approach is to look for Vega, a bright star appearing in the north-east sky between 3 and 4 AM and moving westwards until dawn obliterates this star from normal vision. Whilst I can see Vega with my naked eye, I need binoculars to see the rest of the constellation. It looks remarkably like the outline of a Malleefowl.

Vega, which is the fifth brightest star in the sky, coincides with the powerful kicking foot of the bird.

As well as the constellation's shape being similar to that of the Malleefowl there are some other remarkable parallels. One concerns the famous nebula known as the Ring Nebula. At present its magnitude is 8.8 which is beyond the reach of human eyesight. Given that celestial objects vary over time it is possible that the Boorong clans twenty thousand year occupation may have allowed them to see this nebula with their better than average eyesight. The significance lies in the fact that close-up pictures of this nebula reveal that it is not circular in shape as its name implies but rather more ovate or egg-shaped.

Another interesting celestial fact is the meteor showers which are associated with this constellation. From April 16 to 25, but especially on the morning of 23 April, a series of streaks radiate out from Neilloan. They are best seen if the sky is dark and without the moon appearing. They remind us of the bits of sand, twigs and other matter flying through the air as the Malleefowl kicks material on or away from the mound. Meteor 'shower' is a misnomer because the streaks are usually spasmodic.

The top hourly rate is around fifteen shooting stars per hour but the Lyrids have on occasion produced higher rates. In 1982 American observers noted a peak of 90 per hour.

The Malleefowl is a generous layer of eggs and the Boorong people well knew this. Thus the last sighting of Neilloan just after sunset in early October would remind them of the egg-laying season about to commence.

When I first read the Stanbridge line quoted above "When she sits with the sun", I thought it might be a misprint, that it should be "sets" with the sun rather than "sits". But now I'm not sure. When constellations move from the eastern sky to the west they turn over. They move as though on a perimeter of a circle with the earth as its centre. When Neilloan is to the north she appears side on as in the illustration attached, as if she is climbing up the inside hole in the mound. As she disappears in the north-west she has turned a quarter circle and looks as if she is attaining a resting position, on the slope of the mound, thus "sitting" with the setting sun.

As well as providing food to the Aboriginal people, the Malleefowl couple demonstrate excellent parental teamwork and strongly defined gender roles. The focus of the activity is the production of the next generation through the mound-building, egg-laying, food gathering and in defence of their mound against predators.

The Boorong parent and child observing the Malleefowl would note all kinds of detail about the female role, the male role, the teamwork, the specialisation, the tenacity and the energy required during the whole of the breeding period. Observation of Neilloan in the sky would reinforce what is observed on the ground.

There is also the question of what is meant by the other Stanbridge sentence quoted above. "When the Loan eggs are coming into season on earth they are going out of season with her." Does this imply that there are eggs in the sky along with the mother bird? Is the Ring Nebula the only egg or are there others? The meteor shower is repeated again in June and July and we know that eggs are expelled by the hen with considerable force. Do the meteors represent the eggs being laid by the Malleefowl Creator Being?

Whatever are the original stories that were associated with Neilloan we can only guess because the Boorong people are not with us today. Their descendants are likely to have separated from language and tradition through the hundred and fifty years of geographic and social dislocation that has occurred.

We do know from Louise Hercus some of the vocabulary of the Wergaia speaking people whose clans lived in country from Lake Tyrell south to Charlton, from there west to Serviceton and north to Murrayville. Ouyen is in border country between the Jari Jari to the north and Wergaia to the south. The grandchildren of the last speakers of Wergaia are among those today who are reclaiming the knowledge of the celestial sphere fortuitously recorded by William Stanbridge. "Lowan" or "Loan" (pronounced the same way) are age-old terms for the Malleefowl and are still in use today. The county of Lowan, incorporating the Little Desert area, is named for the bird. The prefis "nei", pronounced "nay", indicates something very special, very magical, a thing or person who possesses great powers. The Creator Being Neilloan has such ancestral power.

Along with all the other creatures and people in the night sky that cover a range of seasonal and ecological phenomena and customary behaviour, Neilloan provides a potent symbol for the Boorong people. She is mother, parent and progenitor of all the Malleefowl who instructs the people on the life and habitat of her own kind. Mnemonic (memory assisting) devices like these sustain and amplify knowledge from generation to generation which also means that writing is not required as a cultural support. With each successive visit to Malleefowl country from a very early age the child learns more and more about the life cycle and behaviour, through adulthood and old age.

Thus Neilloan, guiding the people to a wonderful food source, a model of tenacious parenting and mutually supportive behaviour, lives in the night sky to this present day.

References

Hercus, L. (1969) The Language of Victoria: a late survey, ANU Canberra.

Stanbridge, W.E. (1857) "On Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria". Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute, Melbourne.