Monday, March 22, 2021

The big bird that takes away water


The constellation of the Southern Cross has inspired similar myths among indigenous peoples as far apart as Australia and South America. Why?

Southern Cross (Wikipedia – Yulanlu97). 



Did people cross the Pacific in pre-Columbian times? This question has aroused renewed interest with the discovery of sweet potato remains at Polynesian sites dated to A.D. 1000. There also seem to be loan-words of Polynesian origin in some Amerindian languages (Jones et al. 2011). Finally, we have strong evidence that Polynesians introduced chickens to the west coast of South America in prehistoric times, probably A.D. 1300-1420 (Fitzpatrick and Callaghan 2009).


A new piece of evidence is the similarity between a myth told by Aboriginal Australians, particularly those of southeast Australia, and a myth told by indigenous peoples in Argentina and central Brazil. In both cases, one finds the same two elements:


- A large flightless bird that can cause the land to dry up.

- The constellation of the Southern Cross and two adjacent regions of the sky: the Southern Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) and the Coalsack Nebula


These similarities are mentioned by Gullberg et al. (2020) in a cross-cultural study of beliefs about the 'Dark Constellations':


Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Euahlayi, and others (Australia)


The Emu in the Sky is perhaps the best-known Aboriginal dark constellation (Figure 2). It is the silhouette of an emu traced out by the dark nebulae within the plane of the Milky Way and is featured in the traditions of Aboriginal people across Australia. The Coalsack Nebula, near the Southern Cross, forms the head, and the body extends along the dust lanes through Centaurus in the Milky Way, to the body as outlined by the galactic bulge in Scorpius and Sagittarius (Gullberg et al. 2020, p. 392)


When the celestial emu swings to where it is low on the horizon in October and November, the galactic bulge is now seen as the backside of an emu sitting in a waterhole, displacing the water and causing the land to dry up as the hot summer months approach. (Gullberg et al. 2020, p. 393)


Moqoit (Argentina)


Due to this crucial role of the Milky Way and the fact that it is a huge area of diffuse brightness interrupted by dark spots, it is not surprising that the Moqoit pay attention to dark patterns on it. The most important of all of them is the Mañic, the master of the South American rheas, a large flightless bird similar to an emu or ostrich shown in (Figure 5)


[…] We know many Moqoit stories mention that in the time of the origins, the master of Mañic used to shelter in a number of burrows, under the roots of an ombú (a very big tree, seen as the world tree—the Milky Way), and eat humans. Lapilalaxachi, a powerful human ancestor of the Moqoit people identified with the Pleiades, decided to face the Mañic. He chased the Mañic throughout the world and the cornered Mañic climbed up the ombú trunk to the sky.


Today, the shadow-soul (la 'al) of the Mañic can be seen in the Milky Way's dark clouds, with its head in what we know as the Coalsack (around -59° 50' galactic longitude). Alpha and Beta Centauri are the dogs of the man chasing the Mañic and bite at its neck (López and Giménez-Benítez, 2008). The Mañic's head is the Coalsack.

(Gullberg et al. 2020, p. 396)


Tupi (central Brazil)


In a similar view, the Tupi people of central Brazil also perceive a rhea in the sky, making essentially the same shape as the Aboriginal emu. The rhea and the emu are both large, flightless birds with a similar appearance and breeding cycle. Just as in Moqoit traditions, the head of the rhea is the Coalsack, and the body is traced out by dust lanes in Centaurus and Scorpius. The Tupi associate the rhea with the end of the world. The stars of Crux are holding the head of this animal. If it escapes, it will drink all the water of the world (Alencar, 2011)

(Gullberg et al. 2020, p. 397)



Why is this myth found only in Australia and South America? Why is it absent in-between? Actually, a version does exist on the Polynesian island of Tonga, except that the large flightless bird is a giant duck and it simply keeps people from getting access to water:


Tongans (Polynesia)


