Ep. 533: Indigenous South African Astronomy

Let’s move to another continent this week, and look at the astronomy that was going on in southern Africa in ancient times.

In this episode we mentioned donations and tours. Click to learn more!

Download MP3| Download Raw Show with Q&A| Show Notes | Jump to Transcript or Download

This episode is sponsored by: MagellanTV and 8th Light

Show Notes

Bennu Mappers – Help CosmoQuest map rocks to help pick which ones OSIRIS-REx will bring back from asteroid Bennu! Start your coffee pots, get your favorite mouse/trackpads, & GET MAPPING! http://bennu.cosmoquest.org/

Southern African peoples:

African Ethnoastronomy

Cosmic Africa 

Indigenous Astronomy in Southern Africa

Africa’s ancient astronomers made their mark in culture, folklore

Astronomy in Sub‐Saharan Africa

The Southern Cross Constellation

The Pleiades Constellation


Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

Fraser:                         Astronomy Cast, episode 533, Indigenous South African Astronomy. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?


Pamela:                        I’m mostly doing well. There may be inadvertent coughing. I’m sorry. I’m still recovering from bronchitis.


Fraser:                         Before we get on with the show, let’s do another plea for everybody to get onboard Bennu Mappers.


Pamela:                        Yes. So, all of you, right now, wherever you are, open a window to Bennu.cosmoquest.org and while you listen to this show, or watch it if you’re here live or on YouTube, map Bennu. The OSIRIS REx spacecraft is currently orbiting this half kilometer diameter little asteroid that is rocks on rocks on boulders on boulders. And it’s just a rubble pile. And we have to somehow find a fairly clear place big enough that the OSIRIS REx spacecraft can dive down and do rock theft with what I can only describe as a very angry vacuum cleaner that they have onboard. So please, please. We have until July 10th to make it through what will ultimately be about 4,500 images. And after July 10th


Fraser:                         To find a spot that doesn’t have a lot of big boulders. That has a nice sample. And trust us that is turning out to be very difficult to find.


Pamela:                        Yeah, we were mistaken by the asteroid Itokawa. We thought that Bennu would be like Itokawa. In fact, the tutorial that we built before we had images of Bennu totally Itokawa data. And you’ll see, there are like tens of rocks per image. A few boulders. A clear crater here and there. Bennu is like, “No, I’m gonna have hundreds of objects per image.” We actually had to enable compression in how we transfer the data from the front end to the back end. Because we were hitting the memory limits inherent in many browsers.


Fraser:                         So, if you have ever wanted to do a science. If you’ve ever wanted to be one of the people to help figure out where a spacecraft should bring a sample home from, you could be the lucky person who gets an email from Pamela saying, “Congratulations. You identified the image that picked the landing spot, the sample spot for OSIRIS REx.” So please, go to Bennu.cosmoquest.org and pitch in. We’ve got just over a month to find the landing spot before the scientists get really mad and they do something rash, and just land wherever.


Pamela:                        It’s more likely that all of us will just collectively cry. So, if you don’t want scientists to cry –


Fraser:                         Right. You can’t watch as OSIRIS Rex just blindly attempts a sample return somewhere on asteroid Bennu. All right. So, let’s move on to another continent this week and look at the astronomy that was going on in southern Africa in ancient times. Pamela, I don’t think we had planned to do this episode last week. And then, we got a delightful email from a listener thanking us for digging into – saying so many things about what was going on with South Africa. I don’t know if this had been your plan, but it’s like a whole other continent that we definitely want to add to places that had a ton of astronomy in the past. And is going to be an amazing place for astronomy going into the future.


Pamela:                        So, I’m gonna have to admit, this was totally in my plan from the very beginning.


Fraser:                         I had no idea.


Pamela:                        If you notice, I started in America. I went south to South America. I then began traveling west. Went to Australia. And the next thing west on the map is gonna be Africa.


Fraser:                         Yeah. We’re just looking at southern Africa.


Pamela:                        Africa is so big, we’re only gonna do southern Africa.


Fraser:                         And it works well because there are lots of really cool telescopes across various wavelengths, including one that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. A Cherenkov – your favorite.


