Teacher background information


Year 3 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Earth and space sciences

Earth’s rotation on its axis causes regular changes, including night and day (ACSSU048 - Scootle )

  • exploring how cultural stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples explain the cyclic phenomena involving sun, moon and stars and how those explanations differ from contemporary science understanding (OI.3, OI.5)

For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have observed and recorded the repeated patterns of phenomena in the sky. The rotation of Earth on its axis causes regular changes, such as day and night, and the long-held scientific understanding of these events is recorded in the cultural stories of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Vibrant, living stories are an important cultural aspect of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples. Often, cultural stories hold insights and records of complex scientific phenomena including explanations of celestial bodies. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore the cultural stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples that explain regular changes in the sky that have been observed and understood for many thousands of years.

Stories and storytelling have long been, and continue to be, an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ cultures and ensure the continuation of cultural knowledges through generations. Cultural stories hold complex knowledges and insights, and the retelling of stories is a powerful way to ensure knowledges are shared and preserved. The stories are instructive or informing; the intention is to communicate knowledges in a highly engaging and memorable manner. Cultural stories may contain more than a single knowledge or lesson. They may incorporate lessons about kinship and belief systems, customs, animal behaviour, land maps, domestic skills, moral behaviours or resources. Many cultural stories incorporate scientific knowledges and understandings that have been observed for millennia, including stories to explain the phenomena of cyclical patterns in the sky.

The pattern of day and night is a result of Earth’s eastward rotation on its own axis in prograde motion, that is, Earth’s rotation is in the same direction as the rotation of the sun on its own axis. Daytime is the period of Earth’s rotation when a particular point on Earth receives natural light from the sun. It is often considered that daytime commences when Earth's rotation towards the east first causes the sun to appear above the horizon. By contrast, night-time is the period of time when a given point on the surface of Earth receives no natural illumination from the sun. Night-time occurs when the continuing rotation of Earth causes the sun to disappear below the horizon to the west. The central importance of the sun in the distinction of daytime and night-time is reflected in the cultural stories of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

A cultural story from the Yolŋu Peoples in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory describes the sun as a woman who lights a fire in the morning and scatters red ochre across the sky to create dawn. She is described as travelling across the sky from east to west, carrying a torch to create daylight, and at the end of the day extinguishing her torch to create night. In the story, she is told to return to her morning camp by travelling underground through the night, to again light her morning fire. The Tanganekald Peoples of the Coorong region in South Australia have a cultural story that explains daytime and night-time by describing the sun as a woman carrying firesticks. The sun story of the Wotjobaluk Peoples of western Victoria describes a woman carrying a bark torch as she journeys across the sky. In the cultural stories of the Meriam Peoples of Mer Island in the Torres Strait, the sun returns to its place in the east by travelling underwater. In the cultural stories of the Ramindjeri Peoples of the Encounter Bay region in South Australia, the sun woman was gifted a red kangaroo skin, which she wears daily as she rises and appears in her red dress at dawn. The Noongar Peoples of south-west Western Australia also explain the passage of the sun across the sky in cultural stories that depict the sun as a woman carrying a burning Banksia cone. Noongar Peoples distinguish at least nine sequential phases of daylight: nanga warloo (dawn), djidar (daybreak), nangar mooreejoon (sunrise), mirgaduk (morning), mal-yarak (noon), biddurong (early afternoon), garbala (late afternoon), garreembee (sunset) and ngallanang (twilight), based on the position of the sun in the sky as Earth spins on its axis.

Such stories, and countless others, demonstrate the understanding of the rotation of Earth that results in the apparent passage of the sun to provide light across the sky during daytime and an absence of light from the sun at night-time. The oral narrative record of knowledge is safeguarded through engaging and memorable stories; retelling cultural stories ensures that living knowledge is deeply learned and passed on through successive generations.

The rotation of Earth on its axis causing regular phenomena, including daytime and night-time marked by the appearance and setting of the sun, has been observed for many thousands of years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Aboriginal Peoples used these observations to make important connections. For example, the position of the setting sun was noted when annual events occurred, such as the solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year) and equinoxes (the days when the length of daytime and night-time are equivalent). Features of the landscape that correlate with the position of the sun are believed to have informed the construction of stone arrangements. The Wathaurong Peoples of Victoria constructed Wurdi Youang, an important stone arrangement in deliberate alignment with astronomically significant positions. The egg-shaped arrangement of over 50 basalt stones evidences and records the knowledge of the movement of the stars and sun. In a Western context the arrangement is aligned in an east-west direction, with prominent stones on the western side indicating the position of the setting sun at the equinoxes and solstices. The Wurdi Youang arrangement is believed to represent annual recurrent patterns in astronomical observations of the sun and other celestial bodies made by the Wathaurong Peoples over thousands of years.

