Chapter 3: The Star Watchers
“A very small ivory plate excavated in the cave of Geißenklösterle, Germany, shows a manlike being … the research work establishes the hypotheses that the anthropoid represents Orion at the vernal equinox ca 30,000 BC, related to the heliacal rising and setting of Betelgeuse.”
— MICHAEL A. RAPPENGLUCK, President of the European Society for Astronomy in Culture
“Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”
— ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY, Flight to Arras
Our ancient ancestors had a highly sophisticated understanding of advanced mathematics and astronomy, which resulted from tens of thousands of years of observing and recording the movements of the stars and planets. They weren’t blind to the sky at night, as most of us are, entombed in our vast cities of artificial light and concrete and lost in our chattering minds and our media devices. They cultivated a connect-the-dots view of existence — that is, they knew where they were at any given time in relationship to the whole of space, and they knew what time it was on a grand scale. They understood their place in the dynamic space–time continuum that we are part of, and they knew its history extending back many millennia.
We tend to imagine that humans prior to 4000 BCE — when, as many history books still tell us, “civilization” first developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt — were inferior savages, incapable of complex thought. In fact, because of the blight of the early medieval Dark Ages on our recent past, our West-centric history books sometimes indicate that genuine intelligent thought began with the Renaissance: with Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo. The truth is very different. A recent study of the ancient bow and arrow, a sophisticated tool comprised of two complementary parts, in use since at least 64,000 BCE, decoded their conceptual foundations. It was discovered that twenty-two materi¬als, ten tools, and five production stages were needed to complete the complex construction process, the end result being a technically precise aero-dynamic hunting tool that furthered humanity’s chances of survival (Lombard and Haidel, 2012).
All indications are that the humans who existed 50,000 years ago — and probably 250,000 years ago — were our equals in artistic endeavor, literary creation, and mathematical prowess. Among ancient populations were certainly minds (male and female) similar to or greater than those of Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein. They were able to take the evidence of the world and craft narratives that explained and encapsulated that information, preserving it for future generations.
For years, anthropologists assumed that early or “uncivilized” humans had to work gruelingly hard to survive, and thus had less leisure time than we do. They imagined that the innovations of writing and specialization of labor made life easier. However, studies in the 1970s and 1980s among the San peoples of the Kalahari and groups in the Amazon showed that precisely the opposite was true. Most hunter-gatherers had far more free time than today’s average Western city-dweller. It’s interesting to note that history records reveal when the Puritans settled in the New World they were appalled and angered that Native Americans lived so well while doing so little work, believing that idle fingers were the playground of the ‘Devil.’ Ancient people’s free time was often spent playing games, in artful craft pursuits, and in investigating their surroundings. Importantly, as we shall see, a significant amount of time was spent in memorizing and repeating their long oral traditions in story form, and this kind of group activity likes the dark.
Unlike our ancient ancestors, we live in a culture dominated by artificial light. The invention of electricity and the light bulb has not only changed our habits, allowing many of us to stay awake much of the night; it has also removed from our society two essential elements: sharing the community’s ancient story, and the night sky. If you’ve ever gone on a camping trip, you likely remember what happened after the marshmallows and hot dogs were eaten, while everyone was sitting around the dying fire. Stories were told. The best storytellers kept everyone rapt. Inept ones were laughed into silence. In the ancient cultures (and still today, among oral societies such as those in South Sudan and rural Indonesia), storytelling was a highly refined and exceedingly intricate art. Storytelling involved song and stylized gestures, and the audience, aware of the tropes, maintained a constant call and response, echoing certain phrases, joining in on the choruses. The best storytellers had extraordinary memories, the likes of which we’re unable to conceive of in our modern world, where our digital devices serve as our memories and rote memorization is being phased out in schools. Our ancestors used tune and repetition and rhyme and rhythm as mnemonic devices to create their complex verbal structures, the telling of which could take many nights.
Most of our oldest extant literature — The Iliad and The Odyssey, Beowulf, the Psalms, the pre-Islamic Muallaqat, the Edda, the Kalevala — derives from much older oral recitation, whose roots wind much deeper into the past than we imagine. The Authenticity of Open Awareness (from ancient northwestern Tibet) derives from an oral tradition thought to extend back 18,000 years. The Buddhist Tripitaka evolved from a very old oral tradition, predating what is now known as Buddhism by thousands of years. The ancient oral roots of the gathas (songs) found in the Vendidad section of the Iranian Avesta may date to as early as 6000 BCE (according to Plutarch) and possibly much older. In a later chapter we’ll look at one of its stories, which records how humans survived a “fatal winter” that lasted many generations.
There are those who doubt that such large texts could have ever been memorized repeatedly and passed along for many thousands of years intact, yet even today in Somalia, which has been largely sheltered from modern technology, a large proportion of children memorizes the entire Qurʾan, and poets remain the carriers of information, reciting poems that are days in the telling. The Mwindo Epic of Congo, which is much longer than The Odyssey, is still recited by bards in special ceremonies. When Daniel Biebuyck first recorded it in the late sixties, it took three weeks of eight-hour-a-day sessions to complete the telling. In Europe, songs and stories were kept alive by wandering troubadours, who used instruments such as the lute and balalaika to accompany their songs. Troubadours were often political commentators as well as carriers of ancient history, and thus were viewed as threatening to the ruling classes. Stalin, in one of his least-documented but most horrendous massacres, liquidated the last of the troubadour class of kobzar in the mid-1930s, thus destroying a large segment of Ukrainian history.
