EmuDreamingCoverAuthors: Ray and Cilla Norris
$13.50, available from http://www.emudreaming.com/book.htm

In Emu Dreaming: An Introduction to Australian Aboriginal Astronomy, authors Ray and Cilla Norris patiently describe the evidence and explanation behind the claim that Aboriginal Australians were the world’s first astronomers. Ray is an astrophysicist and astronomer, while Cilla is an authority on the care and rehabilitation of native Australian wildlife, but neither claim ownership of the knowledge detailed in the text, instead attributing much of it to the Aboriginal Australians with whom they have worked. Indeed, the authors suggest that this booklet is the result of the encouragement given to them by various Aboriginal elders from whom the knowledge was learned, so that there is a record of the knowledge, and so that all Australians and those around the world can appreciate the richness and complexity of Aboriginal astronomy.

The book begins with a simple introduction to the history of Aboriginal cultures in Australia. Moving quickly into the astronomy, over just 30 pages Ray and Cilla describe the stories that tell of the ‘Emu in the Sky’; what is known as the Milky Way Galaxy in western cultures. They describe how Aboriginal Australians predicted the time that the emu would lay their eggs by the position of the Emu in the Sky, and present an ancient engraving from Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park that indicates the position of the Emu at the time of year when emus are laying their eggs as evidence.

‘Emu Dreaming’ makes a clear case that just as ancient European cultures did, Aboriginal Australians observed and recorded patterns in the skies, from constellations described as narratives to eclipses of both the sun and the moon. The patterns observed acted as a narrative to guide the Aboriginal Australian peoples to particular actions at particular times; similar to European cultures, Aboriginal Australians used the night sky as a calendar. Further, there appears to be evidence that Aboriginal people built structures to measure time according to astronomical events, including the solstices and equinoxes. Interestingly, long before European astronomers had identified a relationship between the moon and the tides, it seems that the Aboriginal Australians did.

Ray and Cilla conclude with several purposes for understanding and appreciating Aboriginal astronomy; aside from personal curiosity, there may be a chance here for us to “give back” some of the culture that has been destroyed in the last 200+ years. Finally, like music and art, astronomy can help us to build understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

This book may be of particular interest to teachers of years 5-10, who are seeking some plausible scientific knowledge and understanding that can be attributed to Aboriginal Australians as a part of the Australian Curriculum units of work on astronomy.

This review was originally written for Science Book A Day.

14/01/14 Update! This article about the first astronomers was published in The Age on Monday, 13 January, 2014.