Friday, 15 April 2016

SCIENCE: A salute - and solution - to the Australian bush fly

Demonstrating the Aussie wave, aka Australian salute:

Reporting on the experimental use of a virus to control burgeoning numbers of European carp Down Under, the Wall Street Journal lists "five animals that have gone wild in Australia". Four species are also European imports, but the fifth - flies, of the "bush" type that pesters everyone outdoors  - certainly isn't:

"... it's likely the fly got to Australia in an Aboriginal boat, the same way the dingo got here. In that case, the bush fly might have arrived in Australia as long as 45,000 years ago," says Jim Heath in his Seuss-like-titled 1989 book "The Fly In Your Eye"*

Heath explains that the bush fly needs protein to develop its eggs and is quite happy to find it in human tear ducts, noses, saliva and sweat, not to mention blood and raw meat; hence the plague of them at barbecues. As beef farming grew so did the fly population, feeding and breeding on the droppings of Australia's 28 million cattle. At up to 12 cowpats daily per animal, times up to 2,000 larvae per pat, the herds are potentially fostering quadrillions of flies.

Not just bush flies. Initial efforts to control flies focused on agricultural pests such as the blood-sucking buffalo fly and involved chemicals, to which the insects are increasingly becoming immune

So attention turned to biological controls, and this is where the dung-beetle comes in. Dr. George Bornemissza of the Australian CSIRO looked at native beetles and determined that they couldn't cope, so in April 1967 he began a project to import other species:

The first foreign beetles were from Hawaii, released in Queensland on 30 January 1968The dung-beetles disrupt fly-larval development by shredding and burying manure - which also improves soil quality and helps reduce contamination of run-off water, say the Kiwis, who are using the same strategy.

Because of Australia's diverse climate it was originally estimated that 160 different species would be required; in practice, "a total of 53 species were introduced and of these 23 have established," says CSIRO.

Unfortunately these species tend to cease their activity in early spring before the new season's flies begin to arrive, so two more kinds that are active at that time were introduced in 2012 from France and Spain to southern Australia by Dr Bernard Doube. The entomologist has been calling for a $50 million program to introduce 25 additional species, money which he says will multiply into several billions-worth of extra pastural productivity.

The real salute, then is reserved for the dung-beetle:

* Full text and illustrations on-line at:

Thursday, 7 April 2016

How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia's highway network

By Robert Fuller (details at foot of post)

The next time you’re driving down a country road in outback Australia, consider there’s a good chance that very route was originally mapped out by Aboriginal people perhaps thousands of years before Europeans came to Australia.

And like today, they turned to the skies to aid their navigation. Except instead of using a GPS network, they used the stars above to help guide their travels.

Aboriginal people have rich astronomical traditions, but we know relatively little about their navigational abilities.

We do know that there was a very well established and extensive network of trade routes in operation before 1788. These were used by Aboriginal people for trading in goods and stories, and the trade routes covered vast distances across the Australian continent.

Star maps

I was researching the astronomical knowledge of the Euahlayi and Kamilaroi Aboriginal peoples of northwest New South Wales in 2013 when I became aware of “star maps” as a means of teaching navigation outside of one’s own local country.

My teacher of this knowledge was Ghillar Michael Anderson, a Euahlayi Culture Man from Goodooga, near the Queensland border. This is where the western plains and the star-filled night sky meet in a seamless and profound display.

Ghillar Michael Anderson and a possible waypoint. Author provided

One night, sitting under those stars in Goodooga, Michael pointed out a pattern of stars to the southeast, and said that they were used to teach Euahlayi travellers how to navigate outside their own country during the summer travel season.

As an astronomer, I immediately realised that those stars were not in the direction of travel that Michael was describing. And anyway, they wouldn’t be visible in the summer, let alone during the day when people would have been travelling.

Michael said that they weren’t used as a map as such, but were used as a memory aid. And in the Aboriginal manner of teaching, he asked me to research this and come back to see if “I had gotten it”.

I did some research, and looked at a route from Goodooga to the Bunya Mountains northwest of Brisbane, where an Aboriginal Bunya nut festival was held every three years until disrupted by European invasion.

It turned out the pattern of stars showed the “waypoints” on the route. These waypoints were usually waterholes or turning places on the landscape. These waypoints were used in a very similar way to navigating with a GPS, where waypoints are also used as stopping or turning points.

Star map route to the Bunya Mountains. Starry Night Education

Stars to songlines

Further discussion revealed the reasons and methods of this technique. In the winter camp, when the summer travel was being planned in August or September, a person who had travelled the intended route was tasked with teaching others, who had not made this journey, how to navigate to the intended destination.

The pattern of stars (the “star map”) was used as a memory aid in teaching the route and the waypoints to the destination. After more research I asked Michael if the method of teaching and memorising was by song, as I was aware that songs are known to be an effective way of memorising a sequence in the oral transmission of knowledge.

Michael said, “you got it!”, and I then understood that the very process of creating, then teaching, such a route resulted in what is known as a songline. A songline is a story that travels over the landscape, which is then imprinted with the song (Aboriginal people will say that the landscape imprints the song).

I then learned that there were many routes/songlines from Goodooga to destinations as far as 700km away, which might end up in a ceremonial place, or possibly a trade “fair”.

One such route to Quilpie, in Queensland, led to a ceremonial place where Arrernte people from north of Alice Springs met the Euahlayi for joint ceremonies.

Their route of travel was more than 1,500km, crossing the Simpson Desert in summer, and I was told that they would have their own star map/songline for learning that route. The implication of this is that the use of star maps for teaching travel may have been common across Australia.

Star map route to the Carnarvon Gorge. Starry Night Education


Another surprising result of this knowledge came about when I was looking at the star map routes from Goodooga to the Bunya Mountains and Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland. When the star map routes were overlaid over the modern road map, there was a significant overlap with major roads in use today.

