The Dogon people are an ethnic group in Mali, West Africa, reported by some researchers to have traditional astronomical knowledge about Sirius that would normally be considered impossible without the use of telescopes. According to Marcel Griaule‘s books Conversations with Ogotemmêli and The Pale Fox they knew about the fifty-year orbital period of Sirius and its companion prior to western astronomers. They also refer to a third star accompanying Sirius A and B. Robert Temple‘s 1976 book The Sirius Mystery, credits them with knowledge of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. This has been the subject of controversy and speculation.
Doubts have been raised about the validity of Griaule and Dieterlein’s work. In a 1991 article in Current Anthropology anthropologist Walter van Beek concluded after his research among the Dogon that, “Though they do speak about sigu tolo [which is what Griaule claimed the Dogon called Sirius] they disagree completely with each other as to which star is meant; for some it is an invisible star that should rise to announce the sigu [festival], for another it is Venus that, through a different position, appears as sigu tolo. All agree, however, that they learned about the star from Griaule.”
Noah Brosch explained in his book Sirius Matters that the cultural transfer of relatively modern astronomical information could have taken place in 1893, when a French expedition arrived in Central West Africa to observe the total eclipse on April 16.
Mali, officially the Republic of Mali, is a landlocked country in West Africa. Mali is the eighth largest country in Africa, with an area of just over 1,240,000 square kilometres. The population of Mali is 14.5 million. Its capital is Bamako.
Above is the Central Bank of West African States, BCEAO in Bamako.
This topic is considered a controversial topic because scientist and archaeologist are baffled by the Dogon’s knowledge of astronomy. These are some theories/speculations as how the Dogons obtain this information.
Dogon and Sirius
Certain researchers investigating the Dogon have reported that they seem to possess advanced astronomical knowledge, the nature and source of which have subsequently become embroiled in controversy. From 1931 to 1956 the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule studied the Dogon. This included field missions ranging from several days to two months in 1931, 1935, 1937 and 1938 and then annually from 1946 until 1956.
In late 1946 Griaule spent a consecutive thirty-three days in conversations with the Dogon wiseman Ogotemmêli, the source of much of Griaule and Dieterlen’s future publications. They reported that the Dogon believe that the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (sigi tolo or “star of the Sigui”), has two companion stars, pō tolo (the Digitaria star), and ęmmę ya tolo, (the female Sorghum star), respectively the first and second companions of Sirius A. Sirius, in the Dogon system, formed one of the foci for the orbit of a tiny star, the companionate Digitaria star. When Digitaria is closest to Sirius, that star brightens: when it is farthest from Sirius, it gives off a twinkling effect that suggests to the observer several stars. The orbit cycle takes 50 years. They also claimed that the Dogon appeared to know of the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter.
Griaule and Dieterlen were puzzled by this Sudanese star system, and prefaced their analysis with the disclaimer, “The problem of knowing how, with no instruments at their disposal, men could know the movements and certain characteristics of virtually invisible stars has not been settled, nor even posed.”
In 1976 Robert K. G. Temple wrote a book called The Sirius Mystery arguing that the Dogon’s system reveals precise knowledge of cosmological facts only known by the development of modern astronomy, since they appear to know, from Griaule and Dieterlen’s account, that Sirius is part of a binary star system, whose second star, Sirius B, a white dwarf, is however completely invisible to the human eye (just as Digitaria has the smallest grain known to the Dogon) and that it takes 50 years to complete its orbit. The existence of Sirius B had only been inferred to exist through mathematical calculations undertaken by Friedrich Bessel in 1844. Temple then argued that the Dogon’s information, if traced back to ancient Egyptian sources and myth, indicates an extraterrestrial transmission of knowledge of the stars. Neither Griaule nor Dieterlen had ever made such bold claims about a putative esoteric source for the Dogon’s knowledge.
More recently, doubts have been raised about the validity of Griaule and Dieterlein’s work. In a 1991 article in Current Anthropology anthropologist Walter van Beek concluded after his research among the Dogon that, “Though they do speak about sigu tolo [which is what Griaule claimed the Dogon called Sirius] they disagree completely with each other as to which star is meant; for some it is an invisible star that should rise to announce the sigu [festival], for another it is Venus that, through a different position, appears as sigu tolo. All agree, however, that they learned about the star from Griaule.”
Griaule’s daughter Genevieve Calame-Griaule responded in a later issue, arguing that Van Beek did not go “through the appropriate steps for acquiring knowledge” and suggesting that van Beek’s Dogon informants may have thought that he had been “sent by the political and administrative authorities to test the Dogon’s Muslim orthodoxy.” An independent assessment is given by Andrew Apter of the University of California.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics is a system of writing that utilized symbols to denote specific meanings. Many contemporary Egyptologists contend that the grouping of hieroglyphics symbols offers a phonetic pronunciation of the words utilized. They imply that these words only refer to the concept described, sun, horse, God, etc. Did ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts and scripts have more than just a phonetic meaning? Is there an intrinsic meaning implied by the symbols they used that offer an insight into their cosmology? – Dr. Rita
In a 1978 critique, skeptic Ian Ridpath concluded: “There are any number of channels by which the Dogon could have received Western knowledge long before they were visited by Griaule and Dieterlen.” In his book Sirius Matters, Noah Brosch postulates that the Dogon may have had contact with astronomers based in Dogon territory during a five-week expedition, led by Henri-Alexandre Deslandres, to study the solar eclipse of 16 April 1893.
