It’s Fall in the North, But It’s Spring in the Southern Hemisphere! How the Ancient Australian Aborigines Tracked the Equinox

autumn-165184_1280It’s officially fall! Today is the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, so it’s time to break out the cozy sweaters, aromatic firewood and pumpkin-flavored everything. However, in the southern hemisphere, today marks the first official day of spring. So while up here in the northern half of the globe we prepare for cooler temperatures, let’s remember our neighbors down south and discover how they’ve sprung into spring since ancient times.

The Aboriginal Australians have a remarkable pedigree according to Professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, who led the study isolating the first Aboriginal genome sequence study using a 100-year-old lock of hair from an indigenous man.  Based on the results, the Aboriginal Australians are descendants of the first people to leave Africa up to 75,000 years ago, conferring upon them the likely honor of being the oldest continuous culture on the planet.[1] For thousands of years then, the Australian Aboriginal peoples have marked and celebrated the spring equinox as a time of rebirth and renewal. We know that the ancient Australians were keenly aware of astronomical movements. There are numerous stone arrangements built by many different ancient Aboriginal cultures and while the exact use for these arrangements is not known with certainty, it is believed that several may have been involved with charting the position of the stars.

A portion of the stone arrangment at Wurdi Youang. Image credit: Ray Norris.

A portion of the stone arrangment at Wurdi Youang. Image credit: Ray Norris.

One site in particular seems to suggest the culture that built it was specifically aiming to chart the position of the sun for the purpose of recognizing solstices and equinoxes. Wurdi Youang is located near the town of Little River and is owned by the Wathaurang people. The site consists of about 100 basalt stones arranged in an egg-shaped ring that is approximately 50 meters in diameter along the major axis, which is aligned east-west.[2] Studies of the position of the stones and outliers have revealed that several of the “alignments are astronomical in nature” and “strongly suggest that the stone arrangement was deliberately intended by its builders to point to the setting Sun at the solstices and equinox.”[3] The site could be anywhere from 200 to 20,000 years old, but researchers point to the deep entrenchment of the stones to support a theory that it’s been there for thousands of years.[4] The major axis points towards the equinox and so it is possible that ancient Aboriginal people gathered at this spot for thousands of years anticipating the two times each year when the length of day equals night.

Wurdi Youang is the first real evidence that an Aboriginal culture used a stone arrangement as an astronomical guide, but there is abundant evidence of various Aboriginal cultures’ interest in the sun and the stars. Studies by Ray Norris, a British astrophysicist at Australia’s national science agency, of Aboriginal songs and stories indicate “a clear understanding of the movement of the sun, moon and stars.”[5] Some cultures in ancient Australia used the sky as a calendar, allowing them to anticipate the changing of seasons and when it was a good time to seek out a new food supply. Others used stories about constellations in the heavens as a way to explain traditions, such as why catching a particular fish was forbidden or how to communicate with deceased loved ones during the rising of Venus.[6] Many of these traditions have been passed down through generations and are still used in Australian Aboriginal cultures today.

Interestingly, Australia’s ancient inhabitants were not unique is their fascination with cosmic displays. What is particularly intriguing is how the circle arrangement is found in thousands of ancient sites around the world. Stonehenge in England is one of the most famous monuments. Indeed, starting in 3300 BCE, more than 1,000 stone circles were built in England and Ireland alone. There are also stone circles at Fan Lau in Hong Kong; in the submerged Neolithic village of Atlit Yam off the coast of Atlit, Israel; at Odry in Poland (speciously appropriated by the Nazis to attest to ancient Germanic superiority); and at Junapani, India.[7] To these and other early settlers, the mysteries of the heavens were embodied in the ancient circle, its boundaries protecting those inside, its configuration symbolizing the life-giving sun, its edifices revealing the temporal movements of the earth.

The Emu in the Sky Aboriginal constellation.

The Emu in the Sky Aboriginal constellation.

