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Author Topic: African Astronomy  (Read 12130 times)
Posts: 1788


« on: November 25, 2003, 05:54:42 PM »

African Astronomy
by Jarita Holbrook, History Dept. UCLA

The title of this paper "African Astronomy" tends to cause readers to
scratch their heads in confusion and ask for more details as to what
exactly it means. Does it mean academic or European astronomy
conducted on African soil? Not in this case. Instead, "African
Astronomy" refers to the astronomical beliefs, artifacts, and
practices of indigenous African peoples. Why study African Astronomy?
The night sky is the heritage of all peoples and each took countless
generations to watch, justify and map the heavens in addition to
defining their relationship with it. Indigenous European, Arabic,
American, and Polynesian astronomies have been the focus of many
scholars over the last century. These works have revealed a
surprisingly intimate knowledge and understanding of the night sky
and its phenomena. There is a decided lack of scholarship on African
astronomy. However, two African sites of astronomy have been studied
in great detail: Egypt and the Dogon region of Mali, West Africa. My
research goes beyond these two sites to sites all over Africa where
various forms of astronomy have been and in some cases are still
being practiced today, thus I leave it to the reader to review the
extensive literature on those two sites. A brief overview of the
types of astronomy and the locations in Africa where they are
practiced are presented. Several sites exist but detailed
astronomical analysis has not been conducted. Thus, in addition to
describing established sites of astronomy, I present many sites where
research still needs to be done. I hope this article serves as a
starting point for individual projects on African Astronomy.
Star Lore: Star Lore refers to the myths and legends surrounding
celestial bodies. Examples of star lore include the names of the
planets, stars, and constellations along with the stories created
about them. Star lore often incorporates origin and creation myths of
people as well as insightful tales that reflect important aspects of
their culture. For example, in Greek/Indo-European culture, the
constellation Canis Major is the faithful dog of the hunter, the
constellation Orion, reflecting an idealized and permanent
relationship between man and dog. While in Egyptian star lore Orion
becomes Osiris, the Lord of everything, while Sirius, the brightest
star in Canis Major, becomes Isis his female companion, enough said.
Africa extends from 35 degrees north to 35 degrees south covering an
area of 11.6 square miles (Europe is 3.8 million square miles). The
star lore of Africans spanning the continent focus on the
constellations visible in their sky. As one travels from North Africa
to South Africa Polaris, the Big Dipper and the Pleiades give way to
Orion, Sirius, Canopus, the Magellanic Clouds, and the Southern
Cross. Thus the star lore of North Africa differs from the star lore
of southern Africa. Instead of telling the star lore of the various
African peoples, I summarize a few of the regions/peoples and those
celestial bodies that are important to them. The Pleiades and Sirius
figure largely in the star lore of the peoples of Mali (Bass 1990)
and Ethiopia (Lynch & Robbins 1983, Aveni 1993), and Sirius, and
Canopus appear in the star lore of South Africa and Botswana
(Snedegar 1997, Cuff 1997). Physically Sirius, Canopus, the
constellation Orion, and the star cluster the Pleiades are bright
distinctive objects in the night sky, this is most likely the reason
for their distinction in African star lore. The Milky Way which spans
the sky and Venus which is bright and remains close to the Sun are
focused on all over Africa (Senkintu 1956, Aveni 1993, Doyle 1997).
While the Southern Cross is important to the Zulu, Sotho, and Tswana
of southern Africa and is recognized as a navigation constellation
(Cuff 1997, Snedegar 1997). For a treatment of the legends and myth
behind the stars and constellations see the bibliography that
Equinoxes and Solstices: Due to the 23.5 degree tilt of the polar
axis of the earth, the apparent motion of the Sun, in addition to
traveling east to west over the course of a day, travels south, to
north, to south over the course of a year. The north and south
extremes of the Sun's path are called the solstices, and the
equinoxes mark the half-way points in between the two. For the
northern hemisphere, winter solstice is when the Sun is the furthest
south, and the summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its
northernmost position. For the southern hemisphere, the seasons are
reversed. The equinoxes are when the sun rises due east and sets due
west at the Earth's equator. Africans in Zimbabwe, Togo, and Benin
built physical structures aligned to the positions of the solstices
and equinoxes. In the Great Zimbabwe stone city, a chevron pattern is
bisected by the solstice Sun (Doyle 1997). Great Zimbabwe was built
around 400 AD and a finished city around 1350 AD. It is credited to
the Karanga people. In Togo and Benin, the Batamalimba people have
designed their houses such that their crossbeams are aligned to the
equinox sunrise and sunset (Aveni 1993). Finally, there are over 1600
stone circles in Senegal, the Gambia, and Togo which have yet to be
