Stories from the Cosmos

Catriona Nguyen-Robertsonby Catriona Nguyen-Robertson
RSV Science Communication Officer

“The only way we’re going to move forward is with modern science and ancient knowledge” – Uncle Dave Wandin of Wurundjeri Country.

Uncle Dave and Panellists
Uncle Dave Wandin and Panellists

To celebrate National Science Week, the Royal Society of Victoria hosted an edition of the Melbourne School of Psychological Science‘s “Psychtalks” program on the evening of 14 August, 2019. The expert panel convened under the title “Stories from the Cosmos: What Indigenous storytelling can teach us about memory.”

For 65,000 years, the night sky has been a map for Indigenous Australians. They have created complex knowledge systems using features of the sky and land that have been passed down across generations, being among the most complete and intact oral traditions known worldwide.

Ms Kat Clarke is a learner and listener from Wotjobaluk Country, near Horsham. Growing up, she would often sit and have yarns with the Elders, listening to their stories with great interest. Kat shared her father, Thomas Clarke’s, artwork with us, telling the story of Ngindal, the dark emu, as told by community Elders around a campfire:

Kat Clarke with a painting by Thomas Clarke
Ngindal terrorised Wotjobaluk Country. In an attempt to end her reign of terror, one of the Bram Bram Brothers tracked her down but was attacked in the process. The two remaining Bram Bram Brothers came looking for their missing Brother and also decided to hunt Ngindal. Ngindal chased them across the country; through the mountains, smashing open rocks as she did so, and that formed the jagged paths that we see in the Grampians today. The Bram Bram Brothers waited to ambush her in a crevice and speared her. She fell and her blood flowed into the Wimmera River. In the sky, there is a dark spot in the Southern Cross formation. That is Ngindal’s prison. The smaller star to the right is her eye, still looking for a way to escape, and the Bram Bram Brothers are the stars on either side, guarding her.

These stories and lessons are what Kat holds most dear. Art, songs and stories are how lessons are remembered and passed down generation after generation.

Associate Professor Duane Hamacher works to bring the two worlds of Indigenous knowledge, culture and modern science together. The stories and teachings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were about figuring out how the world works – “that is science at its roots”. As Duane learned more about their many stories, he “started to see all the layers of science behind them”.  Modern science endeavours to find universal truths and Indigenous Australian knowledge is similar, yet more dependent on location – it is tied to the land, and the stories in the stars of the sky encodes the management systems and cycles that have assisted Indigenous custodians in caring for and producing livelihood from the land over many thousands of years.

Duane was told by an Elder “if you know how to read the stars, then you know how to predict everything you need to know”. For example, fuzzy, blue, twinkling stars in the sky signal an imminent storm. As an astrophysicist, Duane realised that modern science also supports this. The stars twinkle due to wind, appearing fuzzy due to the dense atmosphere, and lastly, cold, atmospheric water is poor at absorbing blue light and so reflects it, causing the stars to appear blue. It’s a robust system for prediction.

Dr Simon Cropper, Melbourne School of Psychology, loves gazing at stars in the sky. Originally from the Northern Hemisphere, he remembers lying on his back outside the Melbourne city haze for the first time and being awestruck at the night sky – with very familiar features to what he was used to, only upside down. He is interested in what inspires us to group stars together as shapes. Someone at one point must have connected dots to see an image, and then shared the star configuration they saw so that it became widespread knowledge today. The fact that the night sky looked similar on either side of the world shows how reliable it is as a map. We change our land, but it’s harder to alter the sky, “so we rely on it to ground us”. Because it is easiest to remember a story or song lyrics than a set of words, lessons have been imbedded in stories and songs to become the lasting teachings across thousands of years.

The Speakers
From rear left: Uncle Dave Wandin, Ms Kat Clarke, A/Prof Duane Hamacher. Front: Dr Lynne Kelly, Dr Meredith McKague (MC), Dr Simon Cropper

Traditional Indigenous knowledge systems enable people to remember vast amounts of information – all that knowledge, built up over millennia. Author of “Memory Craft” and more recently “The Memory Code,” Dr Lynne Kelly made it her mission to learn how they do it. She found that repetition makes for good recall, so songs, dances, stories and places are used to deeply embed associated knowledge in the collective memory. Indigenous cultures all over the world also use hand-held devices as memory aids; for example, wood covered in coloured stones, shells or patterns that encode masses of associated information, or cylinders carved with glyphs. At the same time, not all knowledge is shared; Lynne spoke of the concept of restricted and specialised knowledge, noting that if you talk too much about a high concept without suitable rules and structures in place to guide interpretation and retention, then its meaning may become corrupted. This is how Indigenous knowledge is protected and preserved, and Lynne has put the practice to good use in her own life and geographical context in Castlemaine.

We should be learning more from Indigenous Australians. They are knowledgeable and have many lessons to teach about our country. Duane has partnered with elders and communities to develop materials to bring Aboriginal culture into the Australian curriculum, and Lynne has already shown that traditional memory systems work very well with teaching the very young. Simon and Kat believe that Aboriginal culture and a connection with the land can help us feel more coherent in our own lives, particularly when we are feeling lost or alone.

Indigenous cultures around the world demonstrate a deep emotional investment and attachment to the landscape that acts as both almanac and encyclopaedia. It’s amazing that different cultures separated by vast oceans and continents have independently perceived the patterns in constellations in strikingly similar ways, despite being geographically and temporally separated. Stories from the cosmos give both practical guidance and spiritual comfort, and this way of telling stories and reading the stars is a way of keeping knowledge constant across generations.

Thanks to all our speakers and colleagues from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences for a fascinating evening! Livestream footage of proceedings is available to view online from the RSV’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/royalsocietyvictoria/videos/vl.2282388202000129/2288490491240125/