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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 32 June Solstice 1999


Sub-Saharan Africa: Cultural Astronomy's Heart of Darkness
by Keith Snedegar, Political Science and History Dept., Utah Valley State College

There is no more deeply primeval experience than to gaze overhead at the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon on a pitch-dark African night. And with good reason: our species originated in Africa; it was from there that our ancestors first looked up and pondered the mysteries of the cosmos. It should strike everyone as odd, then, that cultural astronomers have paid relatively little attention to Africa. The eve of a new millennium is an appropriate time to revisit, or for many of us to contemplate for the first time, the astronomical heritage of humanity's home continent before it is too late.

With the spectacular exception of ancient Egypt, Africa has not been well served by scholarship on cultural astronomy. The disruptive consequences of slavery, colonialism, and racism imposed upon Africans in modern history, and perpetuated in a real way by continuing discrimination, at times of a quasi-scientific "Bell Curve" variety, are inescapable. There are those who would say that cultural astronomy has precious little to do with race relations, but surely the African lacuna in our multidiscipline-which embraces so many societies and time periods within its global domain--is more telling than coincidental. On the other hand, it must be said that the Afrocentric backlash against academic discrimination and neglect has had, at best, mixed results. For instance, sensational claims of advanced astronomical knowledge for the Dogon people of Mali have given African cultural astronomy an "ancient astronaut" sort of reputation. New Age enthusiasts continue to be inspired (Andoh 1999). Not only is more responsible scholarship called for, more judicious if sympathetic presentation to wider audiences is sorely needed.

In terms of research, cultural astronomy's origins as a subdiscipline of archaeology have contributed to the neglect of Africa. Quite naturally archaeoastronomers have a strong predilection for material culture, especially monumental architecture. To be somewhat unfair one might say the more monumental the architecture, the better. The relatively unimposing nature of Sub-Saharan monuments has not attracted a great rush to document astronomical alignments, symbolic geometry's, and celestial iconography's. But perhaps the breakthrough study has just been made. In 1997 McKim Malville identified some very suggestive alignments at a megalithic complex in the southern Egyptian desert at Nabta, a site of seasonal habitation for nomadic pastoralists between 11,000 and 4,800 years ago (Malville et al. 1998). One stone circle exhibits a line-of-sight 'window' at an azimuth of 62 degrees; the rising mid-summer sun would have been visible in that direction circa 6,000 years BP. This is quite fittingly the oldest astronomically aligned structure yet discovered anywhere on the planet.

Another well-known megalithic site, Namoratunga II, near Lake Turkana in Kenya may well have aided calendrical observations around 300 B.C. (Lynch and Robbins 1978). Unfortunately, in recent years no other Sub-Saharan monuments have been surveyed for their archaeoastronomical potential. Numerous sites merit such investigation: the Senegambian stone circles, the Central African Republic's Bouar megaliths, and ruins in the Great Zimbabwe tradition. With the prospect of discovery we should no doubt expect many negative results. I am personally skeptical that any alignments could be found in the irregular architecture of the Zimbabwe sites. At all events, someone should look for them. If only there were more copy cats of Lynch, Robbins and Malville than of high-school shootists!

However, the lion's share of Africa's astronomical heritage is not locked in silent stones; it exists in still-living and exceedingly rich oral traditions. For among nonliterate peoples knowledge is passed from mouth to ear. Western scholars only began to appreciate the realm of African orality after Ruth Finnegan's Oral Literature in Africa(1970). (Ironically, Finnegan is best known for her erroneous claim that there was no such thing as African epic poetry-since the 1970s dozens of African epics have come to light.) Astronomy in the African oral record remains an undeveloped subject, although its potential can be gauged by the achievement of the only monograph to date on African cultural astronomy: Muusa Galaal's Stars, Seasons, Weather in Somali Pastoral Tradition (1992). Conducting his research in the 1960s Galaal relied entirely on oral texts as the Somali language did not have a standard written form before that time! Who knows what information could be had from the griot of West Africa or the isibongi of southern Africa? Or even from common folk who remember the stories their grandparents told them. Oral tradition, sadly, is an endangered resource; the indigenous societies that had created and sustained it have, in this passing century, been negatively transformed. On a recent visit to the University of the North-West in Mmabatho, South Africa, I heard from a professor that the local people had forgotten most of their sky lore but had a great appetite for cell phones and NBA t-shirts. It is hoped that a student research project in Setswana oral knowledge will be initiated within the next academic year.

There are other positive signs. Members of the United Nations Working Group on Space Sciences in Africa have expressed an interest in recovering indigenous astronomy's for purposes of promoting culturally relevant science education. Meanwhile, Thebe Medupe, one of the leading black astronomers in South Africa, is participating in a TV documentary "Cosmic Africa" on indigenous knowledge. Much more could be done. It goes without saying that others should join in the great enterprise of recovering Africa's astronomical heritage. After all, "Mistah Kurtz--he dead."


