Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

East African Rift Valley, as seen from space Credit: NASA

  • Crew members aboard Expedition 30 of the International Space Station took this photo of the East African Rift Valley in Kenya, located near its border with Tanzania. In this image, you can see numerous linear fault lines that occupy the floor of the valley; the rift was formed by a fracturing of Earth’s crust. Shadows cast by the late afternoon sun make the fault scarps (steps in the landscape caused by slip motion along individual faults) more prominent. The rift is also home to numerous active and dormant volcanoes.
  • This month, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the South-African National Research Foundation, and IBM signed a memorandum of understanding on joint research into advanced ICT (information and communication technologies) targeted at radio astronomy. Jasper Horrell, the South African leader on the project: “This collaboration fits very well in the ambitions of South-Africa to strengthen our international networks and intensify our collaboration with industry.”

Guest Voices: Archeoastronomical Sites in Africa

Our guest post this week is by J. Craig Wheeler, Yanagisawa Regents Professor of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin and former president of the American Astronomical Society.

Like ancient people everywhere, Africans looked in wonder at the sky and struggled to make sense of it. Evidence that they did so with creativity and insight has been slow to permeate academic studies of archeoastronomy and wider public understanding. There is evidence in myths and calendars, but more concretely in ancient megalith observatories.

6500 year old Megalith at Nabta in Southern Egypt. Photo courtesy of F. Wendorf.

Nabta Playa in southern Egypt is the oldest known astronomical site in the world. It was created some 6500 years ago, 5000 years before Stonehenge. The circle of standing stones allowed the Neolithic people to determine when the solstices and rainy seasons occurred. Monstrous stones, some more than 9 feet tall, were dragged for more than a mile to construct Nabta. For three weeks before and after a solstice, the standing stones would have cast no shadow in the noonday sun, due to their proximity to the equator. There is an east-west sighting among the megaliths, as well as a north-south lineup. There have been several other alignments found, but their significance is yet to be determined.

The megaliths of Ng’amoritung’a stand on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. There are 20 peculiar polygonal basalt columns that are of order 2000 years old. While there is some controversy, there are suggestions of possible alignments of nineteen of the twenty stones with seven stars and constellations popularly used for astronomical purposes; Triangulum, the Pleiades, Aldebaran, Bellatrix, Central Orion, Saiph, and Sirius.

Jens Finke at the 2000 year old site of Ng'amoritung'a on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. Photo by Maria Helena Barreira.

Many current treatises on archeoastronomy discuss the wonderful Mayan cosmology and evidence for paleoastronomy in Europe and elsewhere, but make little or no mention of ancient astronomy in Africa. Given the evidence of Nabta Playa and Ng’amoritung’a, it seems very likely that other evidence for the ancient astronomy of Africa awaits in other places, to be discovered with proper care and attention by the people of Africa.