The First Astronomers
How Indigenous Elders Read the Stars
"Between the covers of this extraordinary book is a detailed account of the science behind Indigenous star knowledge. Rarely is a book of such importance published. When profound ideas are introduced to the world for the first time, our world is fundamentally changed and the previous understandings consigned to history. There are those who continue to deny the intelligence and scientific traditions of Indigenous people. The idea that the only true science is that of Western thinking must be consigned to history. Those who read this book will understand why." (excerpt)
Professor Marcia Langton AO
Our eyes have been drawn away from the heavens to our screens. We no longer look to the sky to forecast the weather, predict the seasons or plant our gardens. Most of us cannot even see the Milky Way. But First Nations Elders of the world still maintain this knowledge, and there is much we can learn from them.
These Elders are expert observers of the stars. They teach that everything on the land is reflected in the sky, and everything in the sky is reflected on the land. How does this work, and how can we better understand our place in the universe?
Guided by six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, Duane Hamacher takes us on a journey across space and time to reveal the wisdom of the first astronomers. These living systems of knowledge challenge conventional ideas about the nature of science and the longevity of oral tradition. Indigenous science is dynamic, adapting to changes in the skies and on earth, pointing the way for a world facing the profound disruptions of climate change.
The First Astronomers shows us how respectful collaborations can drive exciting and innovative solutions to global challenges that impact us all.
Published by Allen & Unwin.
100% of author royalties go to charity for scholarships, community projects, and educational programs for First Nations Peoples.
Ghillar Michael Anderson
Uncle Ghillar Michael Anderson (b. 1951) is an Aboriginal rights activist, Senior Law Man, and leader of the Euahlayi Nation in north-western New South Wales, Australia. He was taught Euahlayi customs and traditions through his people's sacred ceremonies. Uncle Ghillar was a co-founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 and remains the only surviving member. In 1979 was appointed to the Office of the Public Prosecutions in criminal law as an instructing officer in the state of New South Wales. Uncle Ghillar has been sharing traditional star knowledge for years, publishing several academic papers on Euahlayi astronomy. The 2.7km wide asteroid 10040 Ghillar was named by the IAU in his honour.
John Barsa (1965-2018) was a Magaram man and Knowledge Holder from Mer in the eastern Torres Strait of Australia. He was a successful artist, master craftsman, weaver, carver, dhoeri maker, and traditional astronomy expert. Projects he has collaborated on include the research papers Dancing with the Stars – Astronomy and Music in the Torres Strait, Death and Maier: Meteors and Mortuary Rites in the eastern Torres Strait, and Indigenous use of Stellar Scintillation to Predict Weather and Seasonal Change. He designed traditional Meriam costumes with Aicey Day for Bangarra Dance Theatre's Emeret Lu (Very Old things) in their production of True Stories.
David Bosun (b. 1973) is a Mualgal man, senior artist at Moa Arts and one of the founders of the printmaking tradition in Zenadh Kes (the Torres Strait). He has worked in printmaking, drawing and painting for over 20 years. His work aims to educate future generations in Zenadh Kes (as well as the rest of the world) about the rich cultural heritage and distinctiveness of Mualgal culture. David Brings the aesthetic and personal qualities of the artwork together with his ancestral beliefs and Mualgal cultural traditions. David has a degree in communications from James Cook University and a Diploma of Visual Art from Cairns TAFE.
Father Ron Day (b. 1953) is a Komet man, priest, and Elder from Mer in the eastern Torres Strait. He is a holder of highly respected traditional knowledge and culture and is fluent in Meriam Mir. Uncle Ron served as Chairman of the Mer Island Council for over 15 years. In 2007 he successfully worked to repatriate ancestral remains back to Australia from Glasgow and has been instrumental in re-claiming land and sea rights for the Meriam people. He has shared a great deal of traditional Meriam star knowledge and has co-authored several academic papers on Indigenous astronomy.
Segar Passi (b. 1942) is a Dauareb man, artist, and Senior Elder on Mer. He is fluent in Meriam Mir and is an award-winning painter, self-trained since the 1960s by meticulously observing marine and bird species, weather conditions, and painting portraits, images of daily life, and scenes from Creation narratives. His work focuses on the natural world to encourage people to be mindful and respectful of their environment, and to record important social and cultural practices and knowledge. He holds deep levels of traditional star knowledge and has co-authored several academic papers on Indigenous astronomy. His artwork graces the cover of this book. The 1.9km wide asteroid 7733 Segarpassi was named by the IAU in his honour.
Alo Tapim OAM
Alo Tapim OAM (b. 1946) is a Dauareb man and Elder on Mer. He studied linguistics at the Batchelor Institute and is fluent in Meriam Mir. He grew up on Mer (Murray) Island when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were under the control of the Director of Native Affairs. After finishing school Townsville, Uncle Alo worked as a government clerk on Waiben (Thursday Island) before moving back to the Townsville area to work on the railways. He returned to Mer in to work with the Torres Strait Regional Authority and Queensland Health.
