Mali – Ancient astronomers
The Dogon people of Mali have long known cosmic truths that are only now being confirmed by modern science. This without ever having seen a telescope.
Story and photos: Keri Harvey
A lone figure descents the sheer rock face in the dwindling light of dusk. The figure appears suspended against the high rock wall, yet he slowly edges closer to the level ground below. When he gets there, he draws a grid in the sand with his finger, and softly whispers the questions: Will the granaries be full this year? Is there a death in the near future? The shaman then scatters peanuts over the grid and ascends the cliff face along the same route. He will return in the early morning to ‘read’ the grid and pass on the answers, as told by the footprints of the pale fox.
This stark and stunning landscape; rugged and harsh, is home to the cliff-dwelling Dogon people. Their unique houses and granaries cling precariously to the bare rock face of the Bandiagara Escarpment – extending 150km through the Sahel. They live by a set of ancient traditions and complex beliefs, create exquisite art and at the same time are remarkably astute astronomers. They also believe they are descended from the star Sirius, a belief that permeates all tradition and daily life on this remote escarpment.
Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. However, the Dogon hold ancient yet precise astrophysical information about other ‘invisible’ stars in the Sirius system – some of which have only recently been discovered by modern scientists with highly sophisticated equipment.
The Dogon always believed that Sirius had three stars. Sirius A and B have long been known to scientists, but the existence of the third star, Sirius C, was only confirmed in 1995 by scientists using powerful radio telescopes. But for the Dogon, Sirius B is the most significant star, although it’s difficult to fathom how they knew of its existence since it cannot be seen with the naked eye.
They call Sirius B ‘po tolo’, so named after ‘po’ the smallest grain known to the Dogon and ‘tolo’ meaning star. In addition, the Dogon describe the orbit of Sirius B around Sirius A as ‘egg-shaped’. This knowledge not only further confounds western astronomers but also confirms one of Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion concerning orbiting bodies – that they do not move in perfectly circular paths.
For reasons unknown, these ancient people of Mali have an extremely accurate general knowledge of the most unobvious and subtle principles of the obit of Sirius B around Sirius A. They also know the actual orbital period of this invisible star and plan their sacred Sigui ceremony around the orbit of the star. The sacred Sigui ceremony is performed every 60 years, during which the Dogon perform dances recounting the story of their origin.
What also defies description by western scientists, is that the Dogon know Sirius B rotates on its own axis. Of course all stars do this, but how could these rural people living in the most remote corner of Africa know this? They even honour the annual revolution of Sirius B upon itself with the bado rite. The Dogon believe that the day of the bado is when a beam of rays carrying important signals strikes the earth from Sirius B. Modern scientists are still deliberating the period of rotation of Sirius B, but as many times before there’s a great chance the Dogon theory will again be proven correct.
‘Infinitely tiny’ is how the Dogon describe Sirius B, now known by scientists to be the tiniest form of visible star in the universe. More amazing is their knowledge stating that ‘the star which is considered to be the smallest thing in the sky is also the heaviest’. It is so heavy ‘that all earthly beings combined cannot lift it’. This theory of Sirius B matches all proven scientific facts and offers a few more still to be proven. The Dogon even follow a Sirius calendar, along with three other calendars; lunar, solar and Venus. They also adhere to a five-day week.
Of the moon they say: ‘It is dry and dead like dry dead blood’. Their drawing of the planet Saturn show a ring around it. They know the four moons of Jupiter, and that the planet follows Venus by turning slowly around the sun. They even plot the positions of Venus by a series of alters, raised stones and arrangements in caves and shelters. Saturn’s halo, which can only be seen through a telescope, is also known to them. That the planets revolve around the sun is already ancient Dogon knowledge, their word for the planets being ‘tolo tanaze’ which means ‘stars that turn around something’.
For the Dogon, an infinite number of stars and spiraling worlds exist, yet they differentiate three types of stars: ‘fixed stars that don’t turn’; planets which belong to ‘the family of stars that turn’; and ‘stars that make the circle’ or satellites. They even know about the Milky Way and liken it to ‘circulating blood’, which the Dogon also mysteriously know about. In fact they seem to have a mild obsession with the human form.
Dogon villages are traditionally laid out in the form of a human body, extending north to south. At the ‘head’ is the men’s shelter or meeting place, where men lounge, take naps, smoke and discuss matters of the village. Women are banned, and instead have special houses where they stay during menstruation – these two outlying houses form the ‘hands’ of the body.
The villagers’ houses represent the veins and arteries of the ‘body’ and are individually also built in the form of a ‘body’. The circular kitchen represents the ‘head’, the central living area is the ‘torso’, the bedrooms on either side are the ‘arms’ and the entrance way represents the ‘genitals’. Each house, collectively built, is made of rock and mud-brick with a flat roof, surrounded by a small yard and interlinked with stone walls. The granaries are conical with straw roofs and stand raised on stone to protect the stored crops from mice.
Dogon culture and religion are inextricable and incredibly complex, being quite obscure to the western mind. They believe that the earth, sun, moon and stars were created by a divine male being called Amma. Later Amma made two humans – a man and a woman – who then produced eight children, regarded as the ancestors of all Dogon and depicted as carvings on the doors of their homes.
However, Amma did not only create life on this earth, but the Dogon believe intelligent life exists all over the universe. They say: ‘Amma gave the world its shape and movement and created living creatures. There are creatures living on other earths as well as our own. We live on the fourth earth, the third earth has men with horns, the fifth earth has men with tails and the sixth earth has men with wings.’ Ancient sculptures of ‘men with wings’ as well as strange iron figures have been noted as icons of Dogon culture. The iron figures – upright lizard-like creatures with no limb joints – are claimed to be the Dogon ancestors from Sirius. According to the Dogon people, this the reason why they have such detailed knowledge of the heavens.
The Dogon know perfectly well that it’s the turning of the earth on its own axis that makes the sky seem to turn around. They talk of ‘the apparent movement of the stars from west to east as men see them.’
This knowledge that the earth turns on its own axis is used in fortelling the future – with the help of a shaman and a pale fox. The Dogon believe that all animals know the future, but the pale fox knows best. So the peanuts scattered over the grid drawn in the sand are to attract the fox. If the fox or another animal passes by in the night, it will leave footprints in the grid, which the shaman can then read to predict the future.
Wherever the fox stopped in the grid indicates events to come. When the fox simply walks over the grid the Dogon say: ‘the planet begins to turn under the action of the fox’s paws’. And when the only visible marks on the grid are those made by the tail, the image is likened to the movement of the earth turning on its axis and it’s said: ‘The fox turned with his tail; the earth turned on its own axis.’
It seems, without even knowing it, that the ancient cliff dwellers of Mali have a thorough and accurate knowledge of the cosmos, sometimes far ahead of western confirmations – though this is of little interest to them, living perched against their rugged escarpment. They have since the very beginning based their traditions, religion and culture on their elaborate astronomical beliefs, knowledge they claim comes from a world beyond ours. Fact or fiction, it remains an enigma how age-old astronomical knowledge is only now being proven correct with the help of modern technology. The Dogon are literally light years ahead. Out there with the stars.