Is the Official Description of the Aboriginal Music on the Voyager Records Wrong?

Perhaps what we sent to the stars isn't what we thought it was.
The Golden Record (NASA)

In the summer of 1977, humans sent two spacecraft ad astra—to the stars. Last summer, the first of those two machines, Voyager 1, crossed beyond the bubble around our sun and into interstellar space, though we didn't know it until this fall.

These spacecraft are our first emissaries to the cosmos, and they each bear a disc known as the Golden Record: 87.5 minutes of music, 116 pictures, a handful of other ephemera, selected to together tell of a small blue planet, circling a distant star, in an alien constellation.

What would you put on a mix tape sent to the heavens? In just a couple of months in 1977, Carl Sagan, Timothy Ferris, and Ann Druyan (whom Sagan later married) selected and tracked down 27 clips that captured both the beauty and the diversity of the world's musical heritage: There's a few minutes from the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, a Peruvian wedding song, and Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode

And from the remote islands off the northern coast of Australia, there is this:

Which, according to both NASA's official list and Timothy Ferris's essay in Murmurs of Earth, are two Aborigine songs "Morning Star" and "Devil Bird." But new research conducted by space archaeologist Alice Gorman suggests that this description isn't quite right. The first 23 seconds of the recording are in fact "Morning Star." But when "Morning Star" cuts off the song that comes on is not "Devil Bird" but a different piece called "Moikoi," Gorman explained to me over email. "Devil Bird," it seems, is not on the Voyager record. 

Additionally, according to Ferris in Murmurs of Earth, the two songs were recorded in 1958 by Sandra LeBrun Homes, an expert on aboriginal music and art. But Gorman says that LeBrun Holmes didn't visit Milingimbi Island where she made the recording until 1962. The liner notes of her record from which the Voyager recordings were copied, The Land of the Morning Star, also bear the 1962 date.

Gorman believes that by including "Moikoi" instead of "Devil Bird" we inadvertently sent a different message to the stars than the one we intended. According to Ferris in Murmurs of Earth, "Devil Bird" represented fate’s dangers. But that may not have gone to space. What did go, "Moikoi," is about "malicious spirits who try to entice newly deceased souls away from their clan country," according to Gorman. That idea, paired with "Morning Star," which is about the journey souls make after death, "could," Gorman writes, "perhaps be read as a message about the journey of the human spirit between Earth and spaceand home at last."

It's possible, Gorman acknowledged to me, that there is some other mistake at work here. Perhaps the clips on YouTube that are supposedly of the Voyager track are wrong, and something else is on the spacecraft. She believes the YouTube clips come from the CDROM Warner New Media released in 1992 once Sagan had received all the necessary copyright releases. That the YouTube clips accurately reflect what's actually on the spaceship "is an assumption that we can't verify without listening to compare," Gorman wrote to me, "but I think it is a reasonable one." Moreover, the clips are the right length: The YouTube videos all (and there are many) contain a bit less than 1 minute, 30 seconds of music. NASA says the Aborigine track is 1 minute and 26 seconds long.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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