The Early Astronomers, by Duane Hamacher, With the Wise and the Knowing • Ghulam Adelaide

A fascinating read and belated acknowledgment of original astronomical knowledge.

Duane Hamacher came to Australia to study in 2006 and has remained here, becoming Associate Professor of Cultural Astronomy at the University of Melbourne, just to name a few of his activities. He specializes in interdisciplinary research that investigates astronomy in a broader cultural, historical, and heritage context, with an emphasis on the history and philosophy of science. His book on Aboriginal knowledge of astronomy can be seen as part of the long overdue acknowledgment and acknowledgment of First Nations knowledge in everything from stars to bush tucker, and he pays tribute to the Elders with whom he wrote the book.

The author writes that unlike Western scientific knowledge, which is fragmented into different disciplines and divided from its cultural base, Aboriginal science can only be understood in its cultural context—that is, as an integral part of an entire system of beliefs, ways of seeing. And to be in the world for indigenous peoples. Their methods of describing the seasons, the movements of the sun, or how to navigate through the stars have often been dismissed by Western “experts,” or more often ignored altogether.

And Hamacher points out that this knowledge is often expressed through stories, such as the story of the Sun Woman being “rolled” north during the winter by the Aboriginal people of Australia’s central desert. This story shows that the natives were very aware of the need to watch the movement of the sun throughout the year, possibly using natural features such as hills and rocks, to allow for ceremonies, farming, hunting, etc. at the right time.

I enjoyed the author’s references to other indigenous peoples from around the world, especially where ancient knowledge has been validated by modern scientific investigations. An example of this is found in cairo calendar, Dating from 1244-1163 BC, a reference to the variable star Algol. The brightness of this star drops periodically, and ancient records, verified by modern calculations, have shown that the differences between thousands of years ago and today are due to stars moving farther apart, rather than incorrect ancient records.

Although I had very little astronomical knowledge, I was not impressed by the detailed descriptions of astronomical features. You don’t need to understand why Venus moves across the sky to appreciate that indigenous peoples knew this and were able to pass important scientific and cultural information down the generations through powerful oral traditions and ceremonies. The 1932 comments, from writer Mary Gilmore and attributed to her father, neatly sum up the non-Aboriginal community’s attitude to Aboriginal science, which included the “astonishment” and “sense of discovery” at discovering that Aboriginal people knew inversions “just as well as we [Westerners] did” (pg. 39).

Jean Kershaw Review

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily that of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed through: Allen and Unwin
Chest: March 2022
RRP: $34.99

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