Let’s travel back in time to around 18,000 years ago. It is a crystalline, cloud-less night. The stars are like a spill of gemstones overhead, so bright you im-agine you could almost touch them. As the fire dies to embers, the aged storyteller begins to chant. She’s telling a story that she heard from another storyteller in her youth, and that, unknown to her, has been passed from storyteller to storyteller for 10,000 or more years, deep into the mists of time. As the storyteller introduces the characters, she outlines shapes in the stars, tracing a blade here, a lion there, a great bull over there, and the listeners turn their eyes to the heavens with rapt attention. The story goes something like this:
There is a great tree that stretches from Earth to the sky. This tree holds within its branches fruit that will bestow power upon the person who eats it, but the fruit is guarded by a jealous giant. At the base of the tree lurks a serpent. A hero, stronger than anyone else in the land, undertakes the adventure to steal the fruit. Armed with a weapon, he encounters a lion, which he kills. Wearing the lion skin, he meets a marauding bull. He kills the bull as well. Finally, he comes to the tree. The serpent tries to trick him, but the hero manages to evade its wiles, and climbs the tree. When he arrives at the top, the giant is sleeping. The hero steals the fruit and climbs back down the tree. But the giant wakes and pursues the hero. The hero cuts down the tree, which falls with a tremendous shaking of Earth and the sky. The giant dies. The hero takes his place as ruler of Heaven and Earth.
Does the story sound familiar? Likely it does, because you too, removed though you are from the oral tradition, have nonetheless partaken of the storyteller’s art. No matter what your heritage, what corner of the planet your ancestors came from, you have heard this story, or shards of it. You know the names of the characters, though they shift around the globe: Gilgamesh, Krishna, the biblical Adam, Samson, Prometheus, Hercules, Thor, Hamlet, Siddhartha, Jack, Rapunzel, and many more.
The story has changed, of course, and its outlines are dim and blurred. When you heard the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, did you immediately associate the beanstalk with the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden? Probably not; nevertheless, the bones are there, as the bones of the Genesis story may be found within Gilgamesh and other ancient tales. In these pervasive stories, there are a number of unusual recurring motifs. These include a tree that connects the sky to Earth, or the gods to humans — the link is often severed; a mill or whirlpool, which grinds, destroying whatever comes beneath it or that is pulled into it; a serpent (sometimes twined around the base of the tree); treasure that must be stolen, won, or earned (apple, fire, golden bough, sword, knowledge); a lion; and a bull. The end of the story often involves destruction — Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden; Samson destroying the temple; the general slaughter at the end of Hamlet — but also there’s also a notion that life will continue. A new ruler sits on the throne.
What does it all mean? We’ll look into the answers, which are rooted in cycles, in the following chapters. But for the moment, let’s return to the star watchers. As the story¬teller used the stars as reference points, night after night, around the campfire, the more alert of her listeners would have noticed that the stars gradually shifted. The brightest star of the beaded belt had rested on that dry branch a few nights ago, but now it was over on this branch. But during the last cold season, it had been between those branches over there. And eventually, be¬cause they were artists, someone would have drawn the movements of the stars, and incorporated that movement into the stories. Those who watched the stars night after night for years and decades noted a relationship between food harvesting and the position of the stars: when Venus was above that rock, the apples would be ripe. When the three stars of the hunter’s belt were over that hill, the river overflowed its banks. The heavens, they realized, wheeled in a vast circle above them.
This knowledge was very valuable — whoever could forecast the movements of the stars could order life in balance with their patterns. The more observant and perceptive of humans began to keep track of the days and the positions of the stars. They used the storytellers’ images — the bull, the lion, the scorpion, the bow — to create their drawings. At first, these rudimentary star charts contained little more information than the phases of the moon and the days of the year. But as the measurements grew more precise, with intricate marks on standing stones and calibration instruments crafted from wood and bone, they began to notice certain anomalies. As they watched year after year, the knowledge handed down from lore keeper to lore keeper, they noticed that the circling was always changing. The stars did not come to rest at precisely the same position at each anniversary. The great wheel of the stars had a wobble. We’ll look more closely at this wobble and its important, perhaps shocking, implications in the next chapter.
The star watchers eventually grew into an advisory class, and their knowledge enhanced the community’s ability to organize life and society in beneficial ways related to seasonal migrations and the harvesting of nature’s bounties. Over time, the star stories became codified into ritual and architecture. Later in the development of society, rulers were aligned with the celestial mechanics and were mandated to rule the earthly realm in balance with the movements of the heavens. Unlike in our society, the organization of ancient societies was born out of the natural world.
The Architecture of Heaven
In the 1930s, a Scottish engineer named Alexander Thom began doing research among the Mesolithic stone structures of Great Britain. Stonehenge in Suffolk is the most prominent and complex of these, but there are at least a hundred more , from Callanish in the outer Hebrides of Scotland to “Long Meg and her daughters” in Cumbria to the complex of Brodgar, Maeshowe, and Stenness in the Orkney Islands. Thom was looking for mathematical commonalities, trying to decipher from the dimensions of the stones and the distances between them the unit of measurement the ancient builders used.
