Star Maps Used by Aboriginals for Night Routes

Oral histories reveal that Aboriginal language groups have uses specific stars to remember waypoints while traveling.

Specific stars and constellations are used by some Aboriginal language groups to help them remember key waypoints along a route, detailed oral histories reveal.

The research, reported in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, documents how people from two language groups in north-central New South Wales and south-central Queensland use the night sky.

Professor Ray Norris of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science and colleagues from Macquarie University collected stories from Euahlayi and Kamilaroi people.

"A while ago I was contacted by a Kamilaroi man who had seen some of our work and wanted to tell us some traditional stories," said Norris. "They're working with us to rebuild their language and we're collecting the astronomy. During this process we discovered that there's this fantastic store of knowledge about how people navigated."

The two language groups have a long history of using the position of features in the sky such as the Milky Way to predict when resources such as emu eggs are available.

While some Aboriginal groups travel at night using stars as a compass, it was thought that the Euahlayi and Kamilaroi people, who did not travel extensively at night, did not use the night sky for navigation.

But the stories of the Kamillaroi and Euahlayi people provide the first evidence of how they use star maps to teach travel routes based on songlines.

"We've known for a long time that Aboriginal people have these songlines where the songs describe the features of the land," said Norris. "And we've known that [some Aboriginal groups] use the stars as a compass. But then people talk about these journeys that you can see in the sky but it's never quite clear about how that maps onto the songlines on the ground.

"For the first time we are actually hearing the details of how this actually works. We've never been able to map one onto the other like this before."

Rather than use stars as direction points, the Euahlayi and Kamilaroi elders use the stars as a reminder of where songlines go, often months before they travel to their destination.

"In some cases people have these songlines with the words of the song telling them how to navigate, but they also identify places on the ground with places in the sky," said Norris.

The songlines covered thousands of kilometres, with one example going from Heavitree Gap near Alice Springs in central Australia, all the way across to Byron Bay on the New South Wales east coast connecting the Arrenrte people to the Euralayi people.

The songline is marked in the sky by the star Achernar in the in the West overhead to Canopus, to Sirius, and then to the east.

"Songlines cross over the lands of many different Aboriginal groups, and each has their own bit of the song in their own language," said Norris. "Someone from the east will recognise a specific star songline right across Australia, even though it's not in their language."

Although massive songlines exist right across Australia, Norris says it is not known if they use star maps the same way as the Euahlayi and Kamilaroi people.

Further research on the use of other star maps for travel by other language groups, particularly other language groups that may have met the Euahlayi peoples, may lead to a clearer understanding of the Aboriginal use of the night sky for travel, say the researchers.

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The Emu in the Sky is used by the Euahlayi people to indicate the best time to gather emu eggs.

This month, stargazers have a chance to see the five brightest planets in the sky, weather permitting, as they make appearances in the evening after sunset or as predawn spectacles. And on occasion, the moon will pass by to enhance the celestial view. The

May night sky planets

are Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Venus and Mars, and all are shining bright this month. Here, we present a schedule below which provides some of the best planet viewing times as well directing you as to where to look to see them. Remember, that you can use your clenched fist at arm's length — equal to roughly 10 degrees of the night sky — to measure off angular distances. The

brightest stars in the sky

are equal to first or zero magnitude, while the very brightest objects are of negative magnitude. Here's a look at when to see the brightest planets in the May night sky (note, all skywatching is dependent on your local weather conditions).

Photos: Lunar Phases: The Changing Face of the Moon

May 4 and 5:

As darkness falls, look westward to see a fat waxing crescent moon and about 8 degrees to its right is the brilliant planet Jupiter, shining at a magnitude -2


Jupiter and the moon shine together

roughly one-third up from the horizon to the point directly overhead and will set at around 12:45 you’re your local time. This is the last month (until September) in which this biggest of planets is high enough in a dark sky to permit crisp telescope views of its cloud patterns and four big satellites.

Photos: Cosmic Hotshots from Keck Observatory

May 10:

Saturn reaches opposition

; it rises in the east-southeast at dusk, is due south in the middle of the night and sets in the west-southwest at dawn. Once it gains enough altitude, it appears similarly as bright as the zero-magnitude stars Arcturus and Vega. The planet's famous rings appear much more impressive than in recent years, since they are now tipped by 21.5 degrees from edge on.

Photos: Winter Treats for Amateur Astronomers

May 11:

Looking low toward the south-southeast early this evening, you'll see the waxing gibbous moon keeping company with a bright star and a bright planet. About 6 degrees to the moon's lower left is the bluish first-magnitude star Spica. And about 8 degrees to the moon's upper right is yellow-orange


, now coming down in brightness from last month's opposition. Currently at magnitude -0.9, it's nearly half as bright as it was just one month ago; the Red Planet has receded to a distance of 63.8 million miles (102.6 million kilometers) from Earth. (Shown is a much closer view of the Red Planet.)

Photos: Mind-Blowing Beauty of Mars' Dunes

May 13 and 14:

During the overnight hours watch how the moon's position relative to Saturn changes. At dusk on May 13, look toward the east-southeast. Saturn will appear about 5.5 degrees to the lower left of the moon.

The moon

will move toward Saturn at its own apparent width (a half-degree) per hour during the night. So by dawn on May 14, the duo will be low in the west-southwest; the moon having moved to within 2.5 degrees to the lower right of the ringed planet. From the southern half of Australia, New Zealand and Victoria Land (Antarctica), the moon will occult (hide) Saturn. Shown: A closer view of Saturn.

Photos: Enceladus: Saturn’s Snowball Ocean Moon

May 25:

Venus and a slender crescent moon make for an eye-catching celestial tableau in

the night sky

before dawn on this morning low in the eastern sky about 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise. Mercury also attains its greatest elongation — or greatest angular distance — east of the sun (23 degrees). This is Mercury's best evening apparition of the year; it sets about 100 minutes after sunset. An hour after sunset, look low above the west-northwest horizon; the speedy planet should be easily visible as a yellowish star shining at magnitude 0.6. Mercury will appear somewhat brighter up to two weeks before this date, and noticeably dimmer for about a week afterwards.

Photos: First Photos from Mercury Orbit

Photograph of a waxing crescent moon.

May 30:

Having faded to magnitude +1.1, Mercury can be found about an hour after sunset roughly 7 degrees to the right and a bit above the 2.5-day-old waxing crescent moon.

Editor's note:

If you have an amazing picture of Jupiter or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Original article on

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