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Mali: the wonders of Dogon astronomy.

The intriguing knowledge of astronomy by the Dogon people of Mali was first brought to the attention of the Western world in 1977 by Robert Temple, a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain, in his book The Sirius Mystery. But the Dogons have known about the wonders of space for over 700 years, without telescopes and technical equipment, Paliani Gomani Chinguwo reports.


Before the advent of the transatlantic slave trade and the scramble for Africa by European nations, there existed in Timbuktu, Mali, an intellectual centre of international stature and a model of true multiculturalism. At its peak in the 16th century, the University of Sankore had about 25,000 students.

In a mountainous area about 320km from where this legendary university once stood, live a people called the Dogon. They are unique in the sense that they have kept, and continue to develop, their culture even in the midst of Islamic influences.

Jean Rouch, a French anthropologist and filmmaker, once reported that the Dogon elders stay up all night and watch the sky. "They watch from caves and from the rooftop terraces of their homes." It is through such observation with the naked eye that the Dogon have been able to acquire a complex knowledge of astronomy which bewilders scientists.


In an article, The Lost Sciences of Africa, the African-American author, Prof Ivan van Sertimer, argues that the astronomer-priests of the Dogon had for centuries possessed a very modern view of the solar system and of the universe--the rays of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, the spiral structure of the Milky Way Galaxy, etc.

The Dogon knew the moon was a barren world. "It was dry and dead, like dried blood," they have always held this view--for over 700 years, long before America ever became a nation and dreamt of creating Nasa and sending astronomers into space.

According to the Dogons, the star in the universe called Sirius has a companion star called Sirius B which is invisible to the naked eye (except perhaps the Dogon eye). They say this companion star has a 50-year elliptical orbit around the visible Sirius, and is extremely heavy.

They further explain that Sirius B rotates on its own axis. Surprisingly, the Dogons' drawings of the Sirius B orbit match exactly modern astronomical drawings. The Dogon once drew a diagram showing the course and trajectory of Sirius B up to the year 1990. Surprisingly too, modern astronomy projections are identical to this. The Dogon further say that this tiny star (Sirius B) is composed of a metal heavier than iron and that if all men on Earth were a single lifting force, they could not budge it. Here too, modern science overwhelmingly confirms that this is indeed the nature of that type of star--"a white dwarf, a star so compacted that its mass may be many times larger".


The Dogon go even further in their observations about Sirius B, far beyond what modern astronomers know. For instance, they hold that Sirius B has an orbit of one year around its own axis. They were so certain of this that they held a special celebration called "bado" to honour that orbit.

However, modern science has not been able to confirm or deny this Dogon observation. But being 100,000 times less bright than its companion, Sirius B was unknown to the Western world until 1862 when Alvin Clark, an American, spotted it through the largest telescope of the time. But Sirus B would not be photographed until 1970. Yet, without telescopes or any other technical equipment, the Dogon had known about the existence of Sirius B and its features for eons.

Their observations are so incredible that Hunter Adams, a renowned scientist, reported in his article, African Observers of the Universe--the Sirius Question: "Their [Dogon] extensive celestial knowledge, particularly that concerning this invisible star (Sirius B) is a mystery that has sent shock waves around the scientific world."

The intriguing story of the Dogon and their legend was first brought to the attention of the world in 1977 by Robert Temple, a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain in his book The Sirius Mystery. Temple, however, speculated that UFOs (unidentified flying objects) or rather space beings from the Sirius star system must have brought the marvellous knowledge down to the Dogon people.

In response to Temple's book, a science writer, Ian Ridpath, and astronomer, Carl Sagan, in their usual Eurocentric view, suggested that the Dogon's knowledge must have originated from "highly knowledgeable" explorers from Europe or America who came to discuss astronomy with their priests.

This is how contemptuous world scholarship can be towards African scientific capabilities. Another example in this regard is when the Great Zimbabwe ruins were first brought to the attention of the Western world in the 19th century.

Western critics contended that the Africans could not have possessed the skills to construct the dry-stone edifices, to smelt the gold, to curve the sculpture, and to mould the pottery that had been uncovered at the site of the Great Zimbabwe ruins. They strongly held that the Great Zimbabwe ruins must have been the work of Europeans.

Nevertheless, what Ridpath and Sagan's theory fails to explain is a 400-year-old Dogon artifact that apparently depicts the Sirius configuration, nor the ceremonies held by the Dogon since the 13th century to celebrate the cycle of Sirius A and B.

Besides, how did the Dogon know about the super density of Sirius B, a fact only found out by Western scholars in 1936 when their anthropologists first recorded the Dogon stories?

Another school of thought holds that having been the direct descendants of the Ancient Egyptians, the Dogon must have brought to Mali the astronomical legends that date beyond 3200BC from the Nile valley civilisations.

However one may incline towards the three explanations regarding how the Dogon came to have all that vast astronomical information, the truth of the matter is that with the overwhelming evidence to support their astonishing observations of the universe, certainly the Dogon have left an indelible mark on science and history at large.
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Title Annotation:Feature
Author:Chinguwo, Paliani Gomani
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6MALI
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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