As Thom knew from his engineering background, when any large structure is built, it’s helpful to have a unit of measurement, so that your walls are all the same height; so that your windows align. This unit of measurement could be, at the most rudimentary level, your arm from the tips of the fingers to the elbow, or your foot, as you pace the distance from post to post. As structures become more complicated, and particularly if you’re trying to align a structure with celestial movements, it becomes helpful to have a more precise measuring unit: a stick of a certain length, or a strip of leather. Thom took thousands of measurements of Mesolithic structures all around Britain. It wasn’t an easy task, as many of the stones had become eroded, and the original outlines had to be reconstructed. However, as the measurements accumulated, he began to see patterns. Eventually, these coalesced into a unit of measurement of 2.722 feet, or 82.966 centimeters, a length remarkably close to our modern yard. Thom was intrigued by this similarity, and by the coherence of the unit of measurement throughout Britain. However, he was primarily an engineer and wasn’t especially concerned with the larger ramifications of his discovery.
The yard as a unit of measurement is related to the Minoan foot, used on ancient Crete, and the cubit of the Middle East, as well as, more bewilderingly, the unit of measurement used in ancient Cambodia. Nowadays, our measurements are based on a single unit, which can be copied ad infinitum. But this couldn’t have been the case in 6000 BCE; a factory churning out precise yardsticks in 6000 BCE and distributing these to builders thousands of miles away did not seem feasible. Based on Thom’s calculations, other researchers began to look for another solution to the similarities in measure in different locations. One of these researchers, Alan Butler, reasoned that the Megalithic yard must be based on a common system of derivation. The only common element across the territory where the Megalithic yard was used was the curve of the Earth and the movements of the heavenly bodies. Butler proposed that the Megalithic yard was, in fact, a geodetic measurement — in other words, it was derived from the polar circumference of the Earth. And he calculated that the ancient architects had used Venus as their guide in calculating that circumference.
Even a modern city-dweller has probably noticed Venus. Amid our light pollution, that hot planet is often the only visible heavenly body besides the moon. Because of the prominence and beauty of Venus, it played an important role in many ancient mythologies, and was central to the stone structures on the British Isles. Butler, with Christopher Knight, writes: “The gigantic and very beautiful 5,000-year-old observatory at Newgrange [in Ireland] was painstakingly designed to let the light of Venus into the central chamber for only minutes once every eight years on the winter solstice. This and other sites would have enabled the Neolithic astronomers to maintain a completely accurate calendar” (Butler and Knight 2006, 42–43).
Eventually Butler, with the assistance of Knight, reasoned that the ancient architects must have traced the movement of Venus through a certain arc: one degree of the 366 degrees of the Earth’s perimeter. They conducted a simple but highly effective experiment, using a pendulum. A pendulum is a curious tool, because the timing of its period (how long it takes to swing from one side to the other) isn’t dependent on its weight, but on the length of its fulcrum. Furthermore, the timing (for swings of less than ninety degrees) is the same, no matter how long the swing. In other words, if two people have the same length of string, they can simply attach a weight, set the pendulum going, and they will come up with a remarkably similar unit of time. For this reason, pendulums were used in clocks until the advent of the quartz-based mechanism in the second half of the twentieth century.
What Butler and Knight showed, in their elegant experiment, is that a pendulum string half a Megalithic yard long would beat 366 times while Venus moved through an arc of one degree of the Earth’s circumference. In other words, with startling clarity, they proved not only that the Megalithic yard could be derived by celestial reckoning anywhere on the Earth’s surface, but that there was an incontrovertible connection between the movements of celestial bodies and the architecture of the ancient world. Because the Megalithic yard is so close to our modern-day units of measurement, they also showed that our present-day lives are (literally) shaped by these ancient measurements. We live among structures and spaces that are, at some subliminal level, patterned after the movements of the stars and the curve of the earth. Here is a diagram of Butler’s and Knight’s experiment:
The architectural structures of the ancient world not only used celestial mechanics at the micro level, but were themselves calendric time-telling, star-watching machines, fashioned and positioned so that, at intervals, light would enter through apertures and strike certain stones or carven images. It has been possible to derive from the stone structures in Britain and Ireland a calendar system that harmonizes quite precisely with modern Gaelic ritual days. The rituals of old Britain have, of course, been subdued under Christianity for centuries, and it is known that many ancient stone circles were uprooted by Christian anti-pagan reformers within the last thousand years. The circles that do exist are mostly on the fringes and outlying islands. However, we can get an intriguing glimpse into their uses if we turn to the Basque country of northern Spain.
The Basque language is pre-Indo-European, and the Basques are viewed by linguists as the last bastion of a much earlier culture. They remain insular, and preserve many rituals and ceremonies that are dissimilar to the surrounding culture. Among these are ceremonies related to the sarobe, stone circles with a central stone in their midst. Though some of the sarobe in the Basque region are as ancient as the stone circles in Britain, they have been continually constructed and were in use until the beginning of the twentieth century. According to contemporary accounts, they were constructed using an ancient unit of measurement called variously the gorabilla, codera, or pitipia. This unit, which is almost precisely fifteen yards, was only used for the construction of the sarobe. In Astronomy Before the Telescope, Clive Ruggles writes: “Each site was laid out using standard units of length and aligned with the cardinal and inter-cardinal directions. Linked to the theme of cosmic order, it acted both as a seat of government and a center for rituals and ceremonies. The sarobe functioned within a cosmological network of social practices and shared knowledge rather than merely at an instrumental level” (Walker 1999, 25).
