Like almost all of the scientific corpus of the peoples of Africa, the history of African astronomy and cosmology has either been destroyed, relegating Africans, in the racist imagination, to people without knowledge of the world around them, or copied then falsified to be integrated into the Western corpus! Do you know the names that Africans gave to the stars? Did you know that NASA scientists regularly source information from traditional knowledge from the continent’s hinterland? Elimu reveals several millennia of hidden ancestral knowledge!
I. What is astronomy?
Astronomy is the science of observing the sky. Since its origin, it has been associated with cosmology and cosmogony. By definition, cosmology is the knowledge of the Universe, its origin (cosmogony), its structure and its future. Peoples of the Earth, trought their sciences, mathematical calculations, physical observations but also their myths, metaphysics and philosophical speculation, they have made it possible to develop, over time, a corpus relating to this knowledge of the Universe.
For the San people (one of the oldest in the world), heaven is the home of all the divine beings and spirits of the dead. The “things of heaven” generally do not influence or reflect the affairs of man, nor do they affect the weather, the growth of vegetation, or other conditions of the earth; they are in a field of their own. For the Tswana of southern Africa, the traditional idea is that the stars are holes in the rocky vault that is the sky. The Ibibio of Nigeria picturesquely referred to the stars as the “sand of the moon”. The Dogon are renowned for their knowledge of the sky, long before the use of the telescope. Many peoples also speak of their Ancestors as people who came from the sky to inhabit the Earth (Ancient Egyptians, Dogons, Fulani, Banyarwanda, etc.)… Anyway, Africans have always wondered about the nature of astronomical phenomena and cosmic, these sciences being as old as Humanity and that this one was born in Africa.
We cannot give here an exhaustive list of the names of the stars in all the languages of the continent, but we will try to highlight the long astronomical tradition of the peoples of Africa.
II. The observation of the Sun and the Moon at the origin of the calendar
You may be aware that the calendars that we still use today have their origins in the observations of the lunar and/or solar cycles. It is not for nothing that in most African languages, to designate “a month” we use the word of the moon!
Officially, astronomy originated with the Chaldeans, the ancestors of the Sumerians. But it seems, however, that this is another attempt to shift the origin of civilization to Mesopotamia, supposed to be “white”. Despite, this does not prevent the Chaldeans like the Sumerians (who are of African origin), from being a dark people…
The solar year, which is the basis of the contemporary calendar, comes from Ancient Egypt which, in addition to Kemetic countless inventions, offered the world its first calendar. It was therefore in Africa that humans began to locate themselves in time by observing the two largest stars visible in the sky. No offense to the revisionists of History!
Humans also used the stars to locate themselves in space and especially in places without visible terrestrial indicators such as the desert or the ocean. It is in this way that Africans left Africa to populate all the other continents and in particular the remote islands such as those in the Indian Ocean, those of Melanesia or even Easter Island.
III. Planets, stars and constellations in the African imagination
The peoples of Africa have in many ways demonstrated their ability to observe and draw the best from Nature. A process that began at the edge of human history, the observation of the stars requires a specialized methodology and above all extends over the long term (rotation of the stars, symmetry and relationship between the constellations, etc.).
The constellation known as “Centaurus” in Western astronomy and the two luminous pointers Alpha and Beta Centuari are probably the most recognizable of the southern stars, and they hold a prominent place in African star lore. It is the closest constellation to ours.
In the Sotho, Tswana and Venda traditions, these two stars (Alpha and Beta Centuari) are Dithutlwa (“The Giraffes”). The shining stars are male giraffes and the two pointers are females. The Venda call the fainter stars of the Southern Cross, Thudana, “The Little Giraffe”. They also say that the Khubvhumedzi month begins when the crescent moon can be seen for the first time and, the lower two Giraffe Stars are just below the horizon and the upper two are just visible. Sotho lore says that when giraffe stars are seen near the southwestern horizon just after sunset, they indicate the start of the growing season.
The San considered the two pointers to be male lions; they were once men, but a magical girl turned them into stars. The three brightest stars of the Southern Cross are seen as female lions. To the Khoikhoi, pointers were known as Mura, “The Eyes,” of a great celestial beast.
The long axis of the Southern Cross points to a bright star called Achernar. This star is called Senakane (Sotho, Tswana) and Tshinanga (Venda), which means “The little horn”.
The so-called constellation Scorpius with its thin row of curved stars is famous for the bright reddish star Antares. This star was called by the San, Xu! “The Fire Finishing Star” because not only does it have a reddish color, but (at certain times of the year) it sets very late at night when the camp fires are out.
Along the curved body of the scorpion, just before the tail section, is a close pair of stars, which the Khoikhoi called Xami Di Mura, “Lion’s Eyes.”
The “Big Dog”
The so-called “Major Dog” constellation is known in particular thanks to the brightest star in the sky (after the Sun of course), Sirius. The ancient Egyptians called it Sopdet, in Uganda it is called Kyabihembezi and the Banyarwanda call it, Rusiza. It was the Dogon, people of West Africa who informed Westerners of the particularity of the Sirius system. In fact, it is composed of
Sirius A, named Sigi Tolo (the “sigi” star).
Sirius B is named Po Tolo. It revolves around Sirius A and its revolution time is about 50 years. It would be the most important of all stars, even before Sirius A, since they consider it the center of the stellar world. Po Tolo means the Star of the Beginning. It is the egg of the world for the Dogons. They regard it as the reservoir, the source of all things.
Sirius C is named Emme ya tolo, (the female sorghum star). However, if Sirius A and Sirius B are attested by modern astronomy, the existence of Sirius C remains hypothetical.
Here are some names of stars in Runyankore:
Turumwabashatu (constellation of Orion)
Kakaaga (constellation of the Pleiades)
Rumaranku (star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus)
Here are some names of stars in Kinyarwanda:
Mboneranyi (the planet Venus)
Nyamuheshera (the planet Mars)
It is obvious that we could not make an exhaustive list of the names of the stars in African languages, do not hesitate to complete in the comments!