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Australian Aborigines: stargazers 20,000 years before Alfred Nobel came along

A ring of boulders that could pre-date Britain's Stonehenge and Egypt's pyramids suggest that Australia's ancient Aborigines had a deep understanding of astronomy.
Astronomy aborigines  Enlarge
Digital illustration released on September 15, 2011 by NASA, the newly-discovered gaseous planet Kepler-16b orbits it's two stars. Researchers say Australia's Aborigines pre-date European stargazers, including Britain's astronomy-linked Stonehenge, which is estimated at 3,100 BC, around the age of the Great Pyramid of Giza. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle/AFP/Getty Images)

Australia this week provided the world with an example of scientific excellence that has had a profound impact on how mankind understands the universe. 

No, we're not talking about the Nobel Prize for physics, jointly awarded to Aussie scientist Brian Schmidt and his American colleagues, Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess for their research into supernovae.

Rather, a ring of waist-high boulders that could pre-date Britain's Stonehenge and Egypt's pyramids, suggest that Australia's ancient Aborigines not only studied the stars, but had a deep understanding of astronomy.

The stone arrangement, situated in the southern state Victoria not far from Melbourne, is known by its Aboriginal name Wurdi Youang.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

The arrangement of stones with respect to the sun's position at the solstices suggests to some researchers that Aborigines has an advanced and very early knowledge of the movement of objects in the sky.

The ABC first reported on the find in February this year, and it's since done the rounds of scientific magazines, by it was picked up again this week by the BBC.

Perhaps easy enough to miss, amid the hype surrounding Schmidt's Nobel Prize winning discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, not slowing down, as had originally been thought.

That finding, according to Professor Suzanne Cory, president of the Australian Academy of Science, has had a profound and immediate effect on cosmology.

Schmidt, an astronomer from the Australian National University (ANU), responded to the Nobel in typically modest fashion, crediting the team's finding to Albert Einstein, who said if the universe was full of energy, gravity would push rather than pull.

"We think of Nobel prizes as being a personal achievement, but really it's a celebration, I think, of astronomy and the science that's been going on for 100 years," Schmidt told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday, Xinhua reported.

Perhaps a lot longer than that, according to the archeologists, astronomers and Aboriginal advisers who have, with the help of NASA technology, discovered more about the significance of Wurdi Youang.

The site, the BBC reports, "was noted by European settlers two centuries ago, and charted by archeologists in 1977, but only now is its purpose being rediscovered."

It is thought the site was built by the Wadda Wurrung people — the traditional inhabitants of the area. All understanding of the rocks' significance was lost, however, when traditional language and practices were banned at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Consensus seems to be that one end of the stone array points directly to the position on the horizon where the sun sets at the summer and winter solstice — the longest and shortest day of the year.

The axis from top to bottom, meanwhile, points towards the equinox, when the length of day equals night.

Ray Norris, an astronomer for Australia's science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization (CSIRO), says it's unlikely the layout of Wurdi Youang is coincidental. 

"This is the first time we have been able to show that, as well as being interested in the position of the sun, they were making astronomical measurements," the BBC quotes Norris as saying. 

Norris, who has made several trips to Arnhem Land in Australia's Outback to study Aboriginal culture and history, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying:

"We know there's lots of stories about the sky: songs, legends, myths. We wondered how much further does it go than that. It turns out also people used the sky for navigation, time-keeping, to mark out the seasons, so it's very practical.

"People were nomadic so when Pleiades (the Seven Sisters star cluster) was up they would move to where the nuts and berries are. Another sign and it would be time to move to the rivers to fish for barramundi, and so on."

His says his research has revealed even more sophisticated examples of "astronomical thought" among Aborigines through the ages, and gives the example of a traditional story about a lunar eclipse.

"The story in Arnhem Land is it's the Sun Woman and Moon Man making love, and when they make love the body of one covers the other," he says, adding:

"Clearly some thinker in the past has been sitting down in the bush, watching an eclipse and trying to figure out how it works."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/down-under/australia-nobel-prize-astronomy-outback-travel-aborigines