The Emu in the Sky

Illuminated emu rock carving in AustraliaIlluminated emu rock carving in Kuringai National Park, Photo by Michael Lynch via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0

In Kuringai National Park, just north of Sydney, there’s a site where Aboriginal people have made engravings into the exposed rocks. One of these engravings in particular has garnered a lot of attention. It’s the outline of an emu engraved on the flat surface of a naturally occurring stone slab. Of course there are countless engravings and paintings of emus all over Australia - emu’s are conspicuous birds, standing as high as six feet so it’s unsurprising that people made art of them - but what makes this engraving conspicuous is what it represents: an emu in the sky.

The connection between this engraving and the sky was obviously known to the artist but only became known to wider Australia when Hugh Cairns of Sydney University noticed that it didn’t look as much like an emu as it did the dark dust formation stretching along the Milky Way from the Coalsack nebula to Scorpius. This description of the dark shape in the night sky as an emu has been found among Aboriginal people from all over Australia; from near Darwin and the Kimberley right down to west-central Victoria. The phenomenon is most apparent in Autumn, which is incidentally the time when emus are laying their eggs. The Coalsack Nebula constitutes the emu’s head and the dust lanes darkening the Milky Way constitute the body and legs.

EsoThis photograph was produced by European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO/Y. Beletsky

Barnaby Norris elaborated on the connection between the Kuringai emu and the sky emu with an award winning photograph. This photo took a lot of work because it needed to incorporate the engraved stone and a very large sky object; something that is easier done if you visit the engraving. What he did was combine a photo of the engraving with a series of wide angle shots of the emu in the sky that he stitched together. The photo can be seen here. I can’t publish it for copyright reasons but two photos that are freely available give you an idea of the association. The engraving at Kuringai is a very faithful approximation of the emu in the sky right down to its azimuth in Autumn.

What is interesting about this engraving is that it reflects a stellar phenomenon that in turn reflects what happens on earth. For the Kamilaroi people of Kuringai, the emu in the sky in Autumn, seen at full length, reflects an emu running. Autumn happens to be a time is when female emus are chasing males during the mating season. It’s also a reminder that eggs are available at this time of year. During the winter months the legs of the emu in the sky dip below the horizon. The visible head and body reflect the male emus sitting on the nests, incubating eggs. Later in the season only the head is visible and this represents emus sitting in the waterholes. It reflects the rainy season and abundance of water. Then the emu disappears altogether as a reflection of the dry following the rains and the emus’ departure from the waterhole country. These connections are interesting because they speak of a distinctively human mode of being in the world.

Mbr 3 Emus 300x200

On the one hand, they elicit the creativity needed to make meaningful representations based on loosely connected phenomena. These representations enrich human modes of being lending a sense that the world is a web of meaningful relations that pre-exist our understandings. But they also speak of the combination of creativity and collaboration that Agustin Fuentes argues underpins what impelled humans on our current evolutionary trajectory. Not only can we create an engraving which represents an emu which is a manifestation of a celestial phenomenon which reflects both the engraving and the bird. We can also depend on our fellows to arrive at the same understandings as have we.

For further reading:

  • Fuller, R., Anderson, M., Norris, R. and Trudgett, M., "The emu sky knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples." Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 17:2 (2014): 1–13.