Cosmic Africa explores Africa's astronomy
In a journey that stretched from Namibia to the coastline and steamy jungles of
Ghana, across crocodile infested lakes and deserts of Northern Kenya, the
cliff-side dwellings of the Dogon in Mali and on to the mysterious
archaeological sites of the Egyptian Sahara, the recently launched film Cosmic
Africa explores Africa's ancient astronomy history.
Cosmic Africa , a co-production between Cosmos Studios, Åland Pictures and
Anne Rogers is a unique 72 minute feature length documentary film that both
explores and sheds new light on traditional African astronomy and in turn global
understanding of the world's oldest science. Cosmic Africa is directed and
filmed by the multi-award winning duo, Craig and Damon Foster.
In developing the film, the team's celestial quest put them in touch with
chiefs, calendar specialists, diviners, healers, storytellers, nomads, shamans,
sky lore experts, archaeologists, linguists and anthropologists from six
With logistic and research support from the Combined Prehistoric Expedition
and the Egyptian government, the team journeyed to Nabta Playa - a mysterious
archaeological site in the wind-swept Sahara. Situated in Southern Egypt and
about 100 kilometres west of Abu Simbel temple, Nabta Playa is a large
hollowed-out shallow depression that contains evidence of a seasonal lake where
prehistoric cattle herders once lived.
During an international scientific expedition in the spring of 1988, experts
discovered evidence of what is believed to be the world's earliest astronomical
Evidence of charred grass seeds, including wild millet and sorghum, suggest
that the people cultivated plantations around the banks of the lake. Ancient
trash heaps containing a variety of animal bones, indicate that they also kept
goats, sheep and cattle. The settlements probably date back to eleven thousand
years ago, when the African monsoons moved north and filled the lake with water.
About five thousand years ago the rainfall pattern shifted once again and Nabta
Playa became arid and uninhabitable.
The team were told that that the ancient "Nabtans" were involved in
some form of cattle worship. A previous excavation had revealed the remains of a
complete adult cow buried in a clay-lined and roofed chamber
The potential significance of Nabta as a ceremonial site was further
strengthened by the discovery of an arrangement of stone megaliths (large free
standing stones) on the western edge of the Nabta basin. Some of these stones
had been carefully shaped, and weighed up to one and a half tons. They appeared
to radiate out from a central point.
Sirius - Earth's brightest star, held special significance for the nomadic
cattle herders of Nabta. When Sirius miraculously appeared in the early dawn sky
on the shortest day of the year around 4800 BC, it indicated that life and water
would soon return.
The 12-foot-in diameter stone circle contains four sets of upright slabs. Two
sets were aligned in a north-south direction while the second pair of slabs
provides a line of sight toward the summer solstice horizon. Because of Nabta's
proximity to the Tropic of Cancer, the noon sun is at its zenith about three
weeks before and three weeks after the summer solstice, preventing upright
objects from casting shadows.
The Summer solstice brought life - soon after the Sun reached its
northernmost point in its annual journey across the sky, the monsoons brought
In the West African country of Mali, they visited the amazing cliff dwellings
of the mysterious Dogon people, a traditional farming community, renowned for
their skilled craftsmen, spectacular wooden masks and intricate religious
beliefs. The Dogon, who are represented by four major clans, live along the
spectacular sand stone escarpment of the Bandiagara cliffs in southeastern Mali.
They settled there around the fifteenth century and even today, despite the
infiltration of other cultural beliefs, their religious traditions remain
There they met people who still navigate by the stars and who acknowledge
aspects of the sky and earth in their daily lives, songs, dances and ceremonies.
What makes certain parts of Africa extra special, says Ann Rogers, is the
absence of light and air pollution. People still rely on campfires, oil lamps or
moonlight as a source of nocturnal illumination. At full moon, people can hunt
or travel or have village dances - their world is still defined by the power and
natural rhythm of the cosmos. Their knowledge of the sky is the result of
hundreds of years of naked-eye observations.
"In Namibia, where people have left an extraordinary legacy of
prehistoric rock art, the sky was crystal clear. We were overwhelmed to be
surrounded by countless glittering stars that threaded the blackness of space.
It was not difficult to see why certain people still pay homage to the sky. We
gained different perspectives of the night sky as we crisscrossed Africa from
south to north," said Ann Rogers.
In Namibia, they travelled to the ancestral home of the Ju/'hoan of Nyae
Nyae, formerly known as eastern Bushmanland. Situated in a remote corner of
northeastern Namibia and due west of Botswana, the land is still largely a
wilderness area, sprinkled with saltpans and ancient Baobab trees.
"It was here where we were introduced to some famous traditional Bushmen
healers and shamans. They told us they only dance when they feel happy. The
bright evening star, the planet Venus, is sometimes greeted with a special
Today, western clothing is worn in combination with more traditional apparel and
watches and radios have become a link with the world beyond, but some of the
elderly hunters who live in more remote villages still rely on the position of
the Sun to give them a sense of time - they observe the shadows cast by the Sun
and still count the days by the phases of the Moon. They pay particular
attention to the Milky Way: they call it the Spine of the Night and observe
three different positions during the course of the night. It tells them about
time and the changing seasons.
The film also captures a remarkable personal journey for African astronomer,
Thebe Medupe who is the presenter/astronomer in Cosmic Africa.
When Halley's comet passed near the earth in 1986, it sparked off Thebe
Medupe's interest in astronomy. At the age of thirteen, he built his first
telescope and made his own map of the moon. From modest beginnings in a small
South African village near Mafikeng, Thebe went on to obtain his doctorate in
Astrophysics from the University of Cape Town (December 2002), to become one of
the first three black South African astronomers laude) in astrophysics. His
research focuses on the use of sound waves, generated inside stars, to probe the
interiors of a particular class of pulsating stars (astero-seismology). He is
currently working and continuing his research at the SAAO - the South African
Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town and is also a visiting lecturer in physics
and astronomy at the University of the North West in Mafikeng. He is the leader
of the University of the North West's newly established theoretical astrophysics
programme that he founded over two years ago.
Thebe Medupe has always been keen to travel through Africa, to explore the
celestial beliefs from different parts of the continent. He would like to
compile a database of traditional African astronomy and link some of the ancient
African perceptions with current scientific knowledge in order to use if for
Cosmic Africa is his first film project.
Cosmic Africa was released on November 14 by SterKinekor
Article largely sourced from text by Ann Rogers.