School of Archaeology and Ancient History

Lecture 8: Astronomy in context: case studies from modern indigenous groups

Tesselated pavement with cup-shaped depressions, Patonga Road, New South Wales Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester.


To illustrate, through case studies from modern indigenous groups, the differing nature of astronomies in non-Western cultural contexts and to highlight and question a number of assumptions that are commonly made when studying astronomies in historic or prehistoric contexts.

Further information and supporting materials

The Hopi ceremonial calendar

The precision of the Hopi horizon calendar is referred to extensively, for example in Colin Renfrew's Before Civilization. See also Stephen McCluskey, "The astronomy of the Hopi Indians", Journal for the History of Astronomy 8 (1977), 174–95; "Space, time and the calendar in the traditional cultures of America", chapter 3 of Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s. Also, on the Zuni and their sun-watching stations see Michael Zeilik, "Keeping the sacred and planting calendar: archaeoastronomy in the Pueblo southwest", chapter 10 in World Archaeoastronomy (see main reading list).

Mursi time-reckoning

The original paper on this is David Turton and Clive Ruggles, "Agreeing to disagree: the measurement of duration in a southwestern Ethiopian community", Current Anthropology 19 (1978), 585–600. For commentary see, e.g., Aveni's Empires of Time (see main reading list), pp. 172–4.

The Borana calendar and Namoratunga

For all the relevant references see chapter 11 of Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s.

Cosmology and architecture in the US South-west

On the Pawnee see Von Del Chamberlain, When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America, Ballena Press/Center for Archaeoastronomy, 1982, esp. pp. 155–62 and178–83 on earth lodges. On the Navajo see Trudy Griffin-Pierce, Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Time and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting, University of New Mexico Press, 1992, esp. pp. 21 and 92–6 on hogans.

For a glimpse of the sheer complexity that may be encountered when we try to understand the ways in which the structure of the cosmos is reflected in a whole variety of aspects of social behaviour, compare the example of the Yucatec Maya village of Yalcobá (John R. Sosa, "Cosmological, symbolic and cultural complexity among the contemporary Maya of Yucatan", pp. 130–42 of World Archaeoastronomy (see main reading list).

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Last updated: 10 May 2002 13:18
Prof C.L.N. Ruggles
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