Cosmic Africa: Africans and Astronomy

Cosmic Africa
Cosmic Africa

Dear all,

As a physicist, I could not pass on the opportunity to talk about the fellow South African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe ‘s work on Cosmic Africa. Cosmic Africa is a project/documentary about astronomy in African cultures, exploring astronomy among two of the oldest African tribes: the Namib (or Bushmen or San) of Namibia, and the Dogon people of Mali.  I heard this documentary one evening on PRI.  It felt so great hearing an elder from the Dogon tribe talking about their use of the moon, stars, etc, for their harvest.  People still study the sky and the stars to guide them during the hunting season; astronomy is an integral part of their daily lives, dances, and ceremonies.  This knowledge of the sky was passed on from generation to generations for the past 500 years.

Thebe Medupe
Thebe Medupe

The Dogon people knew certain celestial bodies that were just discovered/identified properly by Western science in the 50s and 60s.  They used the stars in spirituality and devised a divination system as discussed in the movie.  One of their great treasures is the knowledge of the star Sirius which Dogon elders confided about its existence to French anthropologists in the 1940s.  The Dogon elders said that Sirius had a companion star that was invisible to the human eye.

Dogon village
Dogon village

“They also stated that the star moved in a 50-year elliptical orbit around Sirius, that it was small and incredibly heavy, and that it rotated on its axis.  All these things happen to be true.  What makes this so remarkable is that the companion star of Sirius, called Sirius B, was first photographed in 1970.  While people began to suspect its existence around 1844, it was not seen through a telescope until 1862 — and even then its great density was not known or understood until the early decades of the twentieth century.  The Dogon beliefs, on the other hand, were supposedly thousands of years old.”  To read the full account, check out: The Sirius Mystery and the The Dogon Website.

San (Basarwa/Bushmen) hunters
San (Basarwa/Bushmen) hunters

The Bushmen of Namibia are the oldest people in Africa, as well as in the world.  They have lived in the Southern area of Africa for the past 20,000 years, and their celestial stories are just as old.  In the documentary, I love the way their celestial stories, and their story of creation was centered around the lion. Isn’t it interesting?  The lion, which is the king of the jungle,…purely African! I simply loved it.  The sky is interpreted in African terms: giraffes, lions, and zebras are seen among the stars where other people see bears and horses.  From the documentary, one sees that the Namib (Bushmen or San) healers welcome the bright evening star, the planet Venus, with a special dance….  The elders observe the shadows cast by the Sun and still count the days by the phases of the Moon, orient themselves, decide when to hunt, harvest, etc… with the sky.  They call the Milky Way the Spine of the Night and observe its three different positions during the night: it tells them about time and the changing seasons. Read more about the Khoisan people of Botswana and their fight for survival amidst government/Corporation’s menace.

To learn more check out the books: Sacred Symbols of the Dogon and The Sirius Mystery. Also check out the Foster brothers’ website (the producers): Sense Africa.

9 thoughts on “Cosmic Africa: Africans and Astronomy

  1. Pingback: Ep. 533: Indigenous South African Astronomy | Astronomy Cast

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