This suggests that the celestially attuned stone structures in Britain and elsewhere in northern Europe were also political and mnemonic ritual centers: they were the focal points of their communities. The presence of these constructions, be¬sides being valuable tools, also gave people a deep sense of the relationship between Earth and the sky. The ancients methodically engaged in “bringing down the heavens” in cultures around the globe by ordering their lives, society, architecture, city planning, roads, and geophysical construc¬tions, to mirror celestial mechanics and their relationship with Earth — a stra¬tegic mirroring than can be understood as a practical application of scientific observations and data with rational pur¬pose that benefited society, and an everyday reminder that this place we exist in exists in space. I was once asked during a presentation that I was giving about this relationship, if I thought there was life in space. My reply was, “Where is it that you think we live?” There was a moment of stunned silence before nervous laughter broke out in the group. Many of those present had never considered the fact that we are life in space.
This mirroring of celestial mechanics in elements of human society, the marriage of the above and the below, is known as cultural astronomy in our time and was an integral part of all ancient cultures. An interesting example of cultural astronomy is the Triple Henge of the Thornborough complex in Britain, dating to between 3500 and 2500 BCE. Clive Ruggles, Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, discovered alignments between the henges and the constellation Orion. This was supported by the research of the noted archaeoastronomer Dr. Jan Harding of Newcastle University, who has shown that there is a clear alignment between the placement of the three henges and the three stars of Orion’s belt. This interest in Orion, as we shall see, was shared by many other elder cultures around the globe and is key to understanding the pivotal theme of Part 1 of this book.
Perhaps the most famous celestially organized structures in the world are the Giza pyramids in Egypt. It’s long been known that the pyramids are nearly faultlessly aligned with the cardinal directions, and that the dimensions of the Great Pyramid are derived from π (pi: a mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter). But the schematics go much deeper. As Graham Hancock showed in his multi-million-selling Fingerprints of the Gods, the three pyramids east of the Nile, on the outskirts of present-day Cairo, are symbolic representations of the three stars that make up Orion’s belt.
The Giza pyramids also form a schematic representation of Earth. The height of the Great Pyramid multiplied by 43,200 is equal to the radius of Earth. The perimeter of the base multiplied by 43,200 equals the equatorial circumference of Earth. In other words, the pyramids are constructed based on Earth’s size and on astronomical calculations, indicating that the ancient Egyptians had a precise knowledge of the circumference of Earth, of their position on our planet, and of the great cycles of time/space that govern our planet’s movements. We’ll look more at the significance of the number 43,200 a little later. There are many more astrophysical and mathematical secrets hidden within the pyramids and their orientation, which Hancock brilliantly teases out in Fingerprints of the Gods, The Message of the Sphinx (with Robert Bauval), and Heaven’s Mirror.
The Great Pyramid of Giza is the largest, most stunning, and (by some distance) the oldest of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. It remains one of the strongest tourist attractions in the world, but when it was first built, it must have been vastly more imposing. Erosion has lopped a good ten meters off its apex, and its original polished white casing stones have been nearly entirely removed (some still cling to the peak of the neighboring Khafre Pyramid). Thus, set as it was on high ground beside the Nile, it must have flashed white in the sun like some strange otherworldly object dropped to Earth. In our time, many buildings have surpassed the Great Pyramid in height, and walking among and within gigantic structures has lost its novelty. However, the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure in the world for over 4,000 years (and possibly for considerably longer) until it was surpassed in 1300 CE by Lincoln Cathedral in the United Kingdom. The Great Pyramid’s visual and emotional impact on a population that still dwelt in one-story mud structures must have been staggering.
It had long been assumed by archaeologists that the pyramids at Giza were great tombs built for the pharaohs (supposedly Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure). This attribution is based on relatively sparse inscriptions, some of which have been definitively proven to be irrelevant or inaccurate. An empty sarcophagus sits in the center of the Khufu Pyramid, but it is undecorated and doesn’t resemble other sarcophagi in the region. Graham Hancock argues persuasively that the pyramids were not intended as tombs at all: “It was not just a matter of the narrowness and unsuitability of the well-shaft as an escape route for bulky treasures. The other remarkable feature of Khufu’s Pyramid was the absence of inscriptions or decorations anywhere within its immense network of galleries, corridors, passageways and chambers” (Hancock 1996, 301). The pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure are similarly unadorned. When compared with the tombs of Tutankhamen and Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Kings, which are full of visual and written descriptions of their inhabitants’ deeds, the Giza pyramids, undecorated, and finely calibrated to celestial alignments and advanced mathematics, clearly seem to have a different purpose. Here’s a clue: Hancock noted that the ventilation shafts in the Great Pyramid are perfectly aligned to point to Sirius (associated in Egyptian writings with the goddess Isis) and Zeta Orion. Zeta Orion is the brightest star in Orion’s belt, a further indication that Orion was of tremendous significance to the builders. Orion was, in ancient Egyptian writings, synonymous with Osiris, who is referred to as the god of the “First Time.” We’ll look more at the story of Osiris and Isis in Chapter Six. For now, it’s enough simply to recognize the significance of these celestial figures.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Great Pyramid is that it is one of the oldest of the hundreds of pyramids that stipple the Nile Valley, a fact that has confounded archaeologists for decades. One would naturally assume that Egyptian architectural practices moved from the rudimentary mud-brick pyramids, such as those found near Beni Suef, south of Cairo, and then to the smaller stone pyramids, at which point they would have developed the experience and expertise necessary to tackle the Great Pyramid. The opposite is true: the crude, smaller pyramids were built after the Giza complex, suggesting both that they were faulty imitations of their illustrious avatar, and that there was an immense period of human civilization and history prior to the construction of the Great Pyramid that we know little about. A group of hunter-gathers doesn’t just get up one morning and decide to build a Great Pyramid based on highly advanced mathematics and astronomical measurements, using construction methods that even our advanced technical society can’t replicate. What could have caused such a rapid clear decline in technological skills? This will become clear in the next chapter.
