4 Jul 2021

Early Māori astronomers predicted year ahead by stars of Matariki

From Sunday Morning, 11:37 am on 4 July 2021

By this time next year we would have already celebrated our very first Matariki holiday in New Zealand. Stardome astronomy educator and astro-photographer Josh Kirkley joins the show to discuss the significance of Matariki, how to find the impressive star cluster in the night sky, and what Maori astronomers, or tohunga, used to take from the brightness of the stars during Matariki.

Matariki star cluster from southern hemisphere

Matariki star cluster from southern hemisphere Photo: NASA

While Matariki was important for how Pacific people navigated the seas long before New Zealand was settled, it still plays a prominent role today, he said.

"Astronomy in general ... it's been a really important indicator of the changing of the seasons, the tides and all those things.

"Using the moon as Maramataka the lunar calendar, we know that the days are now actually getting longer. So [we know] we're transitioning to those warmer seasons, which has been crucial for hundreds of years."

Ironically, Matariki is marked at a time of year when it's often hardest to see in the sky, Kirkley said.

"It's actually quite hard to see. You'll need to get up quite early before sunrise and look into the east.

"As the sun starts to rise, as you start to see the light get into the sky, that's probably when you're going to find them in the east.

"A really good guide we have is what a lot of us know as the pot or Orion's Belt. We know that as Tautoru which is the three bright stars of Orion's Belt.

"So once you see those stars, you kind of make a line to the left, you keep going, and you're going to find this little distinctive-looking cluster of stars, and that's Mataraki."

Josh Kirkley - Stardome Astronomy Educator

Josh Kirkley - Stardome Astronomy Educator Photo: Supplied

The best time to see the cluster is actually the summer, Kirkley said.

"In the summer, it's right above us, it's really high in the sky, and you can see it for most of the night.

"You can see Matariki for 11 months of the year. The time of Matariki is actually the hardest."

The brightness of the stars early on in Matariki is used to help predict the new year.

"Basically what tohunga or Māori astronomers have done is they would look at the brightness of each star and they would kind of predict the year ahead.

"For example the star Waitā is connected to things in the ocean, so food sources, kaimoana, seafood. If they saw that star was particularly bright one year, they would kind of predict a year of bountiful food from the ocean, and if it was quite dim, they'd predict the opposite, so less food from the ocean."

Kirkley said it was "too early" for him to make any calls about this year based on the stars.

"Hopefully we've got a long summer ahead, I know that was the reading from last year.  ...We really did, it was quite nice, and I'm just hoping for the same really."

Pōhutakawa, the star that looks after the dead, is an important part of Matariki.

"She is the one who looks after our mate, those who have passed for the year.

"As we kind of herald in Matariki, it's a time to look forward, but it's also a time to reflect and look back and remember those that may have passed for the year."

Asked which was his favourite star of the cluster, Kirkley said he had a liking for the actual star of Matariki.

"She's the one that looks after the wellbeing of people and she holds the cluster together.

"She acts as the carer of the whānau, and I really like that idea."