Pamela:                        Cherenkov radiation.


Fraser:                         There’s an amazing Cherenkov instrument there in southern Africa. So, we’re gonna get into that next week. And then, what comes after southern Africa? Europe? Northern Africa?


Pamela:                        So, I’m thinking we might do Southeast Asia. So, we already covered a lot of archeoastronomy in Europe. So, let’s just linger in the places that people don’t talk about very often.


Fraser:                         Yeah, that sounds great. I love it. So, who was doing astronomy in southern Africa, and when?


Pamela:                        So, we have two different groups of peoples that we’re gonna largely focus on, that are basically two different language groups that each have a variety of tribes associated with them. Even southern Africa is a huge region. The modern maps that we use, when they’re projected flat, really do a disservice to Africa, and a service to Greenland. Africa is huge. That’s all I can really say is that sentence over and over again.


Fraser:                         Greenland is huge, but not as huge as the maps make you think.


Pamela:                        Greenland is pretty tiny when compared to Africa. So, we’re gonna focus on two different peoples. The one group is the San people that are historically referred to as the Bushmen. But nowadays, that phrase is often used as a pejorative. And the San people. There are a variety of different tribes and nations.


Fraser:                         So, how do you spell that?


Pamela:                        S-A-N.


Fraser:                         S-A-N. Okay.


Pamela:                        Yeah. And they have many different tribes and nations that have similar historic tales. So, we’re gonna be talking about their traditions. And these are the oldest people that have a continuous culture, perhaps in the world. There are areas where the art and the history can be traced back 70 thousand years. Which makes their histories make what we have here in North America, even when we look at the Anasazi, look young. So, here we’re looking at some really old traditions. The other group of people that we’re gonna look at are the groups of people that are associated with the Banta people. And I may be mispronouncing it. Bantu might be a better pronunciation.


So, here we’re gonna look at the Tswana and Venda peoples and their traditions. Now, one of the amazing things to me is, South Africa is really where humanities started. It is, as near as we can tell, where the very earliest modern humans walked the world. And the San people are as closely descended as we’re probably going to get to those original humans. And they have this rich and amazing culture. Now, the Bantu people are an ethnically different culture. Their features are slightly different. Their language is radically different. Not the same language, not a related language. It’s like comparing Swedish and Spanish – you don’t. And these are people that came from more northern in Africa, and later moved into the San peoples’ territories. So, these are the two groups of people that we’re gonna be focusing on this evening.


Fraser:                         And I’m guessing that we’ve got some kind of structures, artifacts, things to see how they measured the sky. Or is it all, again, with Australia, we have stories and memories?


Fraser:                         This is largely stories that have been passed down through the peoples. And I have to admit, one of the reasons that I really wanted to do this and have been slowly creeping up on doing this part of the world is, I was given the opportunity back in 2010 to visit the South African Observatory, where the South African Large Telescope is located. It’s a couple hours north of Cape Town South Africa. And in the visitors center they have this amazing quilt, where each square on the quilt is a different story. And to see all of these different stories put out in a tradition that, growing up in New England, quilts are kind of like the thing you see everywhere, it kind of stayed with me.


And some of these stories are truly beautiful. And the San people, pretty much everything that happens can be blamed on a young girl doing magic. And I love this power that is instilled, admittedly in a somewhat demeaning, all bad things are [inaudible] [00:12:00] a girl with magic.


Fraser:                         Are we talking bad witches doing magic, and it’s their fault?


Pamela:                        Well, why don’t we take a look at the stories and see what we can see. So, the first thing that I want to start with is, with the San people, they are no holds barred. The stars, the sky, the heavens, that’s all up there. It’s a solid object. It does not affect us down here. This whole horoscopes and astrology thing that is inherent in so many different cultures of the world, not there. And I love this, that the first peoples saw the sky, admittedly, as a solid. But hey, so did Europe for a long time. But they saw the sky as something that didn’t influence the affairs of humans.


Fraser:                         So, there was not some vengeful god. Not some chariot that was carrying a ball across the sky. It was just a thing.


