Review of The First Astronomers

‘When profound ideas are introduced to the world for the first time,’ writes Professor Marcia Langton, in her foreword to The First Astronomers, ‘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.’

There is a tendency when thinking about Indigenous history – one prevalent in ‘the history wars’ that began with Prime Minister John Howard’s ambition to make Australians ‘comfortable’ with their past – to frame the issue in terms of how ‘developed’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait-Islander cultures were at the time of colonial settlement. But as Professor Langton implies in her comments, this is to assume a model of ‘progress’ that denies First Peoples their radical difference. In other words, it is a form of begging the question. The inferiority of Indigenous peoples is assumed in the way the ‘conversation’ is constructed.

Written by Duane Hamacher, a Western-trained astrophysicist, and six Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Holders, The First Astronomers will have none of this. Indeed, it is a bracing tonic to such approaches, which resurfaced only recently on both sides of the Dark Emu debate. For though the focus of this book is ostensibly narrow, it is, in the end, an essay on knowledge – on what it is and how we value it – that challenges Western notions of science as the only true measure of reality and truth. It treats Indigenous astronomy – and, by extension, Indigenous culture more broadly – not as an anthropological curiosity, but as a sophisticated and living body of knowledge that contains within it a radically different idea of human beings’ place within nature. It is an excellent book, and an important one.  

The book is divided into ten chapters, each of which takes an astronomical feature – the ‘wandering stars’, the ‘twinkling stars’, the ‘navigational stars’ and so on – and describes its place in different knowledge systems, principally in the cultures of the Torres Strait Islands, but also in other Indigenous cultures in Australia and the Americas. Hamacher writes beautifully, and without a hint of condescension, of his many conversations with Indigenous Elders, and these accounts are often mixed with knowledge from the Western scientific perspective – not in the spirit of ‘all must have prizes’ but in a way that highlights the deep-seated differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outlooks.

The principal difference between those outlooks relates to the distinction between science as a method (i.e. ‘the scientific method’) and science as a social process. In Western cultures, broadly speaking, these definitions of science are separated: to run an experiment is to engage in an activity that is fundamentally different to deciding which experiments should be run, and to what end. But for Indigenous peoples, there is no separation between scientific and cultural bodies of knowledge. Indigenous science is practical knowledge; it is a matter of survival, and of being in the world, practised in ‘holistic fashion’.

Thus, while an astrophysicist may refer to the ‘seeing conditions’ on a particular night, lamenting the way in which air turbulence, humidity, dust and ice cause the stars to twinkle, a Knowledge Holder will value that twinkling for precisely the information it conveys – information that is embedded within story, song, dance and ceremony, in a way that allows it to be stored, celebrated, and passed from one generation to the next. As Hamacher puts it, ‘the twinkling stars are not a hindrance or a problem to be overcome. They serve a critically important role in understanding atmospheric conditions, with a variety of practical purposes.’ So too with other astronomical phenomena: whether it’s the phases of the moon or the brightness of the stars or the movement of the planets across the sky, observation is linked to application through a rich cultural network of metaphor and narrative.

The First Astronomers contains many fascinating examples of such Indigenous ‘star knowledge’ and its relevance to seasonal conditions, planting schedules, animal behaviour and oceanic navigation. But for me its overriding importance relates to the cultural ‘seeing conditions’ governing the Western view of the world. For though the scientific method is indispensable, the abstraction of science from society and culture within the Western Enlightenment tradition – its reduction to the scientific method – is implicitly related to a view of nature as in some sense external to human beings, as something to be objectified and exploited. In other words, there is a direct link between a ‘mechanistic’ view of the universe and the environmental catastrophe that is now (if I may) very much in our stars. As that catastrophe draws ever closer, we might look to this book for a different perspective.


Duane Hamacher with Elders and Knowledge Holders

The First Astronomers: How Indigenous Elders Read the Stars

Allen & Unwin; $34.99; 290pp


First published in The Weekend Australian.