    Andoh, Anthony K. 1999. Creation Secrets of the Dogon Shaman, the Star Sirius and the New Age Prophecies. North Scale Inst. Pub.

    Finnegan, Ruth. 1970. Oral Literature in Africa. London: Clarendon Press.

    Galaal, Muusa.1992. Stars, Seasons, Weather in Somali Pastoral Tradition. Niamey: CELHTO.

    Lynch, B.M. and L.H. Robbins. 1978. "Namoratunga: The First Archasoastronomical Evidence in Sub-Saharan Africa." Science 200: 766.

    Malville, J. McKim, and Fred Wendorf, Ali A. Mazar, Romauld Schild. 1998. Megaliths and Neolithic Astronomy in Southern Egypt. Nature 392: 488-490.


Kepler manuscript discovered: Through a combination of sharp thinking and good luck, a 400-year-old manuscript penned by one of history's greatest astronomers was recently discovered at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The manuscript is a horoscope authored by 16th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s. The discovery was made by Anthony Misch, a support astronomer at Lick Observatory. The piece documents the birth of an Austrian nobleman named Hans Hannibal Huetter von Huetterhofen, born September 10, 1586, at 5 p.m. That information is inscribed in an ancient flowery hand at the top of the manuscript. What lies below is the work of Kepler, a complicated weaving of signs and symbols, many of which are still used to describe zodiacal constellations.

Kepler, who lived from 1571 to 1630, is best known for his discovery of the laws of orbital motion. According to Misch, "Kepler was required to write the occasional horoscope as part of his job as a court mathematician. It also may have been a source of extra income. Though he rejected conventional astrology, his belief in the influence of the planets on the lives of men and women was genuine. Astrology was widely accepted at the time, and though some may have repudiated it for religious reasons, few would have done so on an empirical basis."

The manuscript was found in the observatory's Mary Lea Shane Archives, and is now housed in the University Library's Special Collections unit, supervised by librarian Rita Bottoms. To see an image of the horoscope, visit the Kepler Art Web site

Ancient tomb captured both Sun and Moon:
BBC News Online Science Editor, Dr David Whitehouse, reported on an ancient Irish tomb with a lightbox that may have been built with an alignment not only to the Sun, but to the Moon. This is only the third tomb to have been discovered with a lightbox, Newgrange being the first and most famous. Reporting on the research of Martin Byrne, from County Sligo, a Neolithic tomb at Carrowkeel was oriented to the most northerly point the setting Moon reaches on the horizon, an event that only happens every 18.6 years at midwinter. The report suggested that the lunar association had been missed until now because it is only very occasionally illuminated by sunlight or moonlight. View the BBC account of this report.
Or for more material by Martin Byrne.

Earlier, David Whitehouse reported on the second tomb to have been discovered with a lightbox, in Orkney Scotland. The first such tomb discovered in the UK, the Crantit tomb was found last year when a tractor disturbed a series of flat stones that turned out to be the roof slabs of a 5,000 years old underground tomb. Upon discovery, the tomb was investigated by an archaeological field unit of Glasgow University, directed by Dr Beverley Ballin Smith and Dr Colin Richards. Read their report.

Caguana: A Potential Solar Observatory? Angel Rodriguez Alvarez sends a report of his ongoing research on the Caguana Ceremonial Center, an ancient ball court in Puerto Rico. The archaeological remains of ball courts are found throughout the American Southwest, Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Area. Of all the Antilles, the greatest number of ball courts are found in Puerto Rico. These plazas are characterized by rows of upright stones embedded in the ground to delimit the area. In Puerto Rico, the most important of these sites is the Caguana Ceremonial Center. The Caguana Site is a large ceremonial center constructed during the late prehistoric and early protohistoric Capa Phase (A.D.1200-1500), and occupied by the Tahino indians up through contact with the Spaniards. The site consist of 10 earth and stone line ball courts, making this the largest of its kind in the entire West Indies.

In essence, The Caguana Site, as a ball court and ceremonial center had different functions: First, it was used for ceremonial dances, religious rituals and other rites; second, it was used for playing ball games in which two teams of equal in numbers tossed a ball to each other; and third, we believe it was used to make astronomical observations . The aim of the present study is to determine if there is any relationship between the aligment of the ball courts in Caguana with the sunrise during the solstices and equinoxes. Results indicate that two row of slabs on Plaza A are aligned toward the Autumn and Spring Sunrise. Also, the two shorter sides of Plaza B are aligned toward the Summer Solstice Sunrise. In addition to the Summer Solstice and Equinox Sunrise, the Tahino Indians could also observed the Full Moonrise along Plaza A.

