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Thursday, July 8, 1999 Published at 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK


Saving stories from dreamtime

Aborigines represented the Milky Way as a ladder

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Time is running out to record the tales and myths of the sky passed down from generation to generation of Australian Aborigines since the dreamtime - the time in the past when the world was young.

For the Aborigines, the sky was a textbook of morals and stories retold around campfires, says Dr Ragbir Bhathal of the University of Western Sydney Macarthur.

They had their own zodiac made of birds, fishes and dancing men and it was the backdrop to their existence for tens of thousands of years.

In winter the bright stars we call Arcturus and Vega appeared and the Arnhem Land tribes knew that it was time to make fish traps.

Also at that time, tribes in Victoria would look for the pupa of the wood ant. The appearance of the stars we call the Pleiades - or the Seven Sisters - was the sign of the start of the dingo-hunting season.

[ image: Aborigines saw Magellanic clouds as an old man and woman]
Aborigines saw Magellanic clouds as an old man and woman
The Aborigines knew about the white, blue and red stars and had explanations for all of them. They understood the concept of circumpolar stars, that is, those that never dip below the horizon.

Eclipses and exploding stars were never regarded as good or bad omens - they were merely part of nature.

The Aborigines made bark paintings of the sky as well as rock carvings.

But for each generation the stories change a little. Now Dr Bhathal believes they will be swamped by western interpretations and values. Soon there may be very little left of the ancient stories.

No oral tradition

The time is not far away, he says, when only the ageing medicine men will remember what was passed onto them.

The problem is that the aboriginal tradition is an oral one. There is no museum, no library and no books to record such a rich culture. It is even believed that the aboriginal culture dies inside a museum.

"Some museums have reduced the aboriginal culture to 'beads and shells' while others ignore the fact that their culture is deeply embedded into the sky and time," says Dr Bhathal.

"We need to act to record what remains. Unlike the past, with the awakening from dreamtime, the aborigines no longer have time on their side."

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