Beside the pyramids is possibly the only ancient creation that rivals the pyramids in mystery and allure, reclining on its forepaws and with its gaze focused just above the distant horizon — the Great Sphinx. The origins of the Sphinx, which remains the largest monolithic sculpture in the world, are uncertain. New evidence, based on the erosion lines on the Sphinx’s body, suggests that the sculpture is much older than the date of c. 2500 BCE commonly given by orthodox Egyptologists. Dr. Robert Schoch, a Yale-trained geologist and faculty member at Boston University, conducted pioneering geological research into the dating of the Sphinx and conservatively concluded, based on scientific analysis of erosion patterns, that it must date back to an earlier period: at least 5000 BC, and maybe as early as 7000 BC or 9000 BC, a time when the climate was very different and included considerably more rain. When he presented his findings at a meeting of the Geological Society of America, they were well received and stood up to intense scrutiny. His conclusions were endorsed by over 300 of his peers, many of them offering their support for continued research.
Hancock in his research discovered that Robert Bauval, in The Orion Mystery, had deciphered the code behind the orientation and placement of the pyramids and the Sphinx. Bauval, keeping the celestial concerns and positioning of the pyramid complex in mind, noted that the night sky at the time that the Sphinx was supposedly built meant that it would have faced the constellation Taurus, which then, as now, indicated a bull. However, he had earlier noted that the three pyramids precisely reflected the positions of the stars in Orion’s belt. In searching for a time when those stars were closest to the horizon he came up with the date of 10,450 BCE (a period of great terrestrial and celestial upheaval, as noted in the previous chapter). At this date, he realized, the constellation directly in front of the Sphinx, at which the Sphinx gazed, would have been Leo: the lion.
It is my considered opinion that the importance of Bauval’s rediscovery of this alignment, one that suggests knowledge of complex celestial mathematics extending back at least to 10,400 BCE, a date that is associated with a profoundly cataclysmic period in Earth’s history, has been greatly undervalued in the fields of Egyptology and archaeology. We’ll look at the ramifications of this re-discovery for modern society in the next chapter.
Ancient Mariner Culture
We’ll now move to other parts of the globe in our investigation of ancient architecture that reflects celestial mechanics, before examining why so many cultures went to so much trouble to track the patterns of the sky.
Beside the Great Pyramid, in a subterranean vault, archaeologists in 1954 discovered a wonderfully preserved wooden ship, the oldest intact seagoing vessel ever found, and one of the most beautiful. It measures 143 feet (43.6 m) long, with an immense carven prow and stern. Excavators immediately noted the resemblance to the Viking longships, which had similar high prows and sterns and shallow-draft hulls. Speculation grew that, as had long been suspected, the ancient Egyptians had ventured far afield by ship. Our history books, until recently, used to tell us that the first real venture across the Atlantic Ocean was Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage, which took him to the present-day Bahamas and beyond, to the mainland of Central America. More recently, it has been confirmed that Leif Ericson established an ill-fated settlement in present-day Newfoundland more than 500 years before Columbus’s voyage. It’s important to note that Ericson’s discovery is mentioned in the Nordic sagas, written more than 200 years after his death, and that the “myths” hold true. However, it is now known with certainty that the first contact between the Americas and the Old World came much earlier than even Ericson’s expedition.
The suggestion of an earlier first contact comes in the evidence that cultures at a great distance from each other share remarkably similar cultural elements and objects. Many scholars have noted the extensive relationship between ancient Egyptian architecture and iconography and that of the ancient Mayan culture of Central America. One crucial invention, the invention of writing, occurred in only two places: the Middle East (most likely in Egypt) and Central America. The idea of writing spread latitudinally from Egypt to the east. (As Jared Diamond notes in his seminal Guns, Germs, and Steel, ideas and stories tend to spread east–west rather than north–south, because of the similar climate: seeds and livestock can be shared. Thus, the invention of writing spread fairly rapidly to present-day China but took rather longer to get to northern Europe, and only reached sub-Saharan Africa in the nineteenth century; this also explains why writing did not move farther north than present-day Mexico or breach the Amazon to the south.) Both cultures, the Egyptian and the Central American, used a form of hieroglyphics. A more specific similarity is the image of the winged serpent, which is present in both cultures. In Mayan culture, this is Quetzalcoatl; in Egyptian culture it is Wadjet (who is also associated with the Milky Way). Both cultures had a strongly stratified, male-dominated hierarchy.
In southern Mexico are the remains of the Olmec civilization, which predated the Mayans. The most prominent remnants of this very ancient people are a series of gigantic sculptures of heads. They are clearly a very different physical type from the later Mayan, perhaps of African or Indonesian descent. But, most pertinently, both cultures developed the pyramid as their central architectural motif, and, as we’ll see, the Mayans also oriented their architecture according to celestial patterns, just as the Egyptians did.
It’s long been clear that there was extensive coastal contact among the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean basin. There are many commonalities among the cultures around the rim of the Mediterranean, for example, the fado music of Portugal is similar to North African music. These commonalities extend up along the Bay of Biscay, into the British Isles. Linguists have shown that the Celtic language is heavily influenced by Old Egyptian. It’s also known that Egyptian influences reached Northern Europe at least as early as 3,400 years ago, as evidenced by beads excavated in Denmark with chemical compositions that trace the beads to Amarna, Egypt.
