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Digging Into Science: Archaeoastronomy in a Multicultural Science Curriculum

Greg Whitlock, Austin Community College

(c) 1995 Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Archaeoastronomy is a young science; the word was coined only in 1973. Already it has become a bridge between the humanities and the physical sciences, a way that students can cross from one discipline to the other.

Amidst the steep climb of technological progress, educational levels are sinking, threatening to leave society with a technological caste system of Brahmins and untouchables. The poor, illiterate, and disenfranchised see the gap widen between them and the technocrats; many feel that the consequences of science for their communities have been largely negative.

Science should have no ethnicity, no gender nor age. But saying that doesn’t make it so. We need to work to create a multicultural context for science, to integrate it into the life of all people. One way is through archaeoastronomy.

Interest in ancient astronomy is a powerful means for promoting science in communities of all ethnicities, because it illustrates the universal character of science. Archaeoastronomy introduces scientific concepts to students and stimulates their inquiry into the pursuit of science. It reveals the connection between science and world views in different culture. It puts present-day technological differences between societies into a world historical context. And it helps to provoke thought regarding a much broader issue: the perceived disconnection between science and modern life.

In the humanities classroom, the role of astronomical observation in daily life can stimulate interest in science. In the science classroom, evidence of the equality of cultures and peoples can stimulate interest in multiculturalism. In this age as in the past, cosmology — the common ground of science, philosophy, religion, and myth — can create an interdisciplinary synergy.

The Science of the Whole

This reintegration is based on the assumption that science, in some form or other, is a universal activity. All people seek to discover meaning in human existence. Their yearning is the drive for an umbrella of illusions and pseudo-explanations. Culture is the result of any human endeavor to provide this meaning. Each culture constitutes a perspective from which individuals interpret the natural and social worlds. Nonetheless, complete difference between cultures has never been fully achieved; all cultures are related.

Multiculturalism combines this interpretation of culture with the principle of multiperspectivism: the idea that the truth is most closely approximated when the most perspectives are presented. Few people normally think of multiculturalism in the context of science, but there are important areas of overlap between the two. In science as in multiculturalism, a multitude of perspectives is a strong force; ultimately all forms of science, like all cultures, are related.

Though archaeoastronomy is a new field, it already has tremendous power as a tool for linking disciplines and cultures together. Colgate professor Anthony Aveni has defined archaeoastronomy as “the study of the practice and use of astronomy among the ancient cultures of the world based upon all forms of evidence, written and unwritten.” Throughout history, human imagination has integrated the lights in the night sky into a larger view of human existence. The celestial lights have been recorded, noted or remarked upon in an endless variety of ways, but the continuum of astronomical observation across cultures is indisputable.

Even though archaeoastronomy does not solve particular philosophical conundrums, it casts light on the methods whereby cultures attempt to do so. Aveni, one of the field’s most philosophical thinkers, has distinguished two types of archaeoastronomy, “green” and “brown.” So-called green archaeoastronomy, generally European, concerns itselfentirely with astronomical alignments of ancient megaliths, buildings, and so on. So-called brown archaeoastronomy, practiced in the Americas, asks why people align structures astronomically. The brown variety seeks to integrate ancient astronomy into its cultural context, providing us with ideas about cultural history. An example is Linda Schele’s work interconnecting Maya astronomy to Maya religion and philosophy.

By seeking to understand the purposes to which science is put, rather than seeking to judge ancient science by 20th-century standards, a multicultural approach to archaeoastronomy avoids ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is a fallacy that takes one cultural perspective as universally valid. For example, even though the Sun- centered cosmology is a pivot in the history of modern science, most technologically undeveloped people do not need heliocentrism to explain events in their daily lives. Perhaps multiculturalism is no more (or less) than a temporary educational corrective for the ethnocentrism historically associated with science.

Ontogeny Replicates Phylogeny

“The most important lesson of archaeoastronomy” wrote astronomer Michael Seeds of Franklin and Marshall College, “is that humans don’t have to be technologically sophisticated to admire and study the universe.” The humans that Seeds referred to include our students as well as ancient peoples.

As I have used it in the classroom, archaeoastronomy puts Western, as well as Chinese, philosophy into a relativistic, multicultural context. It has stimulated students’ interest in the physical sciences. I begin my Introduction to Philosophy course with a four-week study of the Maya Popol Vuh, the earliest historical link between astronomy and philosophy. Subsequent topics include the cosmology of Heaven and Earth according to the Chinese philosophers Confucius and Lao Tzu, the cosmology of the Greek philosopher Plato, and the connection between Greek and Egyptian cosmology. These topics give me the opportunity to introduce astronomical ideas such as the solar ecliptic, solstice and equinox, zodiac, phases of the Moon, motion of planets, Milky Way, and precession of equinoxes. Even in the humanities, technical ideas and words don’t have to be avoided in attracting students to science.

Students can readily identify with the perspectives of ancient astronomies, since they share the same geocentric image of the universe that results from earthbound, naked-eye observation. Just as astronomy developed historically from geocentrism to heliocentrism, our students’ perspectives of the universe can develop. If, by analogy to biology, ontogeny replicates phylogeny, then we can use the history of cosmology to teach modern ideas to our students. Instead of just telling them that the Earth goes around the Sun, we can explain how, and among whom, this idea arose.

Despite the power of this approach, many educators give short shrift to pre-Copernican ideas, leaving students with the impression that modern science sprang sui generis from superior European intelligence — and, by analogy, that modern science issues forth from scientists like magic.

