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International Space Station (ISS) - A Link With Aboriginal History

Jul 4, 2008
I am fortunate to be living in a region of Australia with one of the richest Aboriginal cultures and a living history. North East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory is located at the confluence of the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpenteria. As an Avid Astronomer I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to share the night sky with others. This day the two came together in a beautiful symmetry.

Sharing the delights of North East Arnhem land with Visitors is always a satisfying experience in it self. A crystal clear stream teaming with beautiful fish, bush land alive with the sound and movement of tropical birds and lunch shared with friends really sets the scene well.

Follow this up with a lazy afternoon on a white sandy beach cradled by Ochre red cliffs with a backdrop of Coastal Rain forest and you have to wonder can it get any better than this!

The final stop for the day was to be the open Coastal plain known as Macassans (local spelling) Beach. Fringed with Casuarina trees that seemed to sing in the wind, as the dry season sea breeze whistled through their pale green pine like leaves.

To put you in the picture, the Aboriginal people of NE Arnhemland are called the Yolngu People, The Language is Known as Yolngu Mata. Not all the words in their language originate from our shores though. The Makassan people of Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia) had been trading with the Yolngu people 200 years before Australia was even colonized by Europeans. The Makassan's have had a material influence on the Yolngu People including the addition of many words to their already rich language.

We had just finished looking at the "Macassan" stone drawings, a very significant site for the local Yolngu people.

I looked up (as you do often when you are an astronomer!) and there the IIS was, high overhead and bright as can be. The ISS was traveling from North West to South East and was as bright as the Planet Jupiter. It was only afterwards that I made the link with the Makassan people sailing on their annual trading journey to the Yolngu homelands in NE Arnhem land, coming from the northwest into the southeast . Just as the ISS had done before our eyes, high above the stone pictures of the arriving Makassan ships, laid down in the late 18th Century!

What a contrast the ISS is to the Makassan sailing ships of old that plied a trade with the Yolngu people 200 years before Europeans were even in this country, let alone flying through space.

Yet the similarities are still there, people of different races bought together through a knowledge of the stars. For surely the Makassan 's must have navigated their way here by the position of the stars and the Yolngu people anticipated their arrival by their own celestial calendar. Just as the ISS brings people of all Nations together in the pursuit of Space Science, as we work out our own place in the universe. With ever more accurate distances plotted to stars in our galactic neighborhood and an insatiable desire to discover a habitable planet around another star.

The "Macassan" Pictures and the passage of the ISS was a real treat for everyone present and one that will be remembered for a long time to come. Keep looking up, you never know what you might see!
About the Author
Ian Maclean: Author, Presenter and Science Show host
Discover the night sky's hidden secrets for yourself at
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