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Good Heavens, an Australian Zodiac
 
by Guy Healy

in "The Weekend Australian", Oct 24-25, 1998
 


"When Lake Tyrell Aborigines looked into the night sky in Dreamtime Australia they saw not the Southern Cross, but a  ring-tai1ed possum sitting atop a blazing bough of light.

New research has revealed that the ancients devised their own zodiac, charting the pattern of the seasons and life in  pre-European Australia through a unique view of the heavens.

In their sky, a giant emu reposes between the Southern Cross and Scorpius, the Gemini twins are formed by a tortoise and fantail cuckoo and a pair of brolgas make up the milky clouds of Magellan.

This distinctly Australian zodiac has been revived by a Melbourne-based lecturer from ancient Aboriginal lore passed on in the 1840s by the now lost Boorong people.

Swinburne University of Technology lecturer John Morieson believes this zodiac easily predates  its  European counterpart - probably developed by the Assyrians or earlier by the Babylonians in about 2000 BC - given two pieces of evidence.

These are the presence of a giant emu in the indigenous zodiac and carbon-dating, which places human occupation at Lake Tyrell in Victoria's north-west - the home of the Boorong - at a minimum of 23,000 years.

In a development that could lead to a  reappraisal of how Aboriginal people pass on lore across the generations, Mr Morieson matched the knowledge with stars in the Australian night sky for 40 different native birds, animals and people.

The creatures include the fan-tailed cuckoo in Castor, the long-necked tortoise in Pollux, the red kangaroo in Capella and the mallee fowl in Lyra. Crows, eagles, parrots lorikeets, dancing men and song men are included in this indigenous
pantheon.

Only one of the traditional  European constellations  - Delphinus the giant fish - is present in the Aboriginal zodiac.  Mr Morieson believes the Boorong zodiac acted like a giant textbook in the sky, helping to regulate gender roles such as hunting and  gathering and parental roles such as child-rearing,  fidelity and healthy geneaology.

The creatures or celestial beings appear at different  times of the year as the Aboriginal constellations rise and set.  It was used by the Boorong to  pass on to their children stories about the life-cycles of native fauna, especially the availability of food.

For example, the disappearance of Neilloan - the mallee fowl - from the sky coincides with the start of the laying season of the ground bird.

The disappearance of Otchocut - the great fish - coincides with what used to be the spawning season of the murray cod.

"A study of these sky creatures reveals encyclopaedic oral knowledge, a thorough understanding of the seasons and no need for a written culture," Mr Morieson says.

Mr Morieson - whose research has the support of Aboriginal communities in Victoria - spent four years studying the night sky to develop the system, which has been accepted for publication next year by Melbourne University Press.

The zodiac emerged in a first-class masters thesis at the University of  Melbourne, where Mr Morieson's examiner Emeritus Professor Greg Dening described it as an "extraordinarily valuable reference work and a model for research to come after him".

The zodiac is derived by Mr Morieson from interpretations of a paper delivered by a Victorian grazier, William Stanbridge,  to the Philosophical Institute in Melbourne in 1857.

Stanbridge,  quoting what he said were first-hand accounts by Boorong elders, identified 30 stars and constellations used by the tribal Aborigines. He recorded the Aboriginal term and its European  equivalent.

People seeking to verify the creatures for themselves will need to be away from cities and lights and use binoculars. Some Aborigines have been recorded with eyesight five times better than whites, University of Melbourne  Professor of Opthalmology Hugh Taylor said. "To look up at the night sky and see mallee hens and ring-tailed possums, it's much better than Greek heroes" he said.

Swan Hill and Horsham Aboriginal cultural officers Doug Nicholls and Alan Burns - whose forebears were related to or were neighbours of the Boorong -  support  the research, which is being taught in their communities to local Aboriginal children."


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