After some reflection, the reason for this became clear. The first explorers in this region, such as Thomas Mitchell, who explored here in 1845-1846, used Aboriginal people as guides and interpreters, who were likely given directions by local Aborigines.

Carnarvon Gorge and Bunya Mts star maps overlaid on road map. Google Earth

These directions would no doubt reflect the easiest routes to traverse, and these were probably routes already established as songlines. Drovers and settlers coming into the region would have used the same routes, and eventually these became tracks and finally highways.

In a sense, the Aboriginal people of Australia had a big part in the layout of the modern Australian road network. And in some cases, such as the Kamilaroi Highway running from the Hunter Valley to Bourke in NSW, this has been recognised in the name.

Robert will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 3 and 4pm AEST on Thursday, April 7, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section OF THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE - link given below.

The Conversation
Robert S. Fuller, PhD Student Indigenous Cultural Astronomy, UNSW Australia
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 4 April 2016

CULTURE: Ancient art in Arnhem Land

"Australia rock art - Mimis and Kangaroo, rock art, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Australia. Older painting before 7,000 BCE, Kangaroo probably post-contact. (Sayre, 2010, p. 975)" -

Bill Harney, looking at cave art in Arnhem Land in the 1940s:

Kangaroos, bandicoots, fish, reptiles - all are drawn nice and fat because he desires them that way.

Many of the paintings have been drawn as though seen through an X-ray, and beholding them we are amazed at the line details of the creature's internal organs. I questioned one of the artists who was working on a bark painting, and he described things to me.

"This," he explained, as he pointed out an object amidst the intestines, "is the fat." Then, with emphasis, "Proper fat this one." "That there," again on the anatomy, "is the heart. This red thing is the liver and the fine white lines are the backbone."

Each part was pointed out and it was correctly in place. Nothing strange about this, because these people had been cutting up and eating these things for years. They were professional anatomists when the drawings of the ancient white doctors would have been laughed at by an Oenpelli aborigine.

It was on those hills around Oenpelli that I saw the matchstick art that is so full of animation. My guide told me that it was the work of "Me-mies", the mythical bush elves who are "too clever" to be seen, and who draw these things, in the dark, from a paint made up of human blood and charcoal. Those "Me-mies" were indeed "too clever" - a few strokes on the rocky face and the picture was a group of natives fleeing from another.

I asked the native what he thought about them. He only shrugged his shoulders in reply, but shortly afterwards when we came upon a meaningless thing of coloured ochres and lines his voice vibrated with pride as he explained it in detail. The lines were the falling rain; the red streaks were the lightning thrown by a sky hero; the dots were the rain drops splashing on the ground below, which was another splash of ochre; the wriggly lines were the rivers in flood.

"Good picture?" I questioned him, as he stood expectantly by awaiting my decision. "Proper good," came his reply. "Plenty rain... full up tucker."

- "Life Among The Aborigines" by W. E. Harney, Robert Hale Limited (1957) - pp. 117-118

Writing in 2013 about the estimated 100,000 sites of aboriginal Australian art, Susan Gough Henly says:

"In spite of extensive studies, it is still extremely difficult to pinpoint the age of rock art because most organic pigments cannot be carbon dated. A rare charcoal drawing on the Central Arnhem Land Plateau has been radiocarbon-dated to 28,000 years ago, making it the oldest painting in Australia and among the oldest in the world with reliable date evidence – but the engravings are probably much older."


What is thought to be the oldest cave painting in the world - from Sulawesi in Indonesia - has been dated to at least 39,000 years ago. It is a hand stencil (something also found at Oenpelli):

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Pacific weather weirding and geopolitical manoeuvering

Papua continues to suffer from the worst drought since the late 1990s; so do Micronesia and the Marshall Islands; a number of Pacific nations have declared a state of emergency.

As the United Nations' OCHA explains, this is related to an El Niño event in the eastern Pacific - warming of surface ocean waters leading to changes in weather patterns across the world. While some areas become drier, others will experience higher rainfall leading to flooding and higher sea levels, the latter especially trying for low-lying islands.

But is it proof of "global warming"?

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has historic data of ocean temperature variations in the El Niño-prone region going back to 1950 (1). The 3-month period from last December to February 2016 saw the highest positive variation from mean, ever (2.2 degrees C).

However, sceptics could say (a) there are always difficulties with methodology in measurements like these and (b) 65 years is not long in geological terms.

It also depends on how you sample and present the information. Typically, the highest average surface ocean temperatures are found in the September-November period:

The pattern is similar to that in the first graph, but what happens if we start looking at years, rather than rolling quarter-years?

This year still looks exceptionally warm. Yet take 5-year averages and the picture changes significantly:

On that basis the current El Niño is merely returning us to the average point. And look at the pattern for rolling 10-year averages:

Taken as a whole, the last decade has actually been cooler! In fact, since the decade 1992-2001 the rolling 10-yearly averages have all been on or below the mean. If reversion to the mean is to be expected, we should be anticipating some more years of above-average temperatures as a correction.

This doesn't at all help the nations now in crisis; but help is coming, and as ever it has political implications. In a Radio New Zealand interview on Friday, Mark Adams of the International Organization for Migration stressed the logistical difficulties of assistance from the Philippines and the USA's west coast; yet a couple of weeks ago the Federated States of Micronesia issued a press release reporting a visit by the Chinese Ambassador, who announced a "10 million RMB worth of equipment specifically to address and mitigate the effects of the drought."

It has been said that the Chinese ideogram for "crisis" is a combination of elements representing "danger" and "opportunity". Even if its meaning is more correctly explained as "critical point," the notion may have relevance for Western geopolitical analysts looking at the Pacific region.