It may seem a bit anti-climactic to celebrate the coming of warmer temperatures in an area such as Australia where the climate remains temperate or even tropical nearly year-round. However, this is not the case. Australians, modern and ancient, are and were aware that with the coming of the spring equinox comes a time of growth and new life. The anthropologist James Frazer wrote in his late 19th century study of mythology and religion, The Golden Bough,

The natives of central Australia regularly practice magical ceremonies for the purpose of awakening the dormant energies of nature at what might be called the approach of the Australian spring. Nowhere apparently are the alterations of seasons more striking than in the deserts of central Australia, where at the end of a long period of drought the sandy and stony wilderness, over which the silence and desolation of death appeared to brood is suddenly, after a few days of torrential rain, transformed into a landscape smiling with verdure and peopled with teeming multitudes of insects and lizards, of frogs and birds.[8]

Image credit:

Image credit:

Sadly, today many ancient Aboriginal traditions have been lost along with their languages and culture. However, some remain and archaeologists continue to uncover evidence that sheds new light on these incredible peoples. The Aboriginal cultures that continue to thrive throughout Australia are extremely protective of their traditions and ways of life, rightly so, but their beliefs and practices have influenced modern Australia. There are groups dedicated to preserving, reviving and rediscovering Australian Aboriginal cultures. When we lose the heritage of even one group of people, we are losing an invaluable piece of our shared history.

Today, as in the past, Australians will celebrate the advent of spring and with it, the coming of the rains and new life. As you pack up your swimsuits and pull out your boots, remember the other half of the globe is waking up to a new phase of rebirth!

*For a great roundup of how other ancient civilizations celebrated the both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes visit our partner, Ancient Origins, and their article How Ancient People Marked the Equinox Around the World. Also read about Stonehenge and other ancient astronomy in our post The Summer Solstice: From Ancient Celebration to a Modern Day at the Beach.

Here’s an example of the music by Aboriginal Australians that is being preserved today. The didgeridoo (also known as a didjeridu) is a wind instrument created around 1,500 years ago in Northern Australia.

And listen to the sound of the ancient didgeridoo with a very contemporary edge in this amazing rendition. DIDGE-ITAL DREAM-TIME is a series of videos that explore the sonic possibilities of digitally combining the didgeridoo with other instruments.

[1] DNA confirms Aboriginal culture one of Earth’s oldest. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2014.

[2] Norris, R., Norris, C., Hamacher, D., & Abrahams, R. (2012). Wurdi Youang: An Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications. Rock Art Research.

[3] Ibid

[4] Hegarty, S. (n.d.). Stargazing at an ‘Aboriginal Stonehenge’ Retrieved September 18, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Aboriginal Astronomy. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2014.

[7] The Stone Circles at Odry, Poland. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2014.

[8] Frazer, J. (1890). The Magic Spring. In The Golden Bough (p. 289b). London: Macmillan.

Introducing AN Forum: Commentary From Around the Globe

AN ForumAntiquityNOW is launching AN Forum, a new platform that encourages global conversation about the importance of cultural preservation and the enduring influence of the ancient past on our modern lives.  Periodically, we will post articles, commentaries and other posts from the web’s trove of opinion and reporting that spark our curiosity, enlighten our understanding and strike our fancy. Please feel free to share your own original writings or articles you come across of particular interest on topics exploring our cultural legacies from around the world.

John DalyToday’s Author: John Daly is recently retired after 50 years of a development career in more than 35 countries. He currently serves as a volunteer editor of Zunia, an online site for knowledge exchange and networking among development practitioners, where he manages its section on Monitoring and Evaluation of development projects and programs. Daly previously was Vice President of Friends for UNESCO. He served as the acting Work Program Director of infoDev and as a consultant to the Development Gateway group at the World Bank, which included work on the Millennium Science Project in Uganda. He worked for two decades for the U.S. Agency for International Development, including serving as Director of its Office of Research. He has taught at the University of California (various schools), Universidad Santa Maria (Valparaiso, Chile), Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, Universidad del Valle (Colombia), the University of Maryland and George Washington University. This blog appeared on his website and also includes some comments he made in correspondence with AntiquityNOW.

*The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of AntiquityNOW.

Children and Cultural Heritage: “Start From Where You Are”

AN:  What would you think would be the main points to tell children about the importance of cultural heritage?

I would want children to recognize that they should be selective about the parts of their cultural heritage to preserve, the parts to reject and the parts to try to improve upon.  I think all cultures include elements that their children would be better off abandoning. Culture is what makes us who we are. The key is intelligent choice. And I think that the choice is best made by the members of the culture themselves.

Bob Textor, an anthropologist, used to talk about tempocentrism — the tendency to look at culture from a perspective of our own time. The values that children will share when they are adults are probably different than those of the adults in their communities now. That is as it should be. One hopes that those children, looking back from the future, will be pleased with the changes that they have made.