The rotation of Earth on its axis also means that the moon and stars appear to rise in the east at night and set at sunrise in the west. The appearance of the moon is due to Earth’s rotation on its axis as well as the orbit of the moon around Earth. From Earth it appears as though different portions of the moon are illuminated by the sun over a lunar month. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ cultural stories contain detailed knowledge of the lunar cycle. The lunar phase, that is, the appearance of the moon that is visible from Earth, changes gradually and cyclically as the orbital positions of the moon, Earth and sun shift. The visible phases of the moon are described in many cultural stories, often as a fat man who becomes thinner over the lunar month before feasting to become fat and round again. A story from the Tiwi Peoples of the Northern Territory explains that when the moon man gorges on mangrove crabs he becomes fat and round, and when he becomes sick from over-eating he wanes.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ observations of the recurrent patterns of celestial bodies, including the sun and moon in the sky, have long been used as markers of time and as indicators of certain events. In the Southern Coorong district of South Australia, the Ngarrindjeri Peoples used the number of full moons to record the age of children under the age of one, while in the Hahndorf area of South Australia, the Peramangk Peoples marked the appearance of each new moon on an object, such as a digging stick, to record their own age. The Tarkinener Peoples of north west Tasmania applied the lunar phases of the moon to daily life. For example, they determined the timing of a gathering by the number of dark days after the moon had disappeared.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ observations of the celestial bodies in the sky include astronomical features outside Earth’s solar system, such as constellations that appear at certain times of the day or year due to the rotation of Earth on its axis and its orbit around the sun. The Pitjantjatjara Peoples of the central Australian desert know that the appearance of the constellation Pleiades in the dawn sky indicates the beginning of the cold season. The Mabuiag Peoples of Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait time important ceremonies by the appearance of the star Kek (known as Arcturus in Western cultures), as it coincides with a plentiful supply of resources. The significance of this timing is encoded in the cultural stories of some of the islands in the Torres Strait, which serve as an important transgenerational system of transferring and maintaining knowledge.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore how many cultural stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples contain the recognition and understanding of phenomena, such as the cyclical changes seen in the sky as a result of Earth’s rotation on its axis. Cultural stories are designed to be a highly engaging and memorable way of embedding knowledges to instruct and inform others about such phenomena. Cultural stories are often underpinned by fundamental scientific ways of working, such as acute and detailed observation and pattern recognition. The retelling of stories is a way that knowledge can be communicated and preserved. Students can learn the contemporary scientific understandings of the rotation of Earth on its axis and can see how this phenomenon has been recognised for millennia, as evidenced through the cultural stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Australian Indigenous Astronomy. (2019). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Astronomy. Retrieved from http://www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au/

Clarke, P. A. (1997). The Aboriginal cosmic landscape of southern South Australia. Records of the South Australian Museum, 29(2), 125-145.

Christies, P. & Bush, M. (2005). Stories in the stars: The night sky of the Boorong people. Retrieved from https://museumsvictoria.com.au/media/1860/stories-in-the-stars.pdf

Gantevoort, M. K. H. K. (2015). Stingray in the sky:  Astronomy in Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and heritage [Honours thesis]. Sydney: University of New South Wales.

Hamacher, D. W. (2011). On the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Aboriginal Australians [Doctoral dissertation]. Retrieved from https://www.researchonline.mq.edu.au/vital/access/manager/Repository/mq:28317?f0=sm_creator%3A%22Hamacher%2C+Duane+Willis%22

Haynes, R., Malin, D., & McGee, R. (1996). Explorers of the southern sky: A history of Australian astronomy. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.

Isaacs, J. (1980). Australian dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal history. London: Lansdowne.

Leung, C. C. (2008, August 2). Rocky ways to secrets of skies. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/national/rocky-ways-to-secrets-of-skies-20080801-3omb.html

Macintyre, K. & Dobson, B. (2017). Day time reckoning: “Light time” in traditional Noongar culture. Retrieved from https://anthropologyfromtheshed.com/project/light-time-traditional-noongar-culture/

Norris, R., Hamacher, D. W. & Fuller, R. S. (2013). The astronomy of Indigenous stone arrangements. Retrieved from http://www.atnf.csiro.au/people/rnorris/papers/n301.pdf

Norris, R. P., Norris, C., Hamacher, D. W., & Abrahams, R. (2012). Wurdi Youang: An Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications. Rock Art Research, 30(1), 55-65.

Norris, R. (2014, April 21). Aboriginal people: How to misunderstand their science. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-people-how-to-misunderstand-their-science-23835

Norris, R. (2016). Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal astronomy and navigation. Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, 33, E039. doi:10.1017/pasa.2016.25

Pring, A. (2002). Astronomy and Australian Indigenous people. Enfield, SA: Aboriginal Education Unit.

South Australia Department of Education. (n.d.). The sun and moon: Some Aboriginal perspectives and activities. Retrieved from https://csem.flinders.edu.au/thegoodstuff/IndigiSTEM/docs/astronomy/The_Sun_and_Moon_Aborigin_1.pdf