astronomically analyzed in great detail (Posnansky 1982), however in
East Africa, the stone circle, Namorotunga II, has been shown to be
an astronomical calendar (Lynch 1983, Doyle 1997).
Calendrical Systems: Agricultural calendars, migration calendars, and
rain schedules are all important to African people. Possibly the
oldest lunar calendar is the Ishango bone dated at 6500 b.c. (Van
Sertima 1983, Aveni 1993). The Ishango bone was found at the site of
a fishing village on the shores of Lake Edward which border the Congo
(Zaire) and Uganda. The lunar cycles regulate the tides and marine
activity, thus it's not unexpected to find a lunar calendar along the
shores of a lake (Aveni 1993). The problem of following a lunar
calendar is that it doesn't accurately measure the solar and seasonal
year. Twelve months only adds up to 254 days about 11 and a quarter
days short of the 265 and one quarter days of the solar year. The
Borana of Ethiopia follow a lunar calendar but add an extra month to
compensate for this difference (Aveni 1993, Ruggles 1987). But as a
result, telling time among the Borana is not a simple matter but
debated because of this. In the Congo (Zaire) the Milky Way is
called "God's clock" and is orientated east-west during the wet
season and oriented north-south during the middle of the dry season
(Aveni 1993). In Mali, the Bozo people migrate along the delta of the
Niger river when the Pleiades transit overhead and begin their
fishing season when the Pleiades leave the night sky (Bass 1993). The
equinoxes, solstices, and stars all follow the solar cycle, thus
observing these phenomena establishes a more exact year than
following a lunar calendar.
Stellar Navigation: Stellar navigation is a method of using the stars
to determine directions when traveling at night. During my field work
in Tunisia, North Africa, I discovered that the fishermen of the
Kerkennah Islands still used stellar navigation to reach their
fisheries at night (Holbrook 1998). Since then I've unveiled several
sites of stellar navigation all over Africa. A second site which I am
researching is the Afar people in Eritrea (Holbrook 1998). During the
struggle for independence which ended in 1993, the Afar where
consulted to navigate troops at night. Other potential stellar
navigation sites are in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and Madagascar. Most
but not all of the sites as associated with ocean travel.
Summary: My preliminary findings on African Astronomy reveals a
continent rich in astronomical traditions. I have presented four of
these traditions as separate from each other, but in fact they
overlap in interesting and unexpected ways. Such as stars being named
for their use in navigation or being named for the season which
begins with their appearance. In addition to the four topics
mentioned here there are several more focusing on the moon, the sun,
the major planets, and the relationship between the stars and man. I
continue to search the literature for mention of African astronomical
traditions as well as taking trips to Africa to interview people
about their astronomy.
Aveni, A., " Africa's Socialized Astronomy", in Ancient
Astronomers, , Montreal: St. Remy Press, 1993.
Bass, T. A., " Camping with the Prince", in Camping with the
Prince, , Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Hunter, Havelin, " African Observers of the Universe: The Sirius
Question", in Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Van Sertima, I.,
New Brunswich, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1984.
Doyle, L., Frank, E. "Astronomy in Africa", Encyclopedia of the
History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures,
Helaine Selin, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997
Holbrook, J. "Tunisian Stellar Navigators", Archeaoastronomy &
Ethnoastronomy Newsletter, submitted.
Lynch, B. M., Robbins, L. H., " Namoratungu: The first
archaeoastronomical evidence in sub-saharan Africa", in Blacks in
Science: Ancient and Modern, Van Sertima, I., New Brunswich, N.J.:
Transaction Books, New Brunswich, NJ, 1983.
Ruggles, C., "The Borana Calendar: Some Observations",
Archeaoastronomy Supplement II, pg 35, 1987
Sekintu, C.M., Wachsmann, K.P., Wall Patterns in Hima Huts, ,
Kampala: the Uganda Museum, 1956.
Van Sertima, Ivan, " The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview", in
Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Van Sertima, I., New
Brunswich, N.J.: Transaction Books, New Brunswich, NJ, 1983.
For readings on Star Lore:
Cuff, K. "African Skies", publication of the Lawrence Hall of Science
Holt Planetarium, UC Berkeley, 1997
Snedegar, K., "Ikhwezi", Mercury, pg 13, Nov 1997.
Service Member
Posts: 2063

« Reply #1 on: December 10, 2003, 03:40:12 AM »

It's confirmed by writtings, inscriptions, mounds,stone and pyramids that Sirius, Orion etc. are some of the constellations that the ancient Africans aligned their structures with. The astounding thing is that they also stood in the pyramids aligning their pineal glands (serpents) with the constellations to speak to the ancestors!!! Thanks Tyehimba for taking the time to inform the mentally and spiritually ignorant who may care about the truth.


We should first show solidarity with each other. We are Africans. We are black. Our first priority is ourselves.
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