Teacher background information


Year 7 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Earth and space sciences

Predictable phenomena on Earth, including seasons and eclipses, are caused by the relative positions of the sun, Earth and the moon (ACSSU115 - Scootle )

  • researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples' oral traditions and cultural recordings of solar and lunar eclipses and investigating similarities and differences with contemporary understandings of such phenomena (OI.3, OI.9)

This elaboration allows students to explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge of astronomy and consider how First Nations’ understandings about the movement of the sun, Earth and moon were used to observe and make sense of solar and lunar eclipses. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia have been passing down astronomical knowledge through song, dance and ritual for approximately 60,000 years. This knowledge has also had implications for cultural and ceremonial responsibilities which focused on the significance of these cultural stories and ensured this knowledge was protected and passed on to each subsequent generation.

In many First Nations’ cultures of the world, the sun is regarded as female and the moon as male. Some cultural stories refer to either the moon pursuing the sun or vice versa, while other cultures believe that an eclipse is caused by the convergence of the sun and the moon. These cultural stories not only demonstrate traditional understandings of the apparent movements of the sun and the moon in the sky, but also provide detailed observational descriptions of solar and lunar phenomena.

During a lunar eclipse the Earth passes in front of the sun’s light, casting a shadow on the moon. While the green to violet portion of the light spectrum is filtered out as sunlight enters the atmosphere, the reddish portion of the light spectrum is the least affected. As this reddish light enters the atmosphere, it is refracted and projected onto the moon, causing it to appear red in colour.

Lunar eclipses can be seen from any location on Earth that is facing the moon and are a much more common phenomenon to observe than solar eclipses. Early European observations record that the reactions of First Nations’ peoples to eclipses were varied, with some cultural groups reacting with anxiety while others were unafraid. Although it is uncommon for most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups to attribute lunar eclipses to the relative positions of the sun and moon, there are instances of this knowledge being apparent. This association demonstrates an in-depth astronomical understanding, especially considering the usually diametrical differences between the sun and the moon.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes in front of the sun’s light, casting a shadow on the Earth. While partial solar eclipses in which the moon does not cover the sun completely are quite common, in the Southern Hemisphere a total solar eclipse only occurs once every 540 years. With at least 60,000 years of looking skywards, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ accounts regarding total solar eclipses are understandably common.

Similar to lunar eclipses, solar eclipses were also generally regarded as bad omens, although some Aboriginal groups in Western Australia were unafraid of them.

Solar eclipses commonly occur during the new moon phase where the moon is barely visible. Despite this poor visibility of the moon, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups describe a solar eclipse as the moon covering the sun. Other First Nations’ groups describe a solar eclipse as something covering the sun, often attributed to a specific object or action but not necessarily referencing the moon. These are examples of the detailed observations that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups made of celestial events. They also demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the relative positions of the moon, sun and Earth.

Observations and understandings of astronomical movements and phenomena helped First Nations’ peoples shape their view of the universe and their place within it. The ontological knowledge associated with these phenomena reinforced important lessons and spiritual beliefs regarding their existence. However, critically, they also provided epistemological knowledge about the world derived from empirical observations, such as insights into seasonal changes and related behaviours of living things, and assistance in navigation. They formed the basis for making accurate predictions about recurring weather patterns and seasonal cycles. These insights helped develop intricate and holistic understanding of the relationships between heavenly bodies and natural phenomena on Earth.

By exploring First Nations peoples’ explanations of natural phenomena, such as solar and lunar eclipses, students appreciate the commonality of traditional explanations amongst all cultures (including European) and their understanding of celestial phenomena before the advent of telescopes and other astronomical technology. Students gain insights into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ long-standing observations and records of the sky, including recurring phenomena on Earth and beyond. Students can also gain an understanding of the extent to which explanations of these phenomena reinforce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ worldviews and provide important teachings about life, the environment and the universe.

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.

Clarke, P. A. (1990). Adelaide Aboriginal cosmology: Aboriginal Adelaide [Special issue].  Journal of the Anthroplogical Society of South Australia. 28(1 & 2), 1-10. Retrieved from http://www.anthropologysocietysa.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Clarke-1990.pdf

Erickson, K., & Doyle, H. (2017). Lunar eclipses and solar eclipses.  Retrieved from  https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/eclipses/en/

Gary, S. (2011). Ancient Aborigines understood eclipses.  Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2011/06/15/3244593.htm

Hamacher, D. W., & Norris, R. P. (2011a). ‘Bridging the gap’ through Australian cultural astronomy. In C. L. N. Ruggles (Ed.), Archeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges Between Cultures: Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, 7(278), 282-290. doi.org/10.1017/S1743921311012713

Hamacher, D. W., & Norris, R. P. (2011b). Eclipses in Australian Aboriginal astronomy. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 14(2), 103-114.

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

Norris, R. (2007). Sun, moon, and eclipses. Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. Retrieved from http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/AboriginalAstronomy/Examples/SunMoon.htm

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

Norris, R. P. (2016). Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal astronomy and navigation. Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, 1-40. doi: 10.1017/pasa.2016.25

Pring, A., & Department of Education and Children’s Services Aboriginal 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

Questacon. (n.d.). Wuriunpranilli, the Sun Woman. Retrieved from http://www.questacon.edu.au/starlab/the_sun.html

Tindale, N. B. (1983). Celestial lore of some Australian aboriginal tribes. Archaeoastronomy, 6(1-4), 45.

Warner, W. L. (1937). A black civilization: A social study of an Australian tribe. London: Harper & Brothers.