AAPI Heritage Month: Historic Star Navigation in Indonesia

Title: Star Patterns in Mandar Navigation

Authors: Adli A. Rasyid, Taufiq Hidayat, Wayne Orchiston

First author’s institution: Department of Astronomy & Bosscha Observatory, Institut Teknologi Bandung, Bandung, Indonesia

Status: Published as part of Springer’s Historical & Cultural Astronomy book series [closed access]

This Bite is part of Astrobites’ ongoing efforts to celebrate all cultures and identities in astronomy—specifically, we’re highlighting Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) during May as part of AAPI Heritage Month!

A map of Indonesia showing the various islands and their names
A map of Indonesia, with West Sulawesi—home of the Mandar ethnic group—roughly highlighted. [Image from free maps of Indonesia.]

Indonesia is a country of islands. It has so many islands, in fact, that its sprawl around the equator covers 1/8th of the Earth’s circumference. With so much coastline, it’s not surprising that navigation and seafaring were important activities across Indonesian history. 

With its central location in Southeast Asia, three major historical trades crossed Indonesia: the “silk road,” the “ceramic route,” and the “Spice roads” connecting East Asian countries to Europe. Although Indonesia is now recognized as a singular country, it was composed of various kingdoms throughout its history and is home to a number of ethnic groups, which the authors of today’s article define as people related “based on ancestry and place of origin.” One such group is the Mandar, from the island of Sulawesi, who are famously known as seafarers, fishers, and traders. They voyaged as far as Eastern Australia to harvest sea cucumbers, Thailand to sell their wares, and across other regions of Indonesia, such as Kalimantan (Borneo), Java, and Sumatra, all while planning their trips around monsoon seasons.

To maneuver the open ocean between the many islands without modern technology like GPS systems, a sailor needed landmarks for navigation. Similar to indigenous groups of other regions, such as Native Hawaiians, Mandarese people developed detailed knowledge of the sky to use in maritime navigation. They passed down knowledge of star patterns and navigation techniques over generations. 

Across the world, people categorize the stars in different ways. Astronomers generally use the system of 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union, many of which stem from Ancient Greece, Babylon, Egypt, and Assyria. But there are many ways to see patterns in the night sky. The Big Dipper is also seen as the Coyote and Five Wolves to the Wasco in North America, a shrimp to the Burmese, and a group of seven wise sages in India

Today’s paper interviewed retired Mandar fishermen, all over 70 years old, to gather knowledge about how the Mandar see the sky through their cultural star patterns and navigational systems. The authors then combined this knowledge with modern astronomy, using the open access software Stellarium to simulate a night sky in the early 1900s on the coasts of West Sulawesi and connect these star patterns to other systems of charting the night sky.  

Since constellations appear in different locations of the night sky at different times in the year, their appearances (or disappearances) could be used to mark time, keeping track of monsoon seasons and other important happenings. A common example of the changing stars is the Zodiac — the 12 constellations the Sun passes through during the year. There’s also the North Star that stays up all year, clearly and reliably pointing north, with all other stars appearing to rotate around it.

Similarly, many star patterns were used to indicate directions. For example, Bittoéng Sapo Kepang (The Slanted House) indicated where South was, starting in May. In many Western countries, the stars of Bittoéng Sapo Kepang are better known as the constellations Centaurus and Crux. Similarly, Bittoéng Tuwallu (The Widow Star) is a pair of stars just below Bittoéng Sapo Kepang indicating the South at a different time. The Red Widow is Alpha Centauri, and the Green Widow is Beta Centauri. Bittoéng Pambosei (Star of Fishermen) was used as a marker towards the North in February, the middle of the Northwestern Monsoon season. Bittoéng Tallu-tallu (Group of Three Stars), overlapping with the famous constellation Orion, indicated East.

Stellarium simulation of the Shark Stars
Bittoéng Mangiwang, the Shark Stars, as seen from Majene in West Sulawesi, using Stellarium. Figure 18.4 from the original article.
Stellarium Simulation of the Stingray Stars
Bittoéng Lambaru, the Stingray Stars, as seen from Majene in West Sulawesi, using Stellarium. Figure 18.5 from the original article.

Star patterns were also used to help mark and prepare for monsoon seasons. The Malaysian-Australia Monsoon is a strong weather pattern where winds “blow from the southeast during cooler months and from the northwest during the warmer months of the year.” The appearance of Bittoéng Mangiwang (The Shark Stars) and Bittoéng Lambaru (Stingray Stars), which overlapped with Scorpius, mark the entry of the northwest monsoon season towards the end of the year. Bittoéng Panjala (Fishing Net Stars), on the other hand, indicated the entry of the cool season between the two monsoons. 

Rising around midnight in April around Ursa Major, Draco, and Bootes, Bittoéng Panjala also marked the emergence of a certain type of fish. Since fish were an important part of life and food supply, they appear quite frequently both in the names and purposes of Mandar star patterns. Bittoéng Naga (Dragon Star), which was actually not a star at all and referred to the whole Milky Way, pointed fishermen to a good fishing location, and when it disappeared, it was seen as a sign that strong winds would be coming soon. Bittoéng Malunus, whose name has no special meaning, was used as a clue to an increasing number of flying fish during the southeast monsoon season towards the end of June. It’s actually not a constellation, either — Bittoéng Malunus marks the Pleiades Star Cluster.

Venus makes multiple appearances as well, both as Bittoéng Bawi (the Pig Star) and Bittoéng Pambawa Allo (Star Carrying the Sun). It was used as a sign that pigs will come out looking for food, and that the Sun will rise about an hour later after it appears on the horizon.

The authors report that these star patterns are not well known by young Mandar fishermen, who instead rely on modern technology to navigate. They continue on to describe the importance of documenting “the old navigational methods that use celestial bodies, as this is part of the rich traditional culture of the Mandar people.” These star patterns even share similarities with the navigational knowledge of the nearby Bugis people, illustrating a rich intertwining of cultures and histories. Both show ties to history and seafaring traditions, providing a window into the lives of past Indonesian fishermen and their relationship to the night sky, deeply rooted in their location on the archipelago.

Astrobite edited by: Lindsay DeMarchi, Huei Sears, Sumeet Kulkarni

Featured image credit: ABC AU, via Raysid et al.

About Briley Lewis

Briley Lewis is a PhD Candidate and NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her research interests are primarily in planetary systems – both exoplanets and objects in our own solar system, how they form, and how we can create instruments to learn more about them. She has previously pursued her research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and also at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. Outside of research, she is passionate about teaching and public outreach, and spends her free time bringing together her love of science with her loves of crafting and writing, and playing with her rescue dog Rocky.

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