Pamela:                        Well, they had stories. But those stories didn’t affect humans. The stories were, in some cases, affected by humans. In fact, The Sun is one of my favorite stories. In the – I’m gonna mispronounce this, I’m sorry. It’s the Ixam San people, it’s one of the larger tribes. They say that the sun was originally a very lazy man who had a really bright head. His head just shone brightly. And he liked to sleep late and keep the light to himself. And so, one day a bunch of his fellows, the very first San people, got frustrated with him, cut his head off, and tossed it in the sky so that it could serve everyone. So, it’s up there now. It’s not coming back. It’s not affecting us. And don’t you be lazy because we’re gonna cut off your head and throw it into the sky.


Fraser:                         And make a second sun.


Pamela:                        Sure, why not?


Fraser:                         So, it’s sort of like a very scary version of Santa Claus. To scare your children. Some story about cutting your heads off if you’re lazy.


Pamela:                        Yeah. I don’t think it has anything to do with Santa Claus.


Fraser:                         Instead of someone who was gonna give you a lump of coal for being lazy, for being a bad kid, you’re gonna have you head hacked off and thrown into space. Please continue.


Pamela:                        So, on the other side of things, the Tswana and Venda people, they also saw – and this is normal across most of Africa. This is a really common story. They also saw the sky as a solid vault that covers the entirety of the earth. But for them, the stars were holes in the rocky vault. So, I guess that means there are holes in the rocky vault that let in sunlight. I’m not gonna follow that one too far down, but it’s an interesting variation on the story. We’re just gonna go with there. Now, when you go down to Australia, South America, South Africa, you have completely different stars.


And so, some of the stories they have, for those of us that live in the northern hemispheres, require a bit of stepping back and looking at the context. The Southern Cross, it has two bright pointer stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri. These are probably two of the brightest, most recognizable stars that are unique to the southern hemisphere. And the Tswana and Venda traditions saw these stars as the giraffes. The bright stars in Crux were male giraffes, and the pointers are female giraffes.  They also look at the fainter stars in the Southern Cross as being little giraffes. So, for them, this is a family of giraffes. And this goes with a lot of their traditions saw stars as animals existing in the sky. Not gods, not great heroes of old. We’ve already thrown a lazy man’s head up to create the sun. But just the day to day animals they saw.


Fraser:                         And that’s classic, right? Every culture adapts the constellations that they see in the sky to the things that they are familiar with.


Pamela:                        That’s a bit terrifying if you think that the Greeks were familiar with gods coming down and smiting them from Olympus. But we’ll go with it.


Fraser:                         In their myth. But scorpions and whatever they see. Bears. The dipper is the plow. If you’re not a farming society, maybe you don’t see a plow. Maybe you see a spoon. Or if it’s upside down, then you see something different. So, it’s interesting how we see what is familiar. In Canada, I’m sure the indigenous people here never thought that – well, I guess they couldn’t see the Southern Cross. But they wouldn’t see it as giraffes.


Pamela:                        And this is where you also begin to see the things that are important to people. With the San people, ants were a fairly prominent part of their diet. They’re an amazing source as protein that many people are seeing as, perhaps, the salvation as our environment slowly collapses. But that’s a different show. So, with the ready supply of ants in the area where they were living, ants were super important. And the Ixam San people thought that Canopus could influence the availability of ants’ eggs. So, they called it the Ant Egg Star. And I just find that kind of awesome.


And Canopus, which is another one of the fairly bright stars in the southern hemisphere, also cropped up with the Tswana people, who saw its appearance as marking the time to breed sheep.


Fraser:                         Right. So, once again, using space as your calendar.


Pamela:                        And so, here we have all these different – when do we do what? How do we navigate? These are the kinds of things that we see cropping up in stories all over the world. And for them, it was a matter of you navigate by keeping the Southern Cross on the right. Keeping the Pleiades on your left. And walk on forward into the sunrise.


Fraser:                         Very cool. And you said there was a whole other civilization.


Pamela:                        So, we’ve been going back and forth as we talk between the Tswana and Venda people and the San people. So, just comparing their different kinds of stories.


Fraser:                         Again, I’m not sure how direct this is, but I did find one reference that there’s a conical tower in Zimbabwe that is believed to be aligned with a supernova remnant.


