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The Emu in the Sky

emu-in-the-skyLook up at the sky from the Australian bush on an autumn evening. The sky directly above you blazes with the vast band of light of the Milky Way, stretching from horizon to horizon.

Within it you can see dark clouds, caused by clouds of interstellar dust in the galaxy, in which new stars are being born. In the south, next to the Southern Cross, is a particularly prominent one, known to astronomers as ‘the coalsack’.

This is the head of the Emu in the Sky. To see the rest of the Emu, you need to realise that this ‘constellation’ is not made by joining the dots between stars like European constellations. It’s the opposite of that, and is marked by the dark spaces between the stars. Look again at the coalsack, and you can see the dark beak of the Emu. Follow the dark clouds of the neck and body down to where the Emu’s legs extend to the opposite horizon. Real-life emus today are large flightless birds. But stories say that back in the Dreaming, the emu used to fly, which is why the legs of the Emu in the Sky stream out behind him.

North of Sydney, in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, is a beautiful piece of rock art: an engraving of an emu, made perhaps thousands of years ago. Unlike a real emu, his legs stream out behind him. Could this be a picture of the Emu in the Sky? Well, the autumnal Emu in the Sky hangs right above this portrait on the ground in a perfectly matching orientation. And the emu is associated with an initiation ceremony in which Aboriginal boys become men, and this engraving is in a sacred initiation site.

So it’s quite possible that this is humanity’s oldest picture of the sky.

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