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Emerging Technology from the arXiv

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The Mystery of Australia's Stonehenge

Aboriginal Australians have been observing the skies for 50,000 years, but only now are their astronomical achievements coming to light.

  • June 3, 2009

Aboriginal Australians have lived in Oz for the best part of 50,000 years, making them the world’s oldest culture by quite some margin. It also makes them the world’s first astronomers. However, years of prejudice have prevented the astronomical achievements of Aboriginal Australians from being fully appreciated–something that Ray Norris and Duane Hamacher at Macquarie University, in Sydney, want to change.

They’ve put together an impressive account of the astronomical achievements of Aboriginal Australians. It is fairly well known, at least in Australia, that these people had their own mythology associated with the night skies, centered on the idea that the world was created in “the Dreaming” by ancestral spirits whose presence can still be seen, both on the land and in the sky, say Norris and Hamacher.

But it turns out that Aboriginal Australians also had a sophisticated understanding of astronomical events, such as solar and lunar eclipses. That’s all the more amazing given that total solar eclipses are rare, occurring over any one piece of land only every three or four generations, and that any information about them must have been passed from generation to generation in the form of songs, stories, and cave paintings that can still be seen today.

But the most eye-opening revelation, for me at least, is the existence of an “Australian Stonehenge” called Wurdi Youang, in Victoria, whose age is unknown but obviously predates European settlement.

Wurdi Youang is an egg-shaped ring of stones about 50 meters across. Some of the stones have significant astronomical alignments. For example, some stones seem to indicate the position of the setting sun at the equinoxes and solstices, although there is some disagreement over this idea. Like Stonehenge in the U.K., no records of its use survive, and consequently, nobody knows what it was used for.

Norris and Hamacher say that they know of other stone arrangements with various alignments but have not been able to study these to the same degree. Meanwhile, the search goes on for “lost” stone formations–no mean feat, given the size of Australia.

A fascinating project to document the world’s first astronomers and their legacy.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0906.0155: The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia

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