Duane Hamacher is Associate Professor of Cultural Astronomy in the ASTRO-3D Centre of Excellence and the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne. A former ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow, he has worked for Meriam elders since 2014 to document the astronomical knowledge and traditions of the eastern Torres Strait Islanders, and with other First Nations communities across Australia and internationally.
Born and raised in the United States, Duane earned a Bachelors degree in physics from the University of Missouri, a Masters degree in observational astronomy from the University of New South Wales with a thesis on extrasolar
planets, and a PhD in Indigenous Studies from Macquarie University with a dissertation on Australian Aboriginal astronomy. He is an experienced public communicator, having given hundreds of public and keynote talks, including TEDx @ Northern Sydney Institute (2014). He has appeared on the NatGeo series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman (2016), the Warwick Thornton film We Don't Need a Map (2017), and consulted on the Werner Herzog / Clive Oppenheimer film Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (2020).
Duane served as an expert consultant for UNESCO, was the consultant for the Star Dreaming series of commemorative coins for the Royal Australian Mint, and serves on the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on Star Names, which officiated 7 Aboriginal star names into the global scientific canon, as well as lobbying for 5 asteroids to be named by the IAU in honour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders, academics, and a community.
From October 2022 to July 2023 he is a CAPAS Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies at Heidelberg University in Germany.
"Just look at what our ancestors did to navigate here — you don't do that on 'myths and legends', you do that on science."
Professor Rangi Matamua, Maori Astronomer
PRAISE FOR THE BOOK
A magnificent accomplishment, marking a profound paradigm shift. Rarely is a book of such importance published.
"A work of enormous scope, there is something new for everyone to learn in this ground-breaking book."
Yiman scholar, Distinguished Professor and Associate Provost at the University of Melbourne
2011 Nobel Prize in Physics and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University
"A wonderful combination of poetry and scholarship. A must-read for anyone interested in Indigenous astronomy."
Lakota astrophysicist, artist and Director of Native Skywatchers.
"Passionate and skilfully crafted, Indigenous Elders teach us about the science of the cosmos."
"We are forgetting how to read the stars and see the meaning in the spaces in between. This helps us remember."
"An important piece of work on Indigenous astronomy that will elevate our understanding of the Universe”
Māori scholar, Tatai Arorangi expert and author of Matairiki: the Star of the Year
Senior Boon Wurrung Elder and Chair of the Boon Wurrung Foundation
Naghir scholar, Deputy-Vice Chancellor at JCU and author of Disciplining the Savages
"This book takes us on a journey to see that science is integrated into the very fabric of who Indigenous People are."
"An inspirational blueprint of the multiple layers of relationships that people have with the night sky."
"Beautiful, engaging, and startlingly profound, this book should be required reading!"
Gidja man, CSIRO scientist, and Australia's first PhD-qualified Aboriginal astrophysicist
Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and director of Black Suns
Professor of Astrophysics and Pro-Vice Chancellor of Flagship Initiatives at Swinburne University
"A glimpse into Indigenous ways of reading the stars through ancient processes of inquiry"
'A timely and impactful compilation that provides insight into the complex knowledges held by First Peoples."
"Helping us better appreciate the quality and diversity of people’s perceptions of sky phenomena."
Apalech man, Indigenous Knowledge scholar at Deakin University, and author of Sand Talk.
Aboriginal scholar and Chair of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University.
Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester.
"A lively narrative and comprehensive exposition connecting the cycles of nature with human history."
"A lucid and highly accessible account of First Nations sky lore. A brilliant and inspiring read."
Aboriginal scholar, applied mathematician and chemist at the Australian National University
Australia's Astronomer-at-Large and best-selling author of popular science
"Highly readable and beautifully written, offering insight into the depths of Indigenous Star Knowledges."
Australian Senior Memory Champion and author of The Memory Code and Memory Craft
"Respectful and engaging, offering a profound glimpse into Indigenous Star Knowledges of the world."
"A profound, sensitive and superbly researched book that educated me in ways I never expected."
Meriam scholar, historian, and Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney
Professor of Geography and author of On the Edge of Memory and Worlds in Shadow
"A rich resource highlighting tens-of-thousands of years of star knowledge that is dependent on dark skies."
Director of the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance and Dark Sky Travellor
"An intimate and respectful story about the sophistication and depth of knowledge of the first astronomers."
Erub man, environmental scientist, and science educator
"Presented with honour, love, humility and respect, this work invites us to learn and listen with open minds."
Secwépemc man, sacred New Moon pipe carrier, and teacher of the Medicine Wheel
Australian Association for Astronomy in Culture, Inc.
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Melbourne, Vic, 3000 Australia
Image: Peter Lieverdink