Friday, October 28, 2005

Sirius, revisited...

To revisit, a summary:

The ethnoastronomical traditions of the Dogon contain some startling anomalies, particularly with regard to Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens. The Dogon believe that another star orbits Sirius, so small it is invisible to the naked eye, like a grain of fonio, hence the name Digitaria applied by [the anthropologists] Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen after fonio’s Latin name. Digitaria, say the Dogon, though tiny, is extremely heavy, and completes an orbit around Sirius every fifty years. This period is allegedly connected with Dogon calculations of intervals between festivals of Sigui, major commemorations of the transmission of speech and the knowledge of death by the mythical creator, Nommo.
At first glance the similarities between the known properties of Sirius B and the Dogon description of Digitaria are nothing less than astonishing. What is this information about an invisible star, the physics of which marked a recent frontier of European cosmology, doing in Dogon astronomical lore, where according to Griaule and Dieterlen it is tied to calendrical reckoning for a festival tradition at least six or seven centuries old? That is the essense of The Sirius Mystery, Robert K. G. Temple’s at once provocative and irritating exploration of this problem.

Temple’s book is provocative because it has uncloseted a portion of our limited knowledge of African ethnoastronomy. It is irritating because he evidently allows his enthusiasm to obscure his judgment and the rigor of his research. As a result, his hypotheses will be ridiculed.
Because of its resemblance to recent European cosmology, one’s instinctive temptation is to write off the Digitaria tradition simply as a recent accretion. Yet the heaviness quality of Sirius B could not have been introduced much before the 1920s, as the physics of white dwarf stars matured several decades after the discovery of Sirius B. One cannot discount completely the influence of some colonial administrator who was also an amateur astronomer-physicist, but on the whole this possibility seems unlikely. Griaule and Dieterlen themselves seem not to have appreciated the anomalous quality of their information, at least not immediately, and in an article published as late as 1971 Dieterlen preferred to leave the Digitaria question open, describing the information as inexplicable at the time.

Direct observation by the Dogon of the Sirius system can pretty much be ruled out. Even if it were not obscured by the glare of its huge primary, Sirius B would still be invisible to the naked eye, since its visual magnitude has been placed at between +7.0 and 8.0, beyond the resolution of normal human eyesight. Related to this problem are other objects in Dogon astronomical lore, which seem to lie in borderline areas of visibility. The Dogon evidently are aware of the four largest satellites of Jupiter, known as the Galilean satellites because Galileo noticed them so quickly when he turned his small telescope on the heavens in 1610. These bodies have a mean visual magnitude of around + 6.5, and they have been observed by individuals without instruments under favorable conditions. The rings of Saturn also appear in Dogon lore. I know of no record of unaided observation of this phenomenon, although it can be seen quite readily through a small telescope. Overall, Dogon observation of the heavens—if that is indeed the source of the knowledge—seems to have pushed to the limits of human visual abilities. It would be interesting to know to what extent acute eyesight guaranteed one a spot in the Dogon priesthood under these circumstances.

(The International Journal of African Historical Studies,
Vol. 10, No. 4 (1977) :655)

My own opinion would be that the self-appointed masters of knowledge in the tribe were most likely charlatans of one sort or another as they typically are and that they probably had knowledge of a small telescope to observe their "gods"/stars. But I might be just trying to write a story into history, another history that would be projecting onto the past an argument with these sorts of fellows . Those fellows that often seem to me to be our modern charlatans trying to use knowledge to write mythological narratives of Naturalism. So my story would have holes in it, like the fact that Sirius A blurs out the light of Sirius B so that it would seem that any sort of primitve telescope would not be good enough. At any rate, rather than go on and on by bringing up a debates among anthropologists and bringing up more issues about the knowledge involved as well as debates over its explanation I would instead make a few general notes. One, it's likely that in one way or another the ancients had more technology than we typically think that they did. Second, they looked to the stars and told stories about them that were said to explain human origins. Also, scientists are still looking to the stars and trying to do the same thing with their own stories.

Science is a poor tool for dealing with anomalies, so if an anomaly or singularity is the explanation then it will be a while before it gets to that answer. But at least it is often a better tool than anthropology, which deals with people which often makes it hard to tell where error lies, e.g.:

I also expected to find that Griaule’s creation myths were highly constructed but not directly revelant to Dogon daily life. However, realizing that this expectation would be shared by the majority of the profession, I was also aware that finding the mythical and ideological corpus in the field would be a greater coup than “disproving” Griaule, and I certainly expected to find at least some bits and pieces of the myths. On the whole, I was able to find much less concrete material even than I had expected. The ideas with which Griaule and his informants worked surfaced only as allusions, fragments of ritual expression.
Research is considered normal but superfluous: “Why write this down? All the books have already been written about us!”
(Dogon Restudied: A
Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule
By Walter E.A. van Beek
Current Anthropology, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr., 1991) :144)

Nothing is simple:

The Dogon have three kinds of possible responses to this type of inquiry: ( i ) simply to answer, “I don’t know” (ko ka innem);’ (2) more subtly, to make some such ironic response as van Beek himself records (“All the books have already been written about us!” [p. 144] and “The people who said that, were they by any chance present at the creation, or did they come before it?” [p. 150] stereotyped phrases that the Dogon use when they want to get rid of someone (one finds them, for example, in the reports of journalists who are also trying to recon struct the system)... I think that this explains why the “discoveries” of van Beek often coincide with the first information gathered by ethnologists in the thirties.
(On the Dogon Restudied
By Genevieve Calame-Griaule
Current Anthropology, Vol. 32, No. 5 (Dec., 1991) :576)

That's just one anthropologist's way of calling another anthropologist stupid.

Ko ka innem...hmmm, I don't know.

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