Under African Skies

Astronomy in Africa's past and future

| April 27, 2006


A relative lack of ambient light pollution in much of Africa makes it a logical choice to study astronomy. That's why the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, the Southern African Large Telescope, was recently erected on the continent. But according to Keith Snedegar of Utah Valley State College, 'cultural astronomers have paid relatively little attention to Africa.' Ethnoastronomers, scientists who study celestial knowledge in culture, are only recently beginning to realize what many people have known for centuries: that Africa is the perfect place to admire the stars.

In the documentary Cosmic Africa astronomer Thebe Medupe traveled the African countryside in search of traditional astronomy. One of the groups he encountered was the Dogon, an ethnic tribe primarily in Mali. The Dogon are well known for their knowledge of stars, and are actually the target of some controversy. One of the traditional beliefs held by the Dogon is that Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the sky, was actually made up of two stars, one of which was invisible to the naked eye. That discovery was not made by Western scientists until the late 19th century.

In an interview with the New Scientist, Medupe confirms the vast celestial knowledge of the Dogon people. He recounts the story of an old man from the tribe who could describe one constellation in such detail that Medupe was forced to check the information on his laptop. What he found was that the man was 'spot on.'

A post-colonial mentality may be one reason why traditional African knowledge has been largely obscured. As Medupe explained, 'During apartheid the whites commonly said that black Africans had always been dependent on them.' Research into ethnoastronomy is proving that contention untrue. Medupe hopes that connecting modern science to an African tradition will inspire young black people from around the world to study science. One of his major goals, he told Physics Today, is to 'tell kids that truly astronomy and the rest of science is a human activity, and it belongs to all of us.'



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