“Start from where you are.” That is a rule for nation building, and I think it a good one more generally. (Arthur Ashe added, “Use what you have, do what you can”)

All humans share an important heritage from our pre-human ancestors — that we are a social species with culture. We have language, use tools, cook our food. It is a heritage that got our distant ancestors through a bottleneck in which only a few thousand humans survived. That is a critical cultural heritage that we all share.

Heritage comes in many forms, shared through time and built over millennia. Children should appreciate our technological heritage. Perhaps foremost is our heritage of agriculture, and that is a world heritage. Crops were domesticated all over the world: wheat in the Middle East, potatoes, corn and beans in the Americas, rice in Asia. Our clothing derives from the people who first had the idea that the fibers attached to cotton seed could be spun into fiber and the fiber woven into cloth, and the cloth made into garments; we owe a similar cultural debt to the folks who thought to cut the woolen coat from sheep and use it to make clothing, those who harvested cocoons to make silk and the people who taught us to make artificial fibers. People all over the world developed houses, getting us out of caves and many cultures have contributed to modern building technology.

Children should appreciate our institutional cultural heritage. Where would we be without money and markets? Government helps us to organize our societies which have grown so big, and people all over the world have contributed ideas on how to make government serve people better and more efficiently.

The great religions of the world are another cultural heritage, not least because they all share the heritage of teaching the golden rule — to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) honors Yosemite, Yellowstone and other places as World Heritage sites. The appreciation that these places should be maintained in their natural state is another cultural heritage that we should share with younger generations so that they too will value these places and conserve them for posterity. I am proud to say that this appreciation is a cultural gift that the United States made by creating the first national park in the 19th century, a gift that has been widely shared as other countries have created their own national parks.

Notice that I have come to the arts late in this post, but of course children should celebrate the heritage in music, painting, sculpture and drama. As travel and communications have become more global, and as we share the arts via movies, radio and television — and now the Internet — each of us draws from a more diverse and global heritage in the arts.

I think we should also emphasize our heritage in knowledge systems. Schools are a wonderful invention, and more and more of the world is coming to enjoy schooling. The modern university combining education, research and service is a cultural heritage worthy of note. I think science — the scientific method, peer review, professional societies — is particularly vital. Today we find that scientific knowledge not only grows rapidly, but is ever more rapidly mobilized to inform the development of new technology.

Children should appreciate their cultural heritage of play, and in the grown-up form, sport. Hundreds of millions of people followed the World Cup of football this year (soccer to us Yanks); the Olympics games in 2016 should also draw the interest of people around the world, as well as teams from many countries.

However, our global heritage is not all good. It includes slavery, violence and organized crime. Mankind has indulged in conflict during its entire history, and world wars have killed tens of millions of people in the last century alone. New weapons of mass destruction make the threat of war ever more terrible.

I mentioned UNESCO earlier. I have been interested in UNESCO for many years. Its World Heritage program has now recognized more than one thousand ancient archaeological and ecological sites. While I think it appropriate to recognize such sites so that they can be better protected and so that more people will appreciate what they represent, it seems to me that we should be careful that we honor only that heritage of which we are justly proud. The pyramids of Egypt, for example, were built to provide men who believed they were gods a path to a heavenly afterlife. Thousands of poor people labored for great lengths of time to build these monuments to superstition. If we are to declare sites as world heritage which can be understood in such dysfunctional ways, then we should be explicit in honoring the artistic and engineering enterprise that led to their construction, and in teaching children about the less desirable heritage that they also represent.

Perhaps the most important lesson for children is that they should choose the best elements of their cultural heritage to build a legacy for future generations, while consciously eliminating dysfunctional cultural heritage. I am especially impressed by the way that the Japanese and Germans have explicitly tried to discard aspects of their heritage that led to World War II and to atrocities during that war, while emphasizing the beneficial aspects of their rich cultural heritage. Think of the Japanese who after World War II rejected their aggressive military past, embraced democracy and maintained aspects of their culture from kabuki to sumo wrestling.

Ultimately, I believe that it is best that people within a culture make such choices themselves. All too often others have sought to impose their own cultural choices, and all too often that has resulted in oppression of the weak by the strong while failing to instill beneficial cultural elements and casting off injurious ones.