All modern forms of science, philosophy, and technology have deep historical roots. Because ancient astronomy was multicultural, the accumulated knowledge of astronomy, in the individual and in society at large, is multicultural. Ancient Egyptian and Greek astronomy are parts of a continuum of early scientific inquiry into the heavens, not the apex of a pyramid of ancient astronomies (see box). Accomplishments of all cultures in science can be detailed as part of a course in the history of science. The once-forgotten Maya and Aztec astronomy is a topic of great interest currently, though we should remember that India, Babylonia and China also undertook systematic observation (see figure).

A student interested in the history of science, through topics such as geocentrism or observational astronomy, may well continue into the study of physical science. As an example of a student in a humanities classroom crossing an interdisciplinary bridge, consider the following. One of my students became convinced that an undeciphered Maya hieroglyph represented a comet. He researched occurrences of comets over Mesoamerica and was able to prove that, in fact, Haley’s comet was seen shortly after the date inscribed in the text, unfortunately for his hypothesis. A month later, I read an announcement of the decipherment of the hieroglyph in question — as a comet. It was not Halley’s, but a lesser known comet, that the Mayas had seen. My student, stimulated by his inquiry, pursued a course in archaeoastronomy.

The progression from cosmology to early modern science is the great nexus of connections between the sciences and humanities, for no other reason than they were in ancient times inseparable. Modern science has an organic relation to the entire history of humanity; its roots go to the first human inquiry. All cultures pursue scientific inquiry in some manner. Science, in turn, can and should marshal a colossal societal effort to improve the lives of all people.

GREG WHITLOCK is a professor of philosophy at Austin Community College, Texas. He has written on such diverse philosophers as Malcolm X, Nietzsche, and Confucius.

Sidebar: The Multicultural Roots of Modern Science

Greg Whitlock, Austin Community College

Modern science, as traditionally taught, appeared one day in 350 B.C. when the Greek natural philosopher Aristotle articulated his cosmology. Yet modern science did not simply arise spontaneously from superstition. Aristotle’s educator, Plato, recognized the multicultural history of the science of his day.

According to Plato, the first astronomers were Egyptians and Syrians. He explicitly claimed that Egyptian and Syrian astronomy influenced the astronomy of Greece and of all other civilizations. He said in his dialogue Epinomis:

The first man to observe these bodies [Venus and Mars] was a non- Hellene. The first observers were made so by the excellence of their summer climate, which in Egypt and Syria is so notable; they had a full view of the stars, we may say, all the year round, as clouds and rains are perpetually banished from their quarter of the world. Their observations have been universally diffused, among ourselves as well as elsewhere, and have stood the test a vast, indeed incalculable, lapse of years.

In the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Greek and Egyptian astronomy, which he had learned from the Priests of Hephaestus at Memphis: “All agreed in saying that the Egyptians by their study of astronomy discovered the solar year and were the first to divide it into twelve parts — and in my opinion their method of calculation is better than the Greek.” The stories of the Babylonian astronomer Naburiannu (who determined the length of the lunar month), Eratosthenes (who first postulated heliocentrism), and the Hindu astronomer Aryabhata (who compiled a manual of astronomy in the sixth century) belong together in the world history of earliest science.

The concept of ethnocentrism has similarly deep roots. Plato said in his Epinomis: “We may take it that whenever Greeks borrow anything from non-Greeks, they finally carry it to a higher perfection.” This, despite the fact that Plato’s own cosmological idea of the axis mundi, the “Spindle of Necessity,” resembles that of the Kogi Indians of Colombia, among others (see figures). The resemblance suggests that modern science, through its Greek ancestor, has still deeper roots in a little-studied Neolithic cosmology.

Illustration captions

The multicultural nature of ancient astronomy

Diagram by Dan Gohl and Gregory Whitlock, based on a diagram in Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham and Wong Ling, adding connections to Africa and Mesoamerica.

Plato’s Cosmic Spindle

In Plato’s cosmology, the spherical Earth was surrounded by a crystalline sphere of fixed stars, supported by an axis mundi, “the Spindle of Necessity.” The spindle attached to the crystalline sphere at points A and J. Other celestial objects were attached to other points by “vital chains”: Saturn (A), Jupiter (C), Mars (D), the Sun (E), Venus (F), Mercury (G), and the Moon (H). The spindle meets the Earth (point I) at the omphalos stone, the navel of the world, in Delphi, Greece. Beyond the sphere of stars exist ideas in an infinite space. Drawing by Gregory Whitlock, based on the Republic, Timaeus, and Epinomis.

The Kogi spindle

The nine levels of Kogi cosmology include the Earth as the central disk, four underworld disks, and four heavenly disks. This cosmology resembles Plato’s, suggesting a universally disseminated set of symbols based on earthbound observation. Diagram courtesy of Griffith Observatory, after G. Reichel-Dolmatoff, as reprinted in Echoes of the Ancient Skies by Ed C. Krupp. Reproduced with permission.


The summer 1995 issue of the ASP’s teachers’ newsletter The Universe in the Classroom, “Indiana Jones and the Astronomers of Yore,” suggests classroom activities for teaching archaeoastronomy. Upcoming newsletters will discuss African and Aboriginal astronomies. Subscriptions to the newsletter are available free of charge to educators who request it on institutional stationery. Write to: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Teachers’ Newsletter Department, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, California 94112-1787. The text of the newsletter is available on the World Wide Web; click here.