Monthly Archives: October 2019

Finding meteorite impacts in Aboriginal oral tradition 

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.


It explodes, showering the ground with small stones and sending a shock wave across the land. The accompanying boom is deafening and leaves people running and screaming.

This was the description of an incident that occurred over the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2013, one of the best recorded meteoritic events in history. This airburst was photographed and videoed by many people so we have a good record of what occurred, which helped explain the nature of the event.

But how do we find out about much older events when modern recordings were not available?

A century before Chelyabinsk, a similar event occurred on July 30, 1908, over the remote Siberian forest near Tunguska.

That explosion was even more powerful, flattening 80 million trees over an area of 2,000 square kilometres and sending a shock wave around the Earth – twice. It was 19 years before scientists reached the Tunguska site to study the effects of the blast.

The apparent lack of a meteorite fuelled speculation about how it formed, from sober suggestions of an exploding comet to more outlandish claims of mini-black holes and crashed alien spacecraft (research confirms it was an exploding meteorite).

Meteoric events in Indigenous oral tradition

In 1926, the ethnographer Innokenty Suslov interviewed the local Indigenous Evenk people, who still vividly remembered the Tunguska airburst.

At the time, a great feud persisted among Evenki clans. One clan called upon a shaman named Magankan to destroy their enemy. On the morning of July 30th, 1908, Magankan sent Agdy, the god of thunder, to demonstrate his power.

Many Indigenous cultures attribute meteoritic events to the power of sky beings. The Wardaman people of northern Australia tell of Utdjungon, a being who lives in the Coalsack nebula by the Southern Cross.

He will cast a fiery star to the Earth if laws and traditions are not followed. The falling star will cause the earth to shake and the trees to topple.

Like the Evenki, it seems the Wardaman have faced Utdjungon’s wrath before.

The Luritja people of Central Australia also tell of an object that fell to Earth as punishment for breaking sacred law. And we can still see the scars of this event today.

The Luritja people of Central Australia also tell of an object that fell to Earth as punishment for breaking sacred law. And we can still see the scars of this event today.

A surviving meteorite impact legend

Around 4,700 years ago, a large nickel-iron meteoroid came blazing across the Central Australian sky. It broke apart before striking the ground 145km south of what is now Alice Springs.

The fragments carved out more than a dozen craters up to 180 meters across with the energy of a small nuclear explosion.

Today, we call this place the Henbury Meteorites Conservation Reserve.

Aboriginal people have inhabited the region for tens-of-thousands of years, and it’s almost certain they witnessed this dramatic event. But did an oral record of this event survive to modern times?

When scientists first visited Henbury in 1931, they brought with them an Aboriginal guide. When they ventured near the site, the guide would go no further.

He said his people were forbidden from going near the craters, as that was where the fire-devil ran down from the sun and set the land ablaze, killing people and forming the giant holes.

They were also forbidden from collecting water that pooled in the craters, as they feared the fire-devil would fill them with a piece of iron.

The following year, a local resident asked Luritja elders about the craters. The elders provided the same answer and said the fire-devil “will burn and eat” anyone who breaks sacred law, as he had done long ago.

The longevity and benefits of oral tradition

The story of Henbury indicates a living memory of an event that occurred a few thousands of years ago. Might then we find accounts of events from tens of thousands of years ago? Yes, it seems so.

Recent studies show that Aboriginal traditions accurately record sea level changes over the past 10,000 years.

Recent studies show that Aboriginal traditions accurately record sea level changes over the past 10,000 years.

Other studies suggest the volcanic eruptions that formed the Eacham, Euramo and Barrine crater lakes in northern Queensland more than 10,000 years ago are recorded in oral tradition.

In addition to demonstrating the longevity of Indigenous oral traditions, emerging research shows that these stories can lead to new scientific discoveries. Aboriginal stories about objects falling from the sky have led scientists to meteorite finds they would not have known about otherwise.

In New Zealand, geologists are also using Maori oral traditions to study earthquakes and tsunamis. New Zealand has a much more recent human history – compared to Australia – with the first Maori ancestors thought to have arrived around the 13th Century.

The arrival of the first Australians goes back at least 50,000 years. There is still much to learn, as Australia’s ancient landscape has been exposed to meteorite strikes that we don’t know about, some of which have probably occurred since humans arrived.

But given that Australia is home to the oldest continuing cultures on Earth, we are only just scratching the surface of the vast scientific knowledge contained in Indigenous oral traditions.

But given that Australia is home to the oldest continuing cultures on Earth, we are only just scratching the surface of the vast scientific knowledge contained in Indigenous oral traditions.

We anticipate that our work with Aboriginal elders to learn about Indigenous astronomy will lead to new knowledge and cultural insights about natural events and meteorite impacts in Australia.

Duane Hamacher receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

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Posted on 13/10/2019 / Posted by admin

The southern lights in Indigenous oral traditions 

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.


A recent surge in solar activity caused spectacular auroral displays across the world. While common over the polar regions, aurorae are rare over Australia and are typically restricted to far southern regions, such as Tasmania and Victoria.