These connections are obvious, but how did Egyptian iconography, architectural styles, and as we shall see, a shared knowledge of celestial mechanics and mathematics, get across the ocean to Central America? Up until very recently it was believed that transatlantic voyages were beyond the skills of ancient Egyptians, and Orthodox Egyptology continues to maintain their silly fiction that the sophisticated and sturdy seaworthy Khufu ship discovered buried under the sand next to the Great Pyramid was merely a symbol of the mythical ship that would transport the deceased Pharaoh’s soul to his destination in the heavens. However, this ship shows signs of heavy use at sea (indicating that it was not just a river ship), and it is now known that the Great Pyramid was once situated very close to the Nile River, which has moved over time to its present location further away. The Nile connected to the Red Sea (via a canal), which served as a pathway to the Indian Ocean, and to the Mediterranean Sea, which served as a pathway to the North Atlantic Ocean. A more likely explanation of the ship’s presence in the Giza complex would be that it was used to transport people and supplies from around the world to the pyramid complex via a canal connected to the port that was recently discovered at the point where the river was once very close to the pyramid. This ship is evidence that the Egyptians were advanced mariners, strongly suggesting that these highly organized, technologically advanced people would have sent expeditions to explore farther afield, across the Atlantic. It’s absurd to think that a mariner people who possessed the advanced engineering skills required to build this seaworthy ship, and the Great Pyramid, would not be curious and capable enough to undertake global exploration, and there is more physical evidence to support this conclusion. Recent archeological excavations of a buried sea port and 6 large caves adjacent, at Wadi/Mersa Gawasis on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, has revealed extensive evidence for sturdy seagoing vessels dating as early 1,950 BCE. Among the evidence discovered were a treasure trove of shipbuilding materials including sophisticated plank mortise-and-tenon joints, and a cave full of neatly coiled, stacked ropes made from papyrus that are as thick as a man’s arm (Ward, Zazzaro, 2010). 4,000 years ago, and likely much earlier, Egyptians were sailing not just the placid Nile river … they were sailing the world. Given that Homo Erectus was sailing the seas 130,000 years ago, it is very likely that the Egyptians inherited their sailing knowledge from an older culture (2010, New York Times).
Take a look at the following map, which has been turned upside-down so we can view it with fresh eyes, to understand the connecting waterways of the region for an Egyptian ship.
Because of the legacy of colonialism, we’re used to seeing the Mediterranean as a sharp divide between “backward” Africa and “civilized” Europe. In ancient times, however, waterways were places of connection. The real barriers to human movement were the Sahara and the Congo rainforest to the south and the Alps to the north. Consider also that the distance between the western coast of Africa and the Bahamas is similar to that between Egypt and Northern Europe. For a ship that started a voyage outside the Straits of Gibraltar, the Atlantic Gulf Stream currents would naturally carry it across the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, (the route, incidentally, that Columbus’s voyage took).
It’s interesting to note that these routes didn’t just ship cultural practices from far off place to far off place. Modern biologists have confirmed that many plants growing in the Atlantic coastal areas of Central and South America are of Indonesian and African origin, and have determined that this can’t be explained by seeds excreted by sea birds, nor by seeds drifting in ocean currents. They have concluded that these plants must have been brought by one or more ancient mariner cultures.
Let’s now turn to Central American mythology. If, as we suppose, a voyager from Egypt made it’s way to the American coast in the far distant past, might we not turn up mythologized evidence of this, in the same way that Leif Ericson’s voyage was transformed into saga and song? As it turns out, American societies, from present-day Mexico down through South America, retain an ancient story of a stranger variously known as Kon Tiki, Quetzalcoatl, Kukulkan Votan, and Itzamna. This bearded, pale-skinned, educated, and knowledgeable figure arrived by ship and traveled up and down the coast, sharing wisdom. According to legend, Kon Tiki was a “very light-skinned man with strong formation of body, broad forehead, large eyes, and a flowing beard. He was dressed in a long, white robe reaching to his feet, He condemned sacrifices, except of fruit and flowers, and was known as the god of peace” (Short 1879, 268). Another text comments that he “came from across the sea in a boat that moved itself without paddles. He was a tall, bearded white man who taught people to use fire for cooking” (Bierhorst 2002, 161). In later iconography, his symbol was the plumed serpent, which, as we saw, is also central to Egyptian mythology. Eventually, the legends say, Kon Tiki sailed back to the east whence he had come.
If we turn back to architecture, we find further threads of cultural connection. Mayan architecture has much in common with that of Egypt. The Mayan equivalent of the Giza complex is the Way of the Dead in Teotihuacan, Mexico. In this immense complex, several pyramids and numerous other buildings are arranged about a perfectly straight road. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest structure, is situated so that when the noon sun is directly overhead, as it is on two occasions every year, the shadow passing over the pyramid’s western face appears as a straight line. Hancock says, “One of the many functions of the pyramid had been to serve as a perennial clock, precisely signaling the equinoxes and thus facilitating calendar corrections and when necessary for a people apparently very focused, like the Maya, on the elapse and measuring of time” (Hancock 1999, 178).
Hancock has also has shown that the buildings of the complex are laid out in a pattern that echoes the constellations above. This reminds us of the layout of the Giza pyramids. Furthermore, like the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Pyramid of the Sun was structured with π (pi) encoded in its dimensions. The height of the Great Pyramid times 2π equals the perimeter of its base, while the height of the Pyramid of the Sun times 4π equals the perimeter of its base. The likelihood of this relationship occurring by chance is almost nil. Clearly a common mathematical language was used in both places.