Robert Todd Carroll also states that a more likely source of the knowledge of the Sirius star system is from contemporary, terrestrial sources who provided information to interested members of the tribes. James Oberg however, citing these suspicions notes their completely speculative nature, writing that, “The obviously advanced astronomical knowledge must have come from somewhere, but is it an ancient bequest or a modern graft? Although Temple fails to prove its antiquity, the evidence for the recent acquisition of the information is still entirely circumstantial.” Additionally, James Clifford notes that Griaule sought informants best qualified to speak of traditional lore, and deeply mistrusted converts to Christianity, Islam, or people with too much contact with whites.
Oberg points out a number of errors contained in the Dogon beliefs, including the number of moons possessed by Jupiter, that Saturn was the furthest planet from the sun, and the only planet with rings. Intrigue of other seemingly falsifiable claims, namely concerning a red dwarf star orbiting around Sirius (not hypothesized until the 1950s) led him to entertain a previous challenge by Temple, asserting that “Temple offered another line of reasoning. ‘We have in the Dogon information a predictive mechanism which it is our duty to test, regardless of our preconceptions.’ One example: ‘If a Sirius-C is ever discovered and found to be a red dwarf, I will conclude that the Dogon information has been fully validated.’
This alludes to reports that the Dogon knew of another star in the Sirius system, Ęmmę Ya, or a star “larger than Sirius B but lighter and dim in magnitude.” In 1995, gravitational studies indeed showed the possible presence of a brown dwarf star orbiting around Sirius (a Sirius-C) with a six-year orbital period. A more recent study using advanced infrared imaging concluded that the probability of the existence of a triple star system for Sirius is “now low” but could not be ruled out because the region within 5 AU of Sirius A had not been covered.
Sirius, known in ancient Egypt as Sopdet (Greek: Σῶθις Sothis), is recorded in the earliest astronomical records. During the era of the Middle Kingdom, Egyptians based their calendar on the heliacal rising of Sirius, namely the day it becomes visible just before sunrise after moving far enough away from the glare of the Sun. This occurred just before the annual flooding of the Nile and the summer solstice, after a 70-day absence from the skies. The hieroglyph for Sothis features a star and a triangle. Sothis was identified with the great goddess Isis, who formed a part of a triad with her husband Osiris and their son Horus, while the 70-day period symbolised the passing of Isis and Osiris through the duat(Egyptian underworld).
Sirius is the brightest star in the Earth’s night sky. With a visual apparent magnitude of −1.46, it is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star. The name “Sirius” is derived from the Ancient Greek: Σείριος Seirios.
In the religion of the Serer people of Senegal, The Gambia and Mauritania, Sirius is called Yoonir from the Serer language (and some of the Cangin language speakers, who are all ethnically Serers). The star Sirius is one of the most important and sacred stars in Serer religious cosmology and symbolism. The Serer high priests and priestesses, (Saltigues, the hereditary “rain priests” chart Yoonir in order to forecast rain fall and enable Serer farmers to start planting seeds. In Serer religious cosmology, it is the symbol of the universe.
One of many Dogon dwellings.
Dogon villages have different buildings:
- Male granary: storage place for pearl millet and other grains. Building with a pointed roof. This building is well protected from mice. The amount of filled male granaries is an indication for the size and the richness of a guinna.
- Female granary: storage place for a woman’s things, her husband has no access. Building with a pointed roof. It looks like a male granary but is less protected against mice. Here, she stores her personal belongings such as clothes, jewelry, money and some food. A woman has a degree of economic independence, and earnings and things related to her merchandise are stored in her personal granary. She can for example make cotton or pottery. The number of female granaries is an indication for the number of women living in the guinna.
- Tógu nà (a kind of case à palabres): a building only for men. They rest here much of the day throughout the heat of the dry season, discuss affairs and take important decisions in the toguna. The roof of a toguna is made by 8 layers of millet stalks. It is a low building in which one cannot stand upright. This helps with avoiding violence when discussions get heated.
- House for menstruating women: this house is on the outside of the village. It is constructed by women and is of lower quality than the other village buildings. Women having their period are considered to be unclean and have to leave their family house to live during five days in this house. They use kitchen equipment only to be used here. They bring with them their youngest children. This house is a gathering place for women during the evening. This hut is also thought to have some sort of reproductive symbolism due to the fact that the hut can be easily seen by the men who are working the fields who know that only women who are on their period, and thus not pregnant, can be there.