But recently, aurorae have been visible over the whole southern half of Australia, seen as far north as Uluru and Brisbane. 

Different cultures

It’s a phenomenon that has existed since the Earth’s formation and has been witnessed by cultures around the world. These cultures developed their own explanation for the lights in the sky – many of which are strikingly similar.

From a scientific point of view, aurora form when charged particles of solar wind are channelled to the polar regions by Earth’s magnetic field. These particles ionize oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere, creating light.

Auroral displays can show various colours, from white, to yellow, red, green, and blue. They can appear as a nebulous glowing arcs or curtains waving across the sky.

Aurorae are also reported to make strange sounds on rare occasions. Witnesses describe it as a crackling sound, like rustling grass or radio static.

In the Arctic, the Inuit say the noise is made by spirits playing a game or trying to communicate with the living.

In 1851, Aboriginal people near Hobart said an aurora made noise like “people snapping their fingers”. The cause of this noise is unknown.

Aurorae are significant in Australian Indigenous astronomical traditions. Aboriginal people associate aurorae with fire, death, blood, and omens, sharing many similarities with Native American communities. They are quite different from Inuit traditions of the Aurora Borealis, which are more festive.

Fire in the sky

Aboriginal people commonly saw aurorae as fires in the cosmos. To the Gunditjmara of western Victoria, they’re Puae buae (“ashes”). To the Gunai of eastern Victoria, they’re bushfires in the spirit world and an omen of a coming catastrophe.

The Dieri and Ngarrindjeri of South Australia see aurora as fires created by sky spirits.

As far north as southwestern Queensland, Aboriginal people saw the phenomenon as “feast fires” of the Oola Pikka —- ghostly beings who spoke to Elders through the aurora.

The Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand saw aurorae (Tahunui-a-rangi) as the campfires of ancestors reflected in the sky. These ancestors sailed southward in their canoes and settled on a land of ice in the far south.

The southern lights let people know they will one day return. This is similar to an Algonquin story from North America.

A warning to follow sacred law

Mungan Ngour, a powerful sky ancestor in Gunai traditions, set rules for male initiation and put his son, Tundun, in charge of the ceremonies. When people leaked secret information about these ceremonies, Mungan cast down a great fire to destroy the Earth. The people saw this as an aurora.

Near Uluru, a group of hunters broke Pitjantjatjara law by killing and cooking a sacred emu. They saw smoke rise to the south, towards the land of Tjura. This was the aurora, viewed as poisonous flames that signalled coming punishment.

The Dieri also believe an aurora is a warning that someone is being punished for breaking traditional laws, which causes great fear. The breaking of traditional laws would result in an armed party coming to kill the lawbreakers when they least expect it.

In this context, fear of an aurora was utilised to control behaviour and social standards.

Blood in the cosmos

The red hue of some aurorae is commonly associated with blood and death.

To Aboriginal communities across New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, auroral displays represented blood that was shed by warriors fighting a great battle in the sky, or by spirits of the dead rising to the heavens.

Celestial events that appear red are often linked to blood, including meteors and eclipses.

A total lunar eclipse turns the moon red (sometimes called a blood-moon), which was seen by some communities as the spirit of a dead man rising from his grave.

Rare astronomical events were viewed as bad omens by cultures around the world. Now imagine if two of these events overlap!

In 1859, Aboriginal people in South Australia witnessed an auroral display and a total lunar eclipse. This caused great fear an anxiety, signalling the arrival of dangerous spirit beings.

There could be a repeat of this astronomical double-act as a lunar eclipse will be visible across Australia on Saturday April 4, 2015.

Will the aurorae continue? Keep watch.

See also: Be prepared for the shortest total lunar eclipse of the century

Duane Hamacher receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

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Dockers expect Cats to fire up in AFL 

Geelong’s shellacking at the hands of Hawthorn last week isn’t a sign that the team’s demise is near, according to Fremantle coach Ross Lyon.


The Cats’ premiership hopes were given an early shake after they copped a 62-point loss to Hawthorn on Monday.

Geelong haven’t missed the finals since 2006, winning three flags since that time.

But with a host of their stars now retired, and several veterans nearing the end, pundits have predicted a slide down the table for the Cats this year.

Fremantle face Geelong at Simonds Stadium on Sunday, and Lyon is expecting the Cats of old to front up.

“I know they didn’t have a result they would have liked last week, and they copped a fair bit of flak,” Lyon said.

“But I think (that performance) was uncharacteristic. Hawthorn can do that to you.

“We had a game last year – round three against Hawthorn – that we lost by 100 points (actually 58 points), and then we went on to make top four and win lots of games.

“Geelong will respond in kind. They’ve got strong leadership right through the club, and in particular their coach and captain. So we expect a fierce response.”

Fremantle displayed impressive fight in last week’s win over Port Adelaide.

But Lyon knows there’s plenty of improvement to come – especially in regards to their skills and decision making.