Most Mayan cities are laid out according to zodiacal plans. For example, the stone construction of Uxmal, located west of Chichen Itza, is precisely oriented according to the constellations, with the pyramid and the various other constructions and houses each related to a stellar pattern. However, one prominent Mayan city — Utatlan, once the capital of the Quiche Maya in Guatemala — diverges from this pattern. The Quiche were a highly sophisticated society, and authors of the Popol Vuh, a book that contains copious astronomical references. Utatlan was designed according to the scheme of a single constellation…that of Orion. As archaeologist José Fernandez notes, the major constructions of the city were “oriented to the heliacal setting points of stars in Orion” (Fernandez 1992, 74). Orion is, along with the Big Dipper and Venus, one of the most clearly recognizable of the celestial entities, and as we’ve seen, was also a central organizing structure for the ancient Egyptians, and, as we’ll also see, formed a central part of the mythologies that codified the shifting heavens
Summarizing thus far, both Egypt and Central America civilizations that are likely much more ancient than we generally assume, created architectural complexes that codified ancient star positions, with particular emphasis on Orion. What reasons might they have had for doing this? We’ll look at what they were expressing and tracking, and why it is important to modern civilization, in the next chapter. But for now, let’s turn to evidence of celestially-oriented measurements and constructions in other locations.
Though Central America remains our main area of focus in the Americas because of the extended and complex celestially-aligned architecture, there’s evidence in both North and South America of similar influences. Among the Chaco, the ancient civilization that was based in present-day New Mexico in the western United States, there’s evidence that supports an archaeoastronomical understanding of the artifacts and ruins they left behind. The primary focus in the Chaco region is on incised markings in rocks, and standing stones. These markings have long been noted, and they were assumed to be symbolic representations of mythological or religious features. However, archaeologists have shown that there was, in fact, a relationship between the standing stones and the petroglyphs.
In Chaco Astronomy, Anna Sofaer notes that, at the summer solstice, light enters a gap between two of the stones, and vertically traverses a spiral incised in the rock, arriving at the exact center of the spiral at precisely halfway through the solstice’s time span. At the winter solstice, bands of light from two gaps in the standing stones neatly bracket the petroglyph. At other times of the year, the strips of light illuminate different lines in the spiral, thus forming a very precise calendar for anyone who is able to read it.
Sofaer found this now-famous “Sun Dagger” petroglyph on a desert butte high above Chaco Cultural National Historical Park at the summer solstice in 1977. This discovery led to thirty years of research into the meaning of the ancient Chaco’s expressions of cultural astronomy. Although Sofaer and her research team struggled to overcome resistance to their findings by institutionalized archaeology, decades of investigations provided more and more substance to her findings, and Sofaer is now regarded as one of the great pioneers of American archaeoastronomy.
Intriguingly, the Chaco solar calendar also indicates lunar positions, recording minor and major standstills of the moon over a ten-year period, as well as an eighteen-year period. These standstills relate to the grooves in the spiral. There’s interesting corroboration for this connection between solar and lunar in the culture of the ancestral Pueblo and Hopi tribes, who, according to ethnographic reports, strive to schedule the winter solstice ceremony so it coincides with a full moon. In Pueblo cosmology, the sun and the moon are seen as Father and Mother.
Along with the petroglyphs and other time-measuring constructions, which are present over a large area, an evaluation of Chaco buildings shows that most were oriented to solar meridians, equinoxes, or solstices; or to lunar standstills. Within the major buildings themselves, the axes also tend to point to solar and lunar directions, as do the placement of windows and wall niches, indicating a profound knowledge of the sky and its movements. Unfortunately, as the buildings were constructed of mud brick, they have for the most part crumbled in the intervening years, so archaeologists are unable to gauge fully the dynamics of the interiors. However, traditional Hopi and Navajo houses, to this day, are oriented to the sky, as in ancient cultures around the globe, and are webbed in an intricate net of mnemonic ritual.
It’s easy to assume in our modern religion-saturated culture that the astronomical charts and devices found throughout the Chaco Canyon were just part of a simple fertility religion and were used as a way to know when to plant crops and schedule seasonal ceremonies. This view vastly underestimates the people who lived in the area, and who conceived of and maintained these precise constructions for hundreds of years. The orthodox idea that they invested enormous amounts of observation, thought, calculation, verification, and physical effort just to know when to plant and dance is limited, at best. They had no need to track both vast and minute increments of time for these routine purposes — a simple annual calendar would have been sufficient, and having lived in this remote canyon for hundreds of years, they would have known the seasons like the back of their hands. The winds, clouds, quality of light, smells, subtle changes in temperature, humidity, flora, and the shifting activity of the myriad animals, birds, and insects that they lived intimately among: all would have vividly and precisely communicated seasonal transitions throughout the year. In examining these ancient artifacts and the narratives they are a part of, we must accept that they were created by people similar to us, with a similar subtlety and depth of intellect, and a similar recognition of large mathematically organized patterns. In the next chapter, we’ll take a closer look at what they were both remembering and tracking, something far grander, and far more important to us today, than just the movements of the annual seasons.
