Under African Skies

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.’

Go there >>
Astronomer
Unearths Evidence of Scientific Tradition in Africa

Go there too >>
Astronomy
and the Legacy of Apartheid

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