African Archaeoastronomy

There is an overall lack of information on cultural astronomy and archaeoastronomy in Sub-Saharan Africa. This having been said, it was rather difficult for me to gain access to scholarly works on the subject, resulting in my eventual purchase of African Cultural Astronomy, a collection of articles pertinent to “current archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy research in Africa.” Within this book, many articles were not relevant to my project as they either dealt with Northern Africa or initiatives to increase astronomy research and education in Africa.

Africa consists of over a thousand different ethnic groups and tribes, each with varying astronomical views and practices. As it requires a significant amount of time, money, and effort to systematically analyze and record each groups’ astronomical views, a large amount of Africa’s astronomical knowledge is left undocumented. In the ancient Mali city of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts, mostly from the 15th and 16th centuries, are stored in the city’s main library. Of these manuscripts, several are found to contain astronomical records and information. One such manuscript contained information on using the stars for navigation, observing the stars as a means to keep track of prayer times, and calendar determination based on astronomy. This article also contained an algorithm to determine leap years in the Islamic calendar which was confirmed to be accurate. Another manuscript provides recordings of a meteor shower in August 1583. Thousands of Timbuktu manuscripts have yet to be studied due to lack of time and resources. Perhaps more astronomical records will be unveiled as more manuscripts are studied.

Sun and Moon worship tend to be fairly ubiquitous religious practices throughout Africa. Many cave paintings depict the Sun and/or the Moon. The Igbo people of Nigeria view the Sun as harsh and the Moon as loving. The Sun and Moon are depicted as a married couple in a myth among the Sandawe people of Tanzania:

Very long ago the Sun, who was the son of Mathunda,

Lived in the north [the country of] Omi.

In those olden days, the earth was very beautiful and cool,

And the ruler of the earth was the Moon.

When the son of Mathunda looked up and saw the Moon,

He loved her very much, and he followed her to the south,

There where she lived in the sky. And he said: “Her I shall marry” (Opata 2008).


One Igbo tradition involves staring at the Sun for extended periods of time allowing for the “third eye” to emerge and view enlightening experiences. The Igbo society exhibits rampant Sun worship and even produces shrines to the Sun such as Onu Anyanwu. One Nigerian ethnic group, believes that the Sun and Moon once lived in harmony, until the two had a child. The Sun (wife) asked the Moon (husband) to hold the child. The Moon was burnt by holding the child and dropped it, angering the Sun, who, to this day, pursues the Moon around the sky. Some traditions suggest that the Sun and Earth are married, as opposed to the aforementioned Sun and Moon duo.

Many other legends and practices in relation to the sky exist. The Igbo people believes that supernatural beings inhabit the sky, spirits inhabit the area below Earth, and humans live on the ground. A red sunset was viewed as a sign of death. The Igbo calendar was based on the lunar cycle, divided into twelve months each consisting of seven weeks of four days. Occasionally, a thirteenth month would be added to keep the year in sync with the seasons. Another myth states that an eclipse is a harbinger of the end of the world. For the duration of the eclipse, people would beat drums and ask the gods to spare the world. There is some evidence of constellation naming, such as the Hausa name for the Pleiades, kaza Maiyaya (the hen with chickens).

Africa is rich with ethnoastronomy data, but resources are not available to study the astronomical knowledge of various ethnic groups. I am surprised by the lack of scholarly articles pertaining to African archaeoastronomy.


J. Holbrook et al. African Cultural Astronomy – Current Archaeastronomy and Ethnoastronomy Research in Africa. Springer Science+Business Media B.V., 2008. Print.

I read the following articles from African Cultural Astronomy:

Chami, Felix A. “Evidence of Ancient African Beliefs in Celestial Bodies.”

Chukwuezi, B. “The Relationship Between Human Destiny and the Cosmic Forces – A Study of the IGBO Worldview.”

Medupe, Rodney T. et al. “The Timbuktu Astronomy Project.”

Opata, Damian U. “Cultural Astronomy in the Lore and Literature of Africa.”

Urama, J. O. “Astronomy and Culture in Nigeria.”