Now let’s move to South America, where a peculiar series of massive drawings incised in the desert floor at Nazca, Peru, indicates a complex civilization. The drawings are so enormous (the largest spans 886 feet, or 270 meters) that they were only discovered when, in the 1930s, the first airplanes flew over the region. The drawings include a number of straight lines arranged in grids and patterns, as well as figurative representations: a monkey, a spider, a hummingbird, a dog. Many outlandish theories regarding the purpose of the figures have been proposed, including that the lines formed a landing strip for extraterrestrial beings. Maria Reiche, the German archaeologist and mathematician who studied the Nazca Lines for almost fifty years, and who was instrumental in salvaging them for posterity, concluded that they had astronomical significance. Her protégé, Phyllis Pitluga, demonstrated that one of the largest and most complex drawings, of a spider, was oriented so that it related to the three central stars of Orion’s belt (remember that the Thornborough Henges, the Giza pyramids, and the Mayan city of Utatlan were similarly oriented). Other lines indicated the rising and setting of various stars and the sun.
The Nazca figures, as we have noted, can only be seen complete from the air. There are other examples in South America, similar to those we’ve seen in Egypt, in which the feats of engineering seem far too accomplished for the people who were supposed to have completed them, at least according to the popular bias today against the abilities of ancient people. The Amazon rainforest is currently under threat, as farmers clear more and more land for planting. However, the uncovered land has revealed some fascinating, and entirely unsuspected treasures: there are great lines incised in the Amazon at certain places, reminiscent of the Peruvian Nazca figures. Clearly, the entire area, in an inconceivably distant past, was inhabited by a large civilization (estimated to be the size of the Los Angeles metropolitan area) that was very different from the current native population; a civilization seemingly intent on signaling in some way to those who would come after. We need to recognize and understand those signals, which we will examine in upcoming chapters.
We now move halfway around the world. Deep in the jungles of modern Cambodia lies Angkor Wat, one of the most magnificent ancient structures still standing. Angkor Wat has only recently been available for scholarly study. For decades, access was made difficult, first by the rule of the Khmer Rouge and then by the U.S. embargo on travel to the country. However, since Cambodia opened up in 1993, the country has seen a surge in tourist and academic interest.
Eleanor Mannikka, a Trinity University academic, became intrigued by the extremely precise dimensions of the complex, and traveled to Cambodia to do further research. She detailed her work in the comprehensive book Angkor Wat: Time, Space, and Kingship. Like the Giza pyramids and the Mayan Way of the Dead, Angkor Wat is a marvel of engineering, with vast tons of stone supported on seemingly delicate pillars, and dimensions that are precise to within a hair’s breadth. Through her calculations, Mannikka discovered the ancient Cambodian unit of measurement, which was .43 meters, remarkably similar to half of the Megalithic yard (.42 meters) described earlier. Note as well that this is almost precisely the length of the pendulum string Butler and Knight cited as the common unit of measurement throughout Europe and the Middle East. Using this “cubit,” Mannikka noted certain recurring numbers. For example, the length 13.41 cubits kept coming up in her measurements. This number may seem rather ungainly, until one recognizes that Angkor Wat is at 13.43 latitude north, suggesting that the ancient Cambodian architects, like those in Egypt and Europe, were aware of the arc of the Earth and their position on the planet. In her book, Mannikka notes many other numbers that have celestial significance.
The Cambodian pantheon of gods (derived ultimately from sources to in the west: present-day India and Iran) is, like most ancient oral traditions, related to cosmology. Among these, and central to the Angkor Wat complex, is the image of Vishnu Churning the Sea of Milk. This image, represented as a tug-of-war, is depicted in a vast bas-relief spanning an entire gallery, and it shows the god gripping a mill-like churning pivot or rod turned back and forth by opposing sides tugging the serpent wound round the rod. In common with celestially aligned structures we’ve looked at elsewhere, apertures in Angkor Wat are positioned so that light enters and illuminates important areas at certain times of the year. In this Churning the Sea of Milk bas-relief, the central King of the Asuras, Vishnu, is highlighted by a bar of light that shifts across his figure during the winter solstice (in the same way that the Chaco “Sun Dagger” functions). Other positions in the design of the temple reflect the number of naksatras (lunar constellations), the number of months in the year, the days in the lunar month, and the days of the solar month.
A Message from the Past
We’ve now looked at a number of brilliantly constructed ancient structures across the surface of the Earth that are all in some way oriented to and are in a (sometimes startlingly dynamic) relationship with the movements of the celestial bodies, and frequently associated with Orion. We’ve seen that in locations as disparate as Britain, North Africa, Central America, and Southwest Asia, identical mathematical principles and units of measurement were used. Stonehenge, Giza, Chaco, the Nazca Desert, Teotihuacan, Angkor Wat — examined individually, these monuments of remarkable human ingenuity are awe-inspiring. But viewed as a group, we begin to recognize that the commonalities are not happenstance. And we’ve seen that the architecture of cultures very far from each other contain similar alignments and mathematics. In many cases, it’s evident that travelers transported this knowledge across vast distances; in other cases, extremely intelligent humans used the same resources — the Earth and cosmic dimensions — to fashion measurement systems. Within ancient architecture, it’s clear that our ancestors all around the globe went to great lengths to preserve and send a message across the millennia, and that these constructions correspond to celestial mechanics and to their oral traditions, symbols, and mnemonic rituals.
All the strands we’ve looked at so far — the celestially organized architecture, the interest in Orion, the stories with their echoing images, the codified remnants of older cultures, many of them connected over vast distances — can be braided into a single very ancient thread that was known around the globe. In the next chapter, we’ll examine the mathematical and astronomical phenomenon that has spun these disparate threads. We’ll then begin to understand the significance of a cycling phenomenon that our ancestors, all over the globe, kept at the very center of their lives and community for tens of thousands of years — a phenomenon that modern people have nearly forgotten, known as the precession of the equinoxes.