Book Releases: A Re-interpretation of Historical References to the Supernova of 1054 AD by George W. Collins, II, William P. Claspy, John C. Martin (to be published in the July issue of PASP) re-examines historical references to the supernova event of 1054 AD. They find that the explosion of the supernova is likely to have occurred some weeks to months before the commonly accepted date of July 4th 1054. They supported this view by a number of European references to events visible in the evening sky during the spring. They further find the best fit to the light curve based on Chinese observations and a maximum visible apparent magnitude also supports an earlier explosion date. The text of the paper is available at:

Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland by Clive Ruggles is now available from Yale University Press (288 pp. 130 illus. 9 x 11 1/2, ISBN 0-300-07814-5 $65.00). Clive is a senior lecturer in archaeological studies at Leicester University, trained as a mathematician and astrophysicist. The book is divided into three parts. The first is a detailed account of the megalithic astronomy debates of the 1960s to the 1980s and the lessons-both interpretative and methodological-that can be learned from them. The second describes the present state of ideas and evidence concerning prehistoric people's concerns with celestial bodies and events, drawing particularly on work in British and Irish archaeoastronomy in the past fifteen years, including many years of fieldwork by the author. The third section sets new agendas for the future. The book also includes an appendix on field techniques. This book is the first to approach this topic from a perspective that incorporates both astronomy and archaeology. It establishes the importance of studies of astronomy in the context of broader questions of cosmology, ideology, and cognition that are of central interest to prehistorians at the end of the twentieth century. It also makes clear that cross-disciplinary perspectives are necessary in tackling an innately interdisciplinary problem.

A call for starlore by Paul Curnow from Adelaide

(If you know of a recent publication of interest that we have missed, please send all of the information necessary for our readers to find the article or book.)

Aveni, Anthony 1998 "The Star of Bethlehem, Was it a Celestial Event, a Supernatural Phenomenon, or a Story Made Up by Mathew?" Archaeology, Nov-Dec, 34-38.

Aveni, Anthony 1998 "Dialogue with the Firmament," Archaeology, Nov-Dec, 39-42.

Aveni, Anthony and Mizrachi, Yonathan 1998 "The Geometry and Astronomy of Rujm el-Hiri, a Megalithic Site in the Southern Levant," Journal of Field Archaeology, 25, #4, 475-496.

Chapman-Reitschi, P. A. L. 1997 "Astronomical Conceptions in Mithric Iconography," Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 91, June, 131-134.

Marriner, Harry A. 1998 "Petroglifos: una breve comparacion de Tres Sitios", Rupestre, 2, #2, 25-30. Note that the entire volume is dedicated to papers on Colombian rock art. In addition, Marriner has a manuscript titled "Rock Artists and Skywatchers in Ancient Colombia."

Fowler, Melvin L, (ed.) 1996 "The Ancient Skies and Skywatchers of Cahokia: Woodhenges, and Eclipses and Cahokian Cosmology," (with contributions by Warren Wittry, Martha Rolingson, Timothy Pauketat, Edwin Krupp, John Kelly, Robert Hall, William Gartner, and Melvin Fowler), The Wisconson Archaeologist, 77, #3 and 4.

Martlew, R.D. & Ruggles, C.L.N. 1996 "Ritual and Landscape on the West Coast of Scotland: an Investigation of the Stone Rows of Northern Mull," Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 62, 117-31.

McNally, D. and Ruggles, C.L.N. 1997 "The Minor Standstill of the Moon and Stonehenge," Astronomy and Geophysics, 38, 30-1.

Ruggles, C.L.N. 1994 "The Stone Rows of South-West Ireland: A First Reconnaissance," Archaeoastronomy (supplement to Journal for the History of Astronomy), 19, S1-20.

1996 "Archaeoastronomy in Europe," in C. Walker (ed.), Astronomy Before the Telescope, British Museum Press, London, 15-27.

1996 "Summary of the RAS Specialist Discussion Meeting on Current Issues in Archaeoastronomy," The Observatory, 116, 278-85.

1996 "Stone Rows of Three or More Stones in South-West Ireland," Archaeoastronomy, 21 (supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy, 27), S55-71.

1997 "Astronomy and Stonehenge," in Barry Cunliffe and Colin Renfrew (eds.), Science and Stonehenge, (Proceedings of the British Academy, 92), OUP, Oxford, 203-29.

1997 "Whose Equinox?" Archaeoastronomy, 22 (supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy, 28), S45-50.

1998 "Ritual Astronomy in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles: Patterns of Continuity and Change," in Alex Gibson and Derek Simpson (eds.), Prehistoric Ritual and Religion: Essays in Honour of Aubrey Burl, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 203-8.

Ruggles, C.L.N. and D. J. Medyckyj-Scott 1996 "Site Location, Landscape Visibility and Symbolic Astronomy: A Scottish Case Study," in Herbert D.G. Maschner (ed.), New Methods, Old Problems: Geographical Information Systems in Modern Archaeological Research, Carbondale, Illinois: Center for Archaeological Investigations Occasional Paper no. 23, 127-46.

Ruggles, C.L.N. and Hoskin, M.A. 1997 "Astronomy Before History," in M.A. Hoskin (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, 2-21.

Some Web sites of possible interest:

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