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Almond Brittle with the Ancient Anise

Koehler1887-PimpinellaAnisumA small and unassuming looking herb, anise (also called aniseed) has been treasured by many different civilizations since antiquity. While it is related to several other well-known herbs such as cumin, fennel and dill, anise has made a special place for itself. Today we’re bringing you a recipe for Anise Almond Brittle, a perfect treat to start the fall season. First, let’s find out why this little spice has been popular for millennia! Continue reading

National Anthems: Ancient Elements, Modern Resoundings

The_Star-Spangled_BannerLast Sunday, September 14th, was the 200th anniversary of the writing of the United States’ national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.  Inspired by the raising of the American flag at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, which signified a major victory by the Americans over the British during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key penned a homage to the “broad stripes and bright stars” he saw that night. This year, people celebrated across the land with concerts dedicated to the music of the United States. Continue reading

Looking for Natural Skin Care Tips? Ancient Chinese Empresses and Concubines Share Their Recipes

1862 advertisement for Laird’s Bloom of Youth, claiming to preserve and beautify the complexion and skin. Source: Cosmetics and Skin.

1862 advertisement for Laird’s Bloom of Youth, claiming to preserve and beautify the complexion and skin. Source: Cosmetics and Skin.

UPDATE! This post was originally published on January 17, 2013. Skin care and that eternal search for youth are back in the news this month with a remedy that is both scandalous and ancient: blood. A new study has found that young blood does have powers of rejuvenation. The blood plasma from young mice was injected into old mice who then experienced improved learning and memory.[1] It isn’t a far leap to imagine applying this research to skin care and the possibility that blood may impart youth to the physical appearance as well. This is certainly not a new thought. History has several examples of people who believed blood was perhaps a fountain of youth. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday: The Ancient Noodle

noodles 2Covered in creamy sauce, swimming in fragrant broth or simply sharing a bowl with some butter, noodles are the quintessential comfort food. Not surprisingly, many want to claim the noodle as their own. So many nations jockeying for position, longing to be the originators of pasta perfection. The noodle has a pretty mysterious past, but we are going to attempt to illuminate the highlights for you, along with sharing a quick and easy homemade noodle recipe. And don’t forget the sauce! Click here for a collection of sauce recipes to suit every palate. Continue reading

Nature, Ecotherapy and a Peak into the Past Through National Parks

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.

When you first enter Crater Lake National Park, it’s easy to imagine you’ve stepped thousands of years into the past. Crater Lake in Oregon was created when Mount Mazama erupted close to 8,000 years ago, and ignoring the RVs visiting the park today, it’s easy to imagine it has not changed much from what it must have looked like after the ash settled. Continue reading

Ancient Dentistry Part 2: A Mummy, A Mystery and Queen Hatshepsut’s Molar

Ancient Egyptian dentistry.

An example of ancient Egyptian dentistry.

In Ancient Dentistry Part 1: Drills, Gemstones and Toothpaste!, we looked at how dentistry was practiced millennia ago in Pakistan, Slovenia, Algeria, France, North America and Egypt. Drilling, implants and tooth bling were some long ago procedures with fascinating modern day correlations.  Ironically, despite having toothpaste and dental procedures, it seemed that the Egyptians suffered a great deal of tooth discomfort, which was apparent from the formulas for pain potions found recorded on papyrus and in the condition of the teeth of many mummies. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Celebrate National Honey Month with Honey and Vinegar Candy

honey-bee-354993_640September is National Honey Month and we are celebrating this ancient super food this week with a recipe for Honey and Vinegar Candy! It’s a healthy and simple, bite-sized candy packed with all of the nutrients that come from the sweet, gooey goodness of honey. Continue reading

KIDS’ BLOG! Chinese Kites Soar Throughout History

Chinese Bird KiteDid you know that kites were invented 2,300 years ago?  A Chinese philosopher, Mo Di, who lived from 468-376 BCE, designed the very first kite in the shape of an eagle.[1]  It was not made out of paper, because paper had not been invented yet.  Instead, he used wood.  Imagine how hard it must have been to fly a wooden kite!  Amazingly, he did manage to keep it in the air for a whole day.  His student, Gongshu Ban, later nicknamed Lu Ban, learned how to build kites from Mo Di.  He even improved upon his mentor’s design, making a bamboo kite in the shape of a magpie, which is a bird common on the Eurasia continent.  Lu Ban was able to keep his kite in the air for up to three days.[2] Continue reading