Pamela:                        That is excellent. And I have to admit that I went down the ethnic graphic stories and didn’t come across that.


Fraser:                         In preparing for the show, it was actually really tough, unfortunately, to find good information about all of the stuff that had been done. There were a lot of separate little bits and pieces and fragments. I’ve seen some mentions of some petroglyphs, but still not the same kind of really comprehensive information all in one location that you find with other places. Which is too bad.


Pamela:                        And part of this is you get buildings in places where the weather doesn’t allow you to live outside. And you get buildings in places where you’re building with things other than trees. So, where I live here in the United States, along the Mississippi River, the Mississippian people built the largest structures that were built by humans anywhere on the earth, and no one knows about them. It’s the Cahokia Mounds. They are giant dirt piles because we don’t have stone here. So, they piled dirt, and more dirt, and a lot more dirt. And they made piles of dirt. And they built wooden structures on top of the piles of dirt. And the wooden structures went away.


And as we look at so many of these different peoples, we have their history in caves. We have their history in statutes. We have their history in oral traditions. But we don’t have as many as those giant stone structures, and mores the pity.


Fraser:                         There’s one location that I was able to find that was in Kenya, called Namoratunga.


Pamela:                        So, I left out Kenya because it’s so much further north.


Fraser:                         So, you want to just stick to southern Africa.


Pamela:                        Yeah.


Fraser:                         Okay. No problem.


Pamela:                        Yeah. Giant continent, trying to –


Fraser:                         Yeah, I know. And don’t even get us started on the pyramids potentially aligning with the belt stars of Orion, or not, as a way to lead the UFOs in to land and help construct the – wait, this is Astronomy Cast. Never mind. That’s for that other podcast that I do.


Pamela:                        So, going back to Canopus, because why not? So, the Ixam tribe of the San people saw Canopus of the ant egg star, which I find awesome. The Tswana knew that it meant it was time to start breeding sheep. Now, the Venda tradition, to them, they had a tradition that the first person to see Canopus, which they called Knaca, they needed to get themselves a black sheep horn, climb to the nearest hill and blow the horn. And whoever did this would receive a cow as a prize. Now, the reason that so many people put so much importance on Canopus is this was the star that meant winter was coming, the seasons are changing, and we need to prepare.


When you are, essentially, a hunter gather, as the San people have been and continue to be, knowing it’s time to hunker down and get ready for winter, that’s an important thing to know.


Fraser:                         Right. And so, I’m just sort of imagining, as the seasons change with the tilt of the earth, you’re gonna get this moment where at a certain point this star is gonna first peak above the horizon. And that’s when you know that this is starting to happen.


Pamela:                        Yes. And it wasn’t just Canopus that was used to mark the seasons. Because of course, you have two different seasons. And the Pleiades is another one of those constellations that plays an amazingly strong role throughout all of these different peoples. And the reason is, well, for me, that first sighting of Pleiades and Orion on the horizon when I’m coming home from work means it’s winter. It’s finally cooling off. Well, for them, Pleiades meant it’s time to start to plant. The summer has finally come. And so, here you also have these fabulous stories that are related to both the Pleiades and to the constellation Orion.


Fraser:                         Do they have an explanation for what the Pleiades are?


Pamela:                        Well, it depends on which tribe you go to. And generally, they saw it as, again, a group of animals.


Fraser:                         A group of witches.


Pamela:                        Yeah, yeah. It’s at least consistent. Now, the witches were generally busy throwing people into space. Let me just do a highlight reel of all the ways that this would happen. So, first of all, you have in the San tradition, the pointer stars of the Southern Cross are lions, not giraffes like they were with the Venda people. And these male lions used to be human beings, but a magical girl turned them into stars. So, there we have one example. Our next example comes to us with the Corona Australis constellation. This is a bright ring of stars. It is clearly a ring of stars that is also sometimes referred to as the Southern Crown, and it’s near the constellation Scorpius.


And for them, this is a group of men who had been sitting together eating, and then, got bewitched when a young girl looked upon them, turning them into stars.


Fraser:                         I think I found the reference document that you’re using. Do you see the story for the Milky Way?


