Imagine living on earth during a time when there was no electricity. A time with absolutely the bare minimum of any type of light pollution and just pure night time darkness. A time that when the sun set, a celestial showcase revealed a blanket of studded diamonds, twinkling in the night with splendor beyond belief. The wild, the magic, the miracles of survival; all captured in the cycle of day and night.
The closet star to Earth, our Sun, feeds the planet with energy and warmth and the night sky illuminates the senses with creativity, wonder and storytelling. A time telling benefit on planet Earth is the night sky. In this post, archeo-astronomy will touch on the history of cosmology spanning from North and South America and the indigenous humans that inhabited it from long ago including the Aztecs, Incas and two North American Indian tribes such as Hopi and Navajo.
Constellations have a robust history with human civilization. Many ancient dwellers looked to the stars for protection, connection, spiritual guidance, and ceremonial gatherings. Though several cultures spanning around the globe had their own stories from depictions of stars aligning into shapes, the fact that human life looked to the stars with such spiritual essence and created a story to go along with them, means that constellations are nothing less than vital to human existence, culture and belief. Below gathers the perception of North and South America’s most important indigenous monarchs and tribes when in comes to the heavens above.
The Aztecs, similar to the Incas, was comprised of an empire based in Mexico, beginning its reign in the 14th century AD. Though the Aztecs did not have machinery or telescopes, they had a very good tracking system regarding the sun, moon and stars. The Aztecs had a definitive calendar sequence with 365 days for the year in which five of those days were dedicated to sacrifices.
One of history’s most prized possession of the Aztecs is the Aztec Sun Stone. The Aztec Sun Stone is a 24 ton, circular chunk of earth stone with precise and detailed carvings that took approximately 50 years to create. The Aztec Sun Stone depicts the five suns in which the Aztecs believed in. The center of the stone reveals a god with his tongue crawling out, for which the god represents a thirst for blood. The stone is believed to have been laid down flat on the ground and used for sacrifices during the five devoted days for sacrifice.
The Aztecs had a strong belief in the world ending with the fifth sun. Many of their interpretations of the stars were on the foundation of renewal or destruction. The Aztecs acknowledged the Pleiades as a Fire Drill, believing that every 52 years, new fire would be created. They constructed pyramids in alignment with the stars and also had a constellation of a scorpion, most likely similar to Scorpio we see today in which the Aztecs called Teotleco. Teotleco was found in the 12th month of the Aztec calendar.
The Inca Empire was spread across South America throughout Colombia and the Andes. The monarch based Empire was in its peak existence for almost a century from 1438 to 1533 AD. The sun, moon and stars played a serious role in the lives of Incas. The Incas would signify stars and group of stars. The Pleiades was observed by the Incas with many stories of the seven stars. Sacrifices were carried out in the name of stars by Inca shamans. The Incas grouped the stars into constellations representing wildlife such that of a toad, fox and llama, to name a few. Their depictions of shapes glowing in the sky was seen not only as connections between the stars, but also silhouettes from the dark spaces in the sky. The Milky Way was noted by the Incas as a river, called the “Mayu”. When following the Mayu of the sky, at the end of the Mayu was the Urubamba river, a real river flowing in the Andes of Peru. Most all their depictions of the stars and dark space would represent an animal, hero or god. (Minster). The Incas built pyramids as well; however there are no links that they were aligned with the stars such that of the Aztecs and Egyptians.
The Incas created two types of calendars using the sun and moon, one being a solar calendar and the other, a lunar calendar. The ones who would observe and study the sky, by keeping an almanac and other important information, were considered holy and noble.
One constellation from the Incas was found in the Milky Way, between Canis Major and the Southern Cross and was seen as a snake. The Incas called it the “Mach’acuay”, which means the serpent. Coincidentally, this constellation came out during the season in which snakes were more active from the months between August and February. Another constellation that the Incas recognized was, the “Atoq”, known as the fox. Atoq was also perceived by the Incas as a connection between the time the constellation appeared in the sky and the time when baby foxes were born. To the Incas, everything was connected; between time, the cosmos and the land. Their interpretations of the stars related to real events that occurred on Earth, in opposition of Western constellation mythology, which is more based on legends. ”The universe of the Quechuas is not composed of a series of discrete phenomena and events, but rather there is a powerful synthetic principle underlying the perception and ordering of objects and events in the physical environment.” (Urton 126). The Inca’s belief in the stars have managed to carry on with their ancestors even after the empires demise due to the Spanish conquistadors.
