R/€ = 13.13
R/$ = 12.07
Au 1187.17 $/oz
Pt 1125.50 $/oz
Apr 26, 2002
Archaeo-astronomy of Southern AfricaBack
© Reuse this The heavens have always fascinated humanity, and evidence of quite sophisticated understanding of the movements of stars and planets, including the alignment of sacred sites with particular heavenly bodies or astronomical events, and dating back millenia, have been found on every inhabited continent.
Of course, such observations and analyses were not undertaken for anything remotely like modern science, but for religious and ritual purposes, and determining the change of seasons. These activities were often centred on 'complexes' or monuments of wood or stone, of varying degrees of sophistication, which were probably both 'temples' and 'observatories'. The classic, and unusually complex, example is Stonehenge in England, constructed in three phases between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, the main axis of which is aligned with the midsummer sunrise, and an observer in the centre of the complex can determine both when summer is at it height and winter is at its deepest.
Simpler equivalents to Stonehenge have been found all over the world – so, are there any in South Africa? We don't yet know.
Oddly, hardly any work has been done on this field, known as archaeo-astronomy, in Southern Africa.
A local pioneer in this discipline is Richard Wade who has established the Nkwe Ridge Observatory to the east of Pretoria, and he has so far focused his researches on Great Zimbabwe, although, as he points out, there was a cultural unity linking what is now the Republic of Zimbabwe with the Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and perhaps even Free State provinces of South Africa.
Before the advent of modern light and air pollution, the night skies over the South African highveld gave, particularly in winter, a superbly clear view of the stars and planets, and this brilliant display must surely have impressed the indigenous African peoples who saw it nearly every night.
Concerning Great Zimbabwe, Wade points out that a number of small monoliths are embedded in the top of the eastern arc – that is, facing sunrise, moonrise and star rise – of the main enclosing wall, but none are found on the rest of circumference.
Furthermore, standing atop the platform found at the eastern end of the Great Enclosure, as it is called, one can see over the wall to the horizon.
To someone standing on that platform, three of the monoliths clearly align with the three stars of the constellation Orion, namely Saiph, Alnilam and Bellatrix, when they rise heliacally (that is, just before sunrise) on the winter solstice (that is, the shortest day of the year). The central of these three monoliths also marks the central belt star of Orion, the start and end point of the Venus synodic period, as well as the equinoxes.
(The equinoxes are those two days each year when day and night are of equal length; the vernal equinox occurs on September 23 in the Southern Hemisphere, and so can be regarded as marking the end of winter, or the dry season, and the arrival of summer, or the rainy season, while the autumnal equinox occurs on March 20.
The Venus synodic period lasts 583,9 days, divided into four phases – appearance, which lasts 263 days, disappearance, 50 days, apearance, 260 days, and disappearance, 8 days.) Furthermore, the tip of the small conical tower found within the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe, when viewed from the platform, also aligns with the vernal equinox sun at sunrise.
In fact, Wade has determined that there are 35 alignments of heavenly bodies with the perimeter wall monoliths when viewed from the platform, and he suggests that the platform originally had emplaced, at its centre, a single monolith that could have been two metres high, providing more precise alignments.
Most striking, however, is Wade's discovery that the large conical tower in Great Zimbabwe, which dates from the 14th century, is, when seen from the platform, in alignment with the supernova remnant RX J0852.0-4622 in the constellation Vela. The point is that RX J0852.0-4622 is now believed to have gone supernova some time between AD 1300 and 1340, and would have been clearly visible in the Southern Hemisphere. There is thus a most suggestive correlation between the construction of the large tower and what would have been a spectacular event in the heavens.
Clearly, archaeo-astronomy is a discipline in its infancy in South Africa, but what is already obvious is that, when South Africans look upwards to study the night sky, they are following in a tradition that runs deep into the country's and region's past.
Edited by: Keith Campbell© Reuse this Comment Guidelines (150 word limit)
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
Other News This Week News
Recent Research Reports
Steel 2015: A review of South Africa's steel sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Steel 2015 report provides an overview of the key developments in the global steel industry and particularly of South Africa’s steel sector over the past year, including details of production and consumption, as well as the country's primary carbon...
Projects in Progress 2015 - First Edition (PDF Report)
In fact, this edition of Creamer Media’s Projects in Progress 2015 supplement tracks developments taking place under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, which has had four bidding rounds. It appears to remain a shining light on the...
Electricity 2015: A review of South Africa's electricity sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Electricity 2015 report provides an overview of State-owned power utility Eskom and independent power producers, as well as electricity planning, transmission, distribution and the theft thereof, besides other issues.
Construction 2015: A review of South Africa’s construction sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Construction 2015 Report examines South Africa’s construction industry over the past 12 months. The report provides insight into the business environment; the key participants in the sector; local construction demand; geographic diversification;...
Liquid Fuels 2014 - A review of South Africa's Liquid Fuels sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Liquid Fuels 2014 Report examines these issues, focusing on the business environment, oil and gas exploration, the country’s feedstock supplies, the development of South Africa’s biofuels industry, fuel pricing, competition in the sector, the...
Water 2014: A review of South Africa's water sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Water 2014 report considers the aforementioned issues, not only in the South African context, but also in the African and global context, and examines the issues of water and sanitation, water quality and the demand for water, among others.
This Week's Magazine
While strongly welcoming the promulgation of the new Part 101 of South Africa’s civil aviation regulations, governing the commercial operation of civil remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) in South Africa, the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa...
LSM Distributors has contracted engineering consultancy WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff Africa to undertake the R100-million restoration of the 54-year-old Kyalami racetrack, situated in Midrand. The restoration will assist in re-establishing it as a venue for...
South African Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has expressed the hope that the defence budget will be significantly increased over the next five years. She did so while addressing the media in her recent budget vote media briefing. The 2015/2016 defence...
The African Development Bank (AfDB) has been an implementing agency for the Global Environment Facility (GEF) since 2008. The relatively young portfolio has 28 projects over 30 countries on the continent according to the 2014 AfDB and GEF annual report released...
Investment in South African youth through apprenticeships and learnerships will not only create direct benefits for businesses but will also contribute significantly to job creation and socioeconomic transformation in the country.