Pamela:                        Yeah. That was exactly what I was going to next. So, this is my favorite of all the stories. Because I can imagine a certain amount of this is also, “I hate vegetables.” So, here in the Ixam San people tradition, the Milky Way was created by a girl of an ancient race who scooped up a handful of ashes and fire, and flew it into the sky. And there had been edible roots cooking in the fire.


Fraser:                         Yeah. She was mad that her mom wouldn’t give her some of these tasty roots. And so, she grabbed the fire and threw them up into the sky.


Pamela:                        And so, I can just imagine this story being told when someone’s like, “I don’t want to eat my vegetables.” And they’re like, “There was this girl who wanted to eat her vegetable so much, she got so mad and she made the Milky Way. You are ungrateful. Eat your vegetables.” Yeah, I don’t know if that’s ever happened, but that’s my head cam and I’m gonna go with it. And this also shows that they paid attention to the colors of the stars because they saw the edible root older glowing pieces as red, and the younger glowing pieces as white, creating the red and white stars that are seen along the Milky Way. Which is also filled with ash from the fire, which is the darkness.


Fraser:                         That’s really cool. Did you have any others?


Pamela:                        Oh, of course.


Fraser:                         More angry women throwing things into the night sky.


Pamela:                        So, it’s much more of, here it starts to get tied to Venus. So, when Venus is an evening star, it’s the dating star. And boys and girls are not allowed to date each other in public. So, according to – and here I’m gonna read from the South African Astronomical Observatory’s Ethno Astronomy page. “Boys and girls were not allowed to date each other in public, so they would arrange a secret get together when the evening star Venus was visible.” So, I just love that Venus is so bright that teenagers would sneak out under the light of Venus for a secret date.


Fraser:                         Which you can do.


Pamela:                        Which you can do because it is pretty bright.


Fraser:                         And they would have no light pollution.


Pamela:                        Exactly. And the morning version of Venus – and again, people didn’t always connect that the morning and evening versions of Venus are the same planet. Here it was basically the light that beckoned young girls out to do their daily chores. And it’s, in fact, so bright that one of the tribes, the Xhosa, they actually recognized that Venus could be seen into daylight. And this is a challenge to all of you because hey, light pollution doesn’t matter during the day. And so, young boys that were out herding would challenge each other to find Venus during the day.


Fraser:                         And you can do that today.


Pamela:                        You can do that today. So, get out there and do the thing.


Fraser:                         Yeah. If you know exactly where to look, you can see Venus during the day.


Pamela:                        So, there are no exciting stories about meteors like we had with Australians. The closest we can get was that a bright meteor is a good indication of a good season ahead. But mostly they kept their traditions in the stars. And it’s just a whole lot of beautiful stories. So, if like me, you grew up reading the European stories behind the constellations, get out there and, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful stories are the South African ones that are meticulously kept in a whole myriad of books. Go buy yourself a book. They’re beautiful stories.


Fraser:                         Fantastic. Pamela, speaking of stories, do you have any names to read this week?


Pamela:                        I do, in fact. We are, as always, so grateful to all of you out there who support us through patreon.com/astronomycast. This week I would like to thank Jordan Young, Berry Gowan, Ranje Anmanthu, Andrew Polstread, David Troy, Brian Keagal, The Giant Nothing, Robert Palsma, Laura Kiddleson, Les Howard, Corey Davaley, Joss Cunningham, Paul Jarmen, and Emily Patterson. Thank you. You guys let us keep doing this, so thank you.


Fraser:                         Thank you so much, and we’ll see you next week for of course, the modern update. Thanks Pamela.


Pamela:                        Bye-bye


Female Announcer 1: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light, Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand, and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information visit them online at www.8thlight.com.  Just remember that’s www the digit 8, T-H, L-I-G-H-T dot com. Drop them a note. 8th Light – software is their craft.  


Female Announcer 2: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by The Planetary Science Institute, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com, tweet us @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook, and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 12:00 p.m. Pacific, or 1900 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley. The outro music is by Travis Serle and the show was edited by Suzie Murph.


[End of Audio]


Duration: 35 minutes

Download MP3| Download Raw Show with Q&A| Show Notes | Jump to Transcript or Download