The Hopi Native Americans were one of the earliest known humans to roam and settle southwestern United States, more in particular, Arizona. They are also known as Pueblo people because they lived in adobe and pueblo style homes, made out of hardened clay. The Hopi’s did in fact look to the sky for many of their spiritual and religious beliefs. The Hopi’s had artwork that portrayed alien like forms of extraterrestrial visitors, known as the “Ant people”, which are very similar to depictions we see today as “the Greys”.
The Hopi’s observed the Pleiades and called it Chuhukon. The Hopi’s believed they were descendants from the glorious star cluster, Chuhukon. They held ceremonies in its name, one gathering was held in the harvest of corn, called the green corn dance, in which a medicine man would gather seven ears of corn and perform a ritual in the hopes of a bountiful harvest.
The Hopi had a religious belief that they were living in a series of worlds. The fourth world was their present world and the three worlds before them were destroyed. The Hopi Indians referred to a blue star. The blue star was a sign signifying, the beginning of the end, in which the blue star reflected purification of the world ending and a new world beginning. The Hopi blue star prophecy can be linked to a possible asteroid attack. In fact, NASA discovered a blue star that was the object of creation when a trifecta of stars collided in the Milky Way. This created a miraculous event, in that the three stars were all blasted from an encounter with the edge of the black hole and during that blast, two of those stars collided and created this bold and wickedly hot, young blue star. The blue star now fulfills a galactic destiny of roaming the Milky Way at a rate of 1.6 million miles per hour. (Dunbar).
The Navajo are a Native American tribe that settled in Southwestern America around the 14th Century. They learned a lot from the Hopi (Pueblo people). They looked up to the stars and as many cultures have, identified constellations and created meaningful stories that related to their tribe. The Navajo called constellations “So’ Dine’e” which can be translated to “Star People”. Most of the constellations that were observed by the Navajo were depicted as actual Navajos. For example, what we know as the big dipper, was known by the Navajo as a grown Navajo man laying on his side, representing the man of the home. Another constellation, known by Western culture as Cassiopeia, is noted by the Navajo’s as a woman laying on her side, representing the woman of the home. According to their meanings behind the constellations, it is quite bold to say that this tribe was extremely family orientated and had much respect for the adults in the tribe.
The stars carried much meaning to the Navajos and they embedded their constellation meanings into their culture with integrity. One popular and long standing tradition with the tribe is a string game, in which they shape a string using their fingers to depict constellations.
The Navajo believed that the Coyote was the creator of the stars and that the coyote stole this creation from man and woman. However, the Coyote placed each and every star very carefully and is the beholder of all that shines in the sky.
From the beginning of time, man looked up into the night sky and created a vision that goes beyond reality, though many ancestors did not have the technological advances that are used today. Nevertheless, ancestors from all cultures used the stars for spiritual food and also for guidance between the heavens and the earth.
Modern times are extremely different as industrialization has spread rapidly across the globe. With industrialization comes buildings and with buildings comes lots of light pollution. With light pollution hovering over the atmosphere, star viewing is significantly decreased. Culture and astronomy still holds well with many people and their heritage but overall, star viewing has dwindled due to the fact that not very many people can actually see the night sky at its fullest and most wondrous potential. Many children today haven’t seen the Milky Way, versus in the 14th century, when all children did, especially in North and South America. It can be clearly determined that astronomy has helped ancient ancestors understand the universe better in both the physical and spiritual beliefs.
“Ancient Inca Astronomy in Plain English!.” Ancient Inca Astronomy in Plain English!. Web. 02 Apr. 2016.
Cobo, Bernabé, and Roland Hamilton. Inca Religion and Customs. Austin: U of Texas, 1990. Print.
Dunbar, Brian. “Hyperfast Star Was Booted From Milky Way.” NASA. NASA, 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2016.
“Teotleco, Return of the Gods, the 12th Month of the Aztec Solar Calendar.” WDL RSS. John Carter Brown Library. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.
Urton, Gary. At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky: An Andean Cosmology. Austin: U of Texas, 1981. Print.