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History of Science

Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 10 September Equinox 1993

Studying Astronomies in Cultures
by Stephen C. McCluskey, Department of History, West Virginia University

Recent discussions of the critical issues facing archaeo- and ethnoastronomy have increasingly dealt with how the interpretation of astronomies can help us formulate questions that can be resolved by archaeologists, or can shed insight into the societies in which these astronomies are practiced. In one recent conversation a respected colleague said that a certain alignment was all well and good, "but what does it tell us about the culture?"

That comment, tossed off in the course of discussion and probably not meant to be defended in print, heightened my concern with what I see as an ominous trend in our studies. We are approaching the point where our investigations of astronomies in cultures are taken to be valuable only in so far as they provide some insight into the political, social, or religious organization of the society in which a particular astronomy is practiced. We should remember that the one unifying element of all the various approaches to studying astronomies in culture is astronomy; the central role of astronomy in our investigations should be more than just a common element in the names archaeo- and ethnoastronomy. Examining and comparing the various ways that people have tried to make their observations of the heavens intelligible is a valid study in itself.

I don't want to be misunderstood; I am not advocating a return to the time when we considered ourselves satisfied when we had found evidence at Stonehenge or in the U. S. Southwest for ancestors or cousins of the Astronomer Royal, who made ever more precise measurements to find subtle variations in the motions of the Sun and Moon. Historians of science and anthropologists, unlike philosophers and modern scientists, recognize that there is no single scientific method; people have tried many ways to investigate nature. Thus we have a pretty wide view of what constitutes a "science." From this perspective, some of us simply refuse to define "science," but rushing in where angels fear to tread, I define it for my students this way:

    Science is ANY attempt by the members of a community to establish a framework that makes their observations of nature intelligible.

This approach leads me to apply Clifford Geertz's recommendation for the investigation of science, religion, technology, mathematics and other forms of cultural expression to the study of astronomies, asking "what form do they take [in various cultures] and given the form that they take, what light has that to shed on our own versions of them" (1983:92). Making astronomy the central element of our investigations need not reduce their astronomy to an inferior version of modern science, rather, it can and should reduce modern science from its privileged position to just another example of the various ways people have made their observations of nature intelligible.

My concern with our direction is not just hypothetical. Griffin-Pierce's recent study of Navajo ethnoastronomy (1992) focussed almost entirely on the ritual context of astronomical lore, while ignoring the issue of what observational bases led to the development of that astronomical lore and how (or if) that astronomical lore could make observations of the heavens intelligible. Her study provides valuable insights into Navajo culture, but lacking those details that would relate observation, conceptual frameworks, and cultural context, is it ethnoastronomy? I have my doubts.

What would be the ingredients of an investigation of astronomies in various cultures that focussed on the astronomy? Clearly the observational techniques and the mathematical, mythical, or physical frameworks employed to explain them become the primary indispensable elements. But observational techniques and conceptual frameworks do not develop in isolation; they emerge from particular cultural contexts. Thus we must consider how astronomical knowledge is employed to serve competing groups within society, how observations or predictions serve the practical ends of ritual or agricultural timekeeping, how the theoretical framework provides a metaphor for the structure of society, or how the personal characteristics of the beings that inhabit the heavens affect human life. Finally, the various examples of astronomical systems bear on a disputed question concerning scientific objectivity: to what extent, if at all, are these astronomical observations and theoretical systems conditioned by their cultural contexts?

Where should we look for guidance in such an investigation? Our literature often takes guidance from the history of astronomy, but scarcely mentioned is a more appropriate source, the ongoing anthropological discussions of the relationship between modern and indigenous ways of knowing which have flowed in recent times from Robin Horton's "African Traditional Thought and Western Science," _Africa_, 38(1967), 50-71, 155-87. A useful summary, with a detailed bibliography, is in Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes, _Rationality and Relativism_, (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1982). And here, it seems, we can repay the anthropologists with our own contributions. This important body of anthropological literature has drawn its insights into the nature of traditional science almost entirely from healing practices, botanical lore, agricultural techniques and the like; the neglect of traditional astronomical knowledge seriously compromises these theoretical discussions. Our studies of the varied roles of astronomies in cultures can both contribute to and benefit from these discussions of the various ways people have framed their understandings of nature.


    Geertz, Clifford 1983 Local Knowledge. Basic Books, New York. Griffin-Pierce, Trudy 1992 Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

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