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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 28 June Solstice 1998


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 follows.

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.


A major expansion is beginning at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum in Chicago that will double the exhibition space and will have not just one but three planetarium theaters. Forty thousand square feet (3800 square meters) of exhibits incorporate the process of science and a world-class collection of historic astronomical instruments. Our astronomical instruments are the substance of an innovative and educationally effective Earth-centered and Sun-centered setting. Visitors have hands-on/minds-on direct experiences using sundials, armillary spheres, astrolabes, orreries and early telescopes. With a one-million dollar donation from the C. Paul Johnson Family Charitable Foundation a new ancient astronomy gallery will be named in their honor. This gallery will be developed and constructed over the next two years and will open January 1, 2000. Early discussions have led to the statements that follow. We welcome any suggestions from the A&E readership.

    1. Key Ideas:

    As humankind moved from mythology to measuring the firmament, they established the oldest sciences - astronomy and timekeeping. The half of nature that extends overhead is less familiar to most modern visitors than it was to their ancestors. This exhibit will intrigued people to explore the universe through the ancient monuments and records in stone, clay, papyrus and silk. It should inspire visitors to seek out dark skies, become acquainted with its patterns and changes.
    2. Key Visitor Experiences:

    Amidst huge replicas of ancient structures, visitors will be: * measuring monument positions with surveying instruments * determining monument-to-sky associations with a computer * recording dawn star risings and timing meridian passages * measuring planet positions and predicting planet motion * replicating with a model the motion of a planet * plotting a comet position on a star map from an armillary * reading and writing a Mayan date in Mayan hieroglyphs.
    3. Key Visitor Feelings:

    * It must have been interesting to be an ancient astronomer. * I like knowing how ancient records and structures "worked." * I have a greater appreciation for the people of long ago. * I now know how to make some of these observations myself. * I'd like to go somewhere to see a truly dark star-filled sky.
    Another Course: Phyllis Pitluga, of the Adler Planetarium, has been teaching an 8-week course (2/hrs each week) for 20 years with approximately 30 interested adults per year. Most are members with a good exposure to astronomy. Some have come from the local universities (both students and professors). I teach the first hour in the sky theater where we have the latitude and time set appropriately. Here we make specific observations. The second hour we study in depth the records or analyses of what we had observed. The weeks are broken down as follows: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greek-Islamic, China-India, Europe (Stonehenges), Maya-Aztec, Nazca-Inca, N.Am Indians-Oceania.

    Kris Hirst, an archaeologist, has published an (on web) interview with Dave Dearborn on the topic of archaeoastronomy: In addition to the interview, the site presents an extensive bibliography of publications related to archaeoastronomy, and web links.

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