Polynesians of the Pacific recognise dark spaces in the Milky Way, focusing on the Coalsack Nebula and relating it to fish or fishing. Polynesian traditions of Tonga describe it as Humu (a giant triggerfish). In their traditions (Gifford, 1924), a Tongan chief named Ma'afu took a lizard wife and had twin sons, which they wanted gone as the chief's subjects were afraid of the pair. Ma'afu sneakily instructed the brothers to collect water from a waterhole containing a giant duck that would kill and consume anyone who came too close. The boys were attacked by the duck but grabbed it by the neck and killed it. When the boys returned unharmed, the father instructed them to obtain water from a more distant waterhole, inhabited by Humu, a triggerfish (these are large aggressive animals with powerful teeth designed for crushing shellfish). The boys killed the triggerfish and in anger at this, the father blurted out his secret to have the boys killed. The boys walked away and ascended to the stars, each carrying one of the two animals they killed. The twins became the Magellanic Clouds, the duck became the Southern Cross (with the duck's bill as γ Crucis), and Humu became the Coalsack Nebula

(Gullberg et al. 2020, p. 398)



My thoughts


This myth seems to have begun in one of three areas (Australia, Polynesia, South America) and then spread to the other two. If it began among Aboriginal Australians, the myth could be very old, going back perhaps 65,000 years. If it began among the Amerindian peoples of South America, it may go back 10,000 years. Finally, if it began among the Polynesians, the time depth would be no more than 3,500 years. The first and last scenarios seem most likely, given that oceanic travel was much easier from Polynesia to South America than the reverse (Fitzpatrick and Callaghan 2009).


Nonetheless, all of the scenarios run into a big problem: the myth is known to South American groups on the east side of the continent but not to those on the west side (which would be more consistent with trans-Pacific contact). I can think of only one other scenario. Given that the Americas were once inhabited by a population related to Aboriginal Australians and similar groups in Southeast Asia (Frost 2015), the myth may have originated in Asia more than 65,000 years ago and then spread in two directions: to Australia via Southeast Asia and to the Americas via the Bering Strait. But could a myth survive intact for that long?


Two other things leave me wondering. Why would the sky around the Southern Cross be seen as a large flightless bird? Gullberg et al. (2020) provide several pictures of that part of the sky and trace the outline of a bird on them. To my eyes, one could just as easily trace the outline of many other animals.


Finally, is this evidence, à la Von Däniken, of extraterrestrial contact? Keep in mind that the region of the Southern Cross includes the closest star system to ours. And if that system does have intelligent life, should we be reaching out to them and inviting them over? The last time around they didn’t leave a good impression.


Enough! I shouldn’t let myself get carried away. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a single myth hardly qualifies as extraordinary.





Fitzpatrick, S.M. and R. Callaghan. (2009). Examining dispersal mechanisms for the translocation of chicken (Gallus gallus) from Polynesia to South America. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(2): 214-223.


Frost, P. (2015). Guess who first came to America? Evo and Proud. August 1


Gullberg, S.R., D.W. Hamacher, A. Martin-Lopez, J. Mejuto, A.M. Munro, and W. Orchiston. (2020). A Cultural Comparison of the 'Dark Constellations' in the Milky Way. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 23(2): 390-404.


Jones, T.L., A.A. Storey, E.A. Matisoo-Smith, and J.M. Ramirez-Altamira (eds). (2011). Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World. Rowman Altamira.


Anonymous said...

all of the scenarios run into a big problem: the myth is known to South American groups on the east side of the continent but not to those on the west side (which would be more consistent with trans-Pacific contact). I can think of only one other scenario. Given that the Americas were once inhabited by a population related to Aboriginal Australians and similar groups in Southeast Asia (Frost 2015), the myth may have originated in Asia more than 65,000 years ago and then spread in two directions: to Australia via Southeast Asia and to the Americas via the Bering Strait.

