(Investigator 47, 1996 March)
I venture the opinion that by now, people with even a modicum of interest in astronomy will have heard of or read about a tribe known as the Dogon and Its mysterious astronomical knowledge. Even so, for the benefit of those who haven’t, it is worth repeating.
Living for thousands of years in completely isolated, almost unapproachable rock – cave villages on a bend in the Niger in the Republic of Mali, the Dogon form a tribe of West African people believed to be the original inhabitants of the Niger Valley.
Although the Dogon are a shy and retiring people, and are inclined to discourage outsiders, French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen lived among and studied them from 1946 to 1950. During this period they were able to inspire such a degree of trust that the head priests were persuaded to reveal their most traditional secrets, handed down through generations from ancient times. Something which no one else had previously achieved.
Unable to read or write the Dogon were, nevertheless, able to pass on their knowledge verbally, aided by dramatically graphic sketches, drawn with a stick in the dusty soil.
And the essence of what they revealed was astonishing.
Lying at 8.7 light years from Earth is the star Sirius, one of the best known in the summer sky because it is easily the brightest. To find it, look at the Belt of Orion (the base of the ‘saucepan’) characterised by three bright stars in a short row, and extend your line of sight to the right. The brilliant star to which the line of three stars point is Sirius.
Sirius has a companion; a White Dwarf star known as Sirius B. White Dwarf stars, the end product of the collapse of a main sequence star (such as our Sun) are small, dim and have immense mass. A cubic metre of its substance would weigh 20,000 tons.
Being 100,000 times less bright than its companion, Sirius B was unknown to astronomers until 1862 when American Alvin Clark spotted it through the largest telescope of the time. It wasn't photographed until 1970. Thus, as a naked eye observable object, Sirius B was, and still Is, an impossibility.
But without telescopes or any other technical equipment the Dogon knew, and had known for eons of time of the presence of Sirius B. And not only did they know of its existence, they knew it was 'white, small and heavy – made of a substance heavier than all the iron on Earth' as they put it. Which is as good a general description as you'll get for a White Dwarf Star.
They also knew, correctly, that Sirius B's orbit around Sirius took fifty years to complete and that the orbit was elliptical; such orbits being unknown to us prior to Kepler’s calculations. They even knew where Sirius was in the elliptical system, their sketched diagram being later verified as accurate.
And it didn’t end there. They also knew about Jupiter’s four main satellites and Saturn’s rings, long before Galileo’s telescope revealed them. Moreover, they knew that the Earth turned on its axis, that it was a planet and, with its companion planets orbited the Sun – and all this centuries before Copernicus. They even described the circulation of the blood (‘there is red and White’) and knew that the body absorbed oxygen.
How did they come by all this remarkable information, so long ago?
There are three current propositions. First, that these facts were somehow known by ancient civilisations (Babylonian and/or Egyptian) and were acquired by the Dogon in their ancient migratory wanderings. Second, that some long-ago seer ‘saw’ the phenomenon by psychic means and wove it into the sacred folklore of the tribe. And third, which has intriguing overtones, that the knowledge was given to them by extraterrestrial beings who landed in the area of the Persian Gulf (from whence the Dogon is thought to have originated) at the dawn of human civilisation.
This latter is the Dogon’s own explanation and is explored in some depth by historian Gerald Temple in his book 'The Sirius Mystery'. Space, here, will not permit a lengthy resume but briefly, Temple uncovered evidence, in mythical lore, that not only did the Dogon believe that the 'visitors' were 'amphibious' creatures (which they go at great lengths to describe), and whom they referred to as 'Nommos', but that this myth persists over a wide area. The Babylonians had a god they called 'Oannes', also of amphibious appearance, a superior being who evidently taught the Sumerians mathematics, astronomy, agriculture, social and political organisation and written language. In the words of Dr Carl Sagan, 'all the arts necessary' for making the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to the first civilisation.
Should there be any foundation to all of this, why is it that the knowledge of Sirius B et al had disappeared from the records elsewhere, yet was somehow retained by the Dogon and has endured, albeit only recently revealed, ever since? The Dogon provide their own answer.
According to them, they were themselves visited by these fish-like beings – whom they contend came from a planet in the Sirius system, within which, they insist, is also another star with an orbital period of 32 years (unknown to us) and explain that the visitors 'came in an ark'. They describe to this day the noise of thunder it made, and the whirlwind of dust that accompanied its arrival. They also describe a star-like object in the sky that may have been evidence of the main interstellar spaceship. And all of this long before rockets or any form of aerial transport was even comtemplated let alone invented. Granted, some distortion in the account may have occurred due to its word-of-mouth transmission but the basic facts emerge remarkably close to the truth.
Reference to the Dogon may be found in many books (I have at least three) but the bulk of the foregoing information comes from Francis Hitching's 'World Atlas of Mysteries', (William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1978) which I recommend to anyone interested in mysterious patterns of human activity.
Whatever may be the case in the final analysis, the knowledge by the Dogon certainly cannot be ignored or written off as fanciful imagination. We have all the evidence to support every one of their astonishing scientific claims.
But how they came by them is an entirely different matter. It is probably something which we will never know…