Geelong dropped a selection shock this week when they axed Steven Motlop after discovering the star midfielder had consumed alcohol three days before the match against Hawthorn.

Lyon said he understood Geelong’s decision.

“They’re keeping their standards, so that sees him go out,” Lyon said.

“It just highlights we’re humans, we’re fallible.

“He’s a really good person.”

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Force want 10th birthday Super Rugby win 

The Western Force are turning 10, and there’s only one thing they want for their birthday – a shiny new win.


The Force are using Saturday night’s clash with the Cheetahs in Perth to celebrate their 10th year in the Super Rugby competition.

So far, the party has been rather muted, with a six-match losing run cruelling the Force’s finals hopes.

But Force coach Michael Foley hopes the second half of the season will be filled with more memorable moments and a lot more wins.

“All the efforts that have gone before us are the things we want to acknowledge in our performance,” Foley said of the Force’s 10th-year celebrations.

“We’re a young club, and we’re fighting for a position to become one of the leading clubs.

“Getting the result and turning that corner (is what we’re after).

“That’s the thing for us at the moment – to get that little bit more urgent around the breakdown, more physical around defence and to finish those opportunities that we are creating.

“There’s plenty of line breaks and chances there for us. If we finish those off, we’ll get the result and push on.”

The Force managed just one win from 13 games during their inaugural season in 2006.

The sole victory came against the Cheetahs in South Africa, with the Force eking out a 16-14 triumph after drawing against the Crusaders and Lions in the previous two games.

Force skipper Matt Hodgson featured in the famous first win against the Cheetahs.

But the inspirational 33-year-old won’t be on the field this week as he continues to recover from a torn hamstring.

Foley said Hodgson would also miss next week’s home clash with the Stormers before returning on April 24 against the Chiefs in New Zealand.

The Force were unlucky not to come away with a win on their recent tour of South Africa, where they dominated possession against the Bulls and Sharks but couldn’t land the killer blow.

Mistakes and missed opportunities in both games proved costly.

Five-eighth Sias Ebersohn produced arguably the biggest blooper when he sprayed his straight-forward penalty against the Sharks at a crucial point in the second half, while Kyle Godwin dropped the ball in the final minute with the tryline in sight.

Ebersohn’s miss in particular changed the course of the match, with the Sharks scoring a try soon after to set up the 15-9 win.

Foley has stuck with Ebersohn at No.10 this week, and he hopes the 26-year-old will be able to repay the faith.

“Anyone who plays at that level has that moment where there’s a ball to catch or kick and you miss it in a way that no one would expect,” Foley said.

“Sias’ sense of disappointment after the game was huge.

“We just took some time to say ‘it’s just an anomaly’. He wouldn’t normally do that.”

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Hird: what is ‘normal’ after AFL saga? 

Essendon coach James Hird has spoken of the universal relief at the club in the wake of the AFL anti-doping tribunal’s not guilty verdicts.


And he predicts their interrupted pre-season will eventually work to the Bombers’ advantage.

On March 31, the tribunal found 34 current and past Essendon players were not guilty of charges relating to the Essendon supplements scandal.

The verdicts were the culmination of a controversial AFL-ASADA investigation that started on February 5, 2013.

“We’re not sure what normal is after two-and-a-half years of what we’ve been through,” Hird told SEN radio.

“But I remember the first session after the investigation started and the way the guys trained, the heads were everywhere.

“They were all over the shop – a crazy sort of training session.

“But Thursday last week, it was a normal session and – for the first time in obviously a long time – people were just concentrating on football.

“You could see the guys – they were maybe a little bit tired … (but) they had freer minds.”

Hird served a 12-month AFL suspension as part of governance penalties handed down in August two years ago.

At the height of the saga, media were regularly camped outside his home.

“Certainly, there’s a smile on my face every morning when I walk out the door and see there are not 15 people out there,” he said.

“I was just thinking it this morning, to be honest … how good it is to walk out in your jocks and pick up the paper and walk back inside.”

Hird said nothing could have prepared him and others at Essendon for the stresses of the saga.

“It certainly challenged friendships, challenged relationships, challenged everyone at all levels,” he said.

He added his relationship with the players was tested, but stayed strong.

“Certainly, it’s been challenged … because of media speculation stories, things that are written,” he said.

“The one thing I’ve been confident with is the players and myself have a good relationship.

“If there wasn’t a good relationship between myself and the Essendon players, I wouldn’t be coach.”

The tribunal hearing meant most of Essendon’s front-line players had no official pre-season games.

It showed in their round-one loss to Sydney, where the ‘Dons coughed up a 41-point lead.

“We were a bit rusty at certain times and, even in the coaches box, we were a bit rusty just trying to prepare the group when things happened,” he said.

“We will be a lot better for the performance against Sydney.

“But I think the preparation, in the long run, will probably be quite beneficial for us.”

Essendon face another stern test on Sunday when they play arch rivals and two-time defending premiers Hawthorn in a MCG blockbuster.

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