It seems simpler to assume that it spread from the Pacific coast through the west of South America to the east side of the continent, but that the emu-in-the-sky peoples on the west side of the continent were wiped out by population turnover occurring after the spread to the east, leaving an apparent hole in the map of emu-in-the-sky beliefs.

There's a big geographical gap between the northern regions of Africa that speak Khoisan languages and the southern ones. But we don't bother to wonder how the language group got so far north without crossing the land in the middle. We say it did cross the land in the middle, and then it was wiped out of the middle while persisting in the north.

Anonymous said...

What you are looking for is probably the Melasonian Mythological Complex of Yuri Berezkin. He has published mainly in Russian, but it should be mentioned somewhere in English in papers on comparative mythology. Unfortunately, Google is not very helpful and I cannot find easily where I have seen it in English. In brief, melasonian myths are from paleolithic SE Asia. They got to America with the first waves together with some specific 'melasonian' DNA. Melasonia is from Melanesia+Amazonia.

Sean said...

The southernmost Patagonian natives (now extinct) had extremely robust crania. As robust as Australian Aboriginies'.

Malcolm Smith said...

I think we can rule out the Asian origin hypothesis. The Southern Cross is invisible in most of Asia, and certainly low on the horizon, and not prominent, in areas just north of the Equator.

Peter Frost said...


Good point. The Incan expansion may have obliterated various coastal cultures.


This is what I found in MYTHS AND GENES: A Deep Historical Reconstruction. Moscow: Librokom/URSS, 2011 (ISBN 978–5–397–01175–4)

"Another migration wave turns out to be associated with the distribution of mtDNA HG B and motifs of "Melazonian" mythological complex whose highest concentration is observed in Melanesia, on the one hand, and Amazonia, on the other. These motifs form a few connected sets, which suggest certain possibilities for the reconstruction of some features of "proto- Melazonian" mythology brought to the New World by the bearers of mtDNA HG B. One such set of interconnected motifs belongs to the "Paradise Lost" group: first of all, H04:1 Death: Shed Skin (D1889.6), H05A: Snakes are immortal, people are not, H30: The Wrong Choice. Another group includes a number of motifs centered around F38: Women Lose their
High Position – F44: Women and Men Separate, F39: Women are Punished, F43: The First Women Disappear, F40: Male Leader of Women, F41: Men Kill the Women, F45: Amazons, F42: Men Abandon the Women, F43A: The First Women Disappear. A: They Kill or Transform the
Men, F16: Men and Women: Change of Biology. A group of solar and lunar motifs is strongly connected with all the sets above as in "Melazonia" they systematically occur in the same texts with the motifs from the groups above forming certain logical unity within those texts. Melazonia is also characterized with a rather specific cosmogony whereby there is no need to explain how the earth or people were created, as they are implied to have always existed, and the mythological history starts with people appearing on the earth surface from another layer of the universe, typically from beneath the earth."


"The bright stars in Crux [the Southern Cross] were known to the Ancient Greeks, where Ptolemy regarded them as part of the constellation Centaurus.[1][2] They were entirely visible as far north as Britain in the fourth millennium BC. However, the precession of the equinoxes gradually lowered the stars below the European horizon, and they were eventually forgotten by the inhabitants of northern latitudes.[3] By 400 CE, the stars in the constellation we now call Crux never rose above the horizon throughout most of Europe."

MR said...

Greetings, Peter Frost is there an email or some way I can contact you privately? I would like to send a personal message to you related to HBD.

Thank you.

Malcolm Smith said...

I stand corrected. Nevertheless, it can be reasonably certain that the Southern Cross was never visible on the Bering Land Bridge, by which Asians entered North America, and by the time they managed to reach an area where it was visible, all myths relating to it would have been forgotten. Also, Asia does not have any large, flightless birds like the emu and rhea.

Peter Frost said...

You can contact me via Hotmail (pfrost61 at


Britain is at the same latitude as the Aleutian Islands. I know the climate is different, but it's the same latitude.