Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol 9, IN PRESS
JournalofCosmology.com, April 14
The Role of Astronomy In Ancient Cultures Juan Antonio Belmonte, Ph.D.
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Vía Láctea S.N., 38200 La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain.
Keywords: archaeoastronomy, alignments, ancient skies, calendars, metaphysics.
1. Finding Our place in the Cosmos: the Role of Cultural Astronomy
Today as in ancient times, astronomers seeking to observe the heavens have journeyed to the summits of the highest mountains, because these are the places where conditions are best suited for astronomical observation. Be it lonely mountain top, or desert, these sites are places which inspire feelings of awe and majesty; a fitting back drop to admire the wonders of the universe. Few specialists have not rested at these ancient observational outposts, under the seemingly endless tapestry of stars, and have not been amazed by their beauty and splendour, because a single view of the starry celestial vault would be sufficient to awake a religious −I would rather say spiritual− experience.
Our ancestors also selected high mountains to study the stars, ideal places from where communication between Earth and Sky was believed possible: the Axes Mundi where feelings of cosmic reality could be experienced. These stars in their endless cycle, returning again and again as they circled the heavens, provided a sense of security, inferring by similarity, rebirth and the transcendence of death. For these and other reasons ancient peoples mapped the firmament in an attempt to find the order where, only in appearance, chaos reigned.
From the mists of time emerged the fully "modern" Cro-Magnon people, Homo sapiens sapiens, with a brain larger on some occasions than modern humans, and the males standing 6 foot tall compared to the shorter Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis with their apparent inability to produce any semblance of art (Joseph 2002). Cro-Magnon were burying their dead, and creating "Venus" figurines, some representing Earth goddess pregnant with swollen belly, one of them holding a symbol of what might be the moon in her hand (see Fig. 1). Joseph (2002) has argued that the 13 lines cut in this presumable lunar symbol may represent an understanding of the link between women and moon; a woman having nearly 13 menstrual periods and the 13 new-moon cycles in a solar year.
Although admittedly speculative, the profuse decoration of the T-pillars may represent yet other astronomical observations, such as the crescent and the star, so common in later cultures of the Middle East and beyond, and an earlier version of which might appear in the Venus figurine which may have been carved over 15,000 years earlier. Then there are what could be interpreted as totemic representations of animals which, if we may continue to speculate, could symbolize constellations, as Leo, Taurus or Scorpios. Certainly these constellations were recognized in the skies of other evolved cultures in the region such as the Sumerians, and their Assyrians and Babylonians heirs, thousands of years later (see Fig. 5).
Fortunately, there are cultures where we are lucky enough to have such important information. In this respect, the partnership between archaeoastronomical fieldwork along with decades of ethnographic information, collected by anthropologist Edmundo Edwards in Easter Island, has allowed us to establish, without doubt, the importance of certain asterisms in the culture of Rapa Nui −singularly Matariki (the Pleiades) or Tautoru (Orion’s Belt, see Fig. 8). This circumstance would be reflected in the related orientation of some of Rapa Nui’s major ceremonial platforms, the ahus, with their huge statues called moais. The celestial symbolism of the local art and the creation of a calendar that, both in its sacred and profane character, came determined by the visibility or invisibility of these celestial bodies at certain epochs of the year (Edwards and Belmonte, 2004). Part of these conclusions may be nuanced by the chronological difference between the last ahu constructors, in the 17th century, and their current descendants. Unfortunately, the original texts in rongorongo tablets, remain undeciphered so that we can not “speak” to the own sculptors of the moais.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This work is partially financed in the framework of the projects «Arqueoastronomía» (P310793) of the IAC, and «Orientatio ad Sidera II» (AYA2007-60213) of the Spanish MICINN.