Books & Literature

Book Review: The First Astronomers, by Duane Hamacher, with Elders and Knowledge Holders

NON-FICTION: The First Astronomers is the first book to reveal the rich knowledge of the stars and the planets held by First Peoples around the world.

A fascinating read and an overdue acknowledgement of Indigenous astronomical knowledge.

Duane Hamacher came to Australia to study in 2006 and has remained here, becoming an Associate Professor in Cultural Astronomy at the University of Melbourne, to mention just one of his activities. He specialises in interdisciplinary research looking at astronomy in a wider cultural, historical, and heritage context, emphasising the history and philosophy of science. His book on Indigenous knowledge of astronomy can be seen as part of the long overdue acknowledgement and recognition of First Nations knowledge on everything from the 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 compartmentalised into different disciplines and divided from its cultural base, Indigenous science can only be understood in its cultural context — that is, as an indivisible part of the whole system of beliefs, ways of seeing and being in the world for Indigenous peoples. Their ways of describing seasons, the sun’s movements or how to navigate by the stars have often been either dismissed by Western ‘experts’, or more often, totally ignored.

Hamacher points out that such knowledge is often expressed through stories, such as that of the Sun-woman “rolling” northward during winter by Indigenous people of Australia’s Central Desert. This story demonstrates that Indigenous people were well aware of the need to observe the movement of the sun throughout the year, perhaps using natural features such as hills and rocks, to allow ceremonies, agriculture, hunting and so on to be performed at the right time.

I enjoyed the author’s references to other Indigenous peoples from around the world, especially where ancient knowledges have been verified by modern scientific investigation. An example of this is found in the Cairo Calendar, which is dated to 1244 – 1163 BC, referring to the variable star Algol. This star periodically dips in brightness and the ancient records, verified by recent calculations, have shown that differences between thousands of years ago and today are due to the stars moving apart, rather than incorrect ancient records.

Although I have very little astronomical knowledge, I was not put off by 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 down important scientific and cultural information through the generations by robust oral traditions and ceremonies. The 1932 comments, from writer Mary Gilmour and attributed to her father, neatly sum up non-Indigenous society’s attitude to Indigenous science, which involved “astonishment” and “sense of discovery” at finding out that Aboriginal people knew solstices “just as truly as we [Westerners] did” (page 39).

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

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

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: March 2022
RRP: $34.99

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