Seven Ancient Cultures and How They Shaped Astronomy


Astronomical chart from Senemut’s tomb, 18th dynasty (1463 BCE) / Photo by NebMaatRa, Wikimedia Commons

With all their inventions and discoveries, it seems like the world connived to shape the astronomy of today.


By Dr. Jason Cook
Planetary Astronomer
Telescopic Watch


Introduction

We as human beings are greatly attracted to beauty. And there is nothing more beautiful than the heavenly bodies set above us to see. From the stars, sun, moon, and planets for us to admire, our world has never been short of attraction!

Our interest in Astronomy can be dated back to ancient times. Our fascination with the celestial bodies has evolved through the centuries. The fascination was so strong it was enough for humans to not only be contented with what can be seen by the naked eye. From initially looking up and gazing at the stars, man has invented tools like the telescope to magnify and clearly see the yet unseen. With all these inventions and discoveries, it seems like the world connived to shape the astronomy of today.

Babylonian Astronomy

A Babylonian tablet recording Halley’s comet in 164 BC. / Photo via British Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Dating back to 1800 B.C., the Babylonians were among the first civilization to document the movements of the sun and the moon. They maintained a very detailed record of these motions including a daily, monthly, and yearly position of the celestial bodies.

This information was initially of mystical value used to warn the king about possible catastrophic events. It is said that the first appearances of the famous Hailey’s comet were documented by the Babylonians and it is also them who first divided the sky into zones.

Greek Astronomy

Aristarchus’s 3rd-century BCE calculations on the relative sizes of (from left) the Sun, Earth and Moon, from a 10th-century CE Greek copy. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

If we talk about Astronomy, the Greeks definitely first come to mind. They are popularly known as the fathers of ancient astronomy; formulating theories and mathematical equations in an attempt to explain the universe.

One of the most notable Greek scholars is Eratosthenes. He has excelled not in the field of astronomy alone but in the field of geography, mathematics, poetry, and music as well. He is well-known for several astronomical breakthroughs.

His most important contribution is the calculation of the earth’s circumference. His computation was off by only a few hundred or a few thousand miles. It is closely accurate considering the lack of apt technology during that time. He is also responsible for calculating the tilt of the earth’s axis and the conceptualization of leap day.

Pythagoras is another Greek philosopher who is better known for mathematics but also has contributions in Astronomy. He postulated that the earth is spherical in shape as other celestial bodies are. He came up with this idea when he saw ships disappear past the horizon as they sail. He was the first to suggest that the movement of the planets, sun, moon, and stars could be equated in numbers.

Indian Astronomy

Astronomical instrument with graduated scale and notation in Hindu-Arabic numerals. / Photo by soylentgreen23, Wikimedia Commons

There are numerous contributions of Ancient India in the field of Astronomy but the most notable one was by Aryabhatiya. It is through him that Indian astronomy veered away from the mystical and religious and towards the scientific.

Although his works are under the premise that the world is geocentric, many are still of value to modern mathematics and astronomy. Aryabhatiya was able to assume that the Earth is rotating on its axis and that the Moon and other planets shine through reflected light from the Sun.

Mayan Astronomy

The Caracol at Chichen Itza is an observatory. / Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Mayan astronomers sought guidance from the sky. They were particularly interested in studying the motion of the stars, sun, and other planets. The ancient Mayans have managed to observe and document these movements through shadow-casting devices they invented. It is through these observations that they developed the Mayan Calendar to keep track of the passage of time.

Egyptian Astronomy

Nut, Egyptian goddess of the sky, with the star chart in the tomb of Ramses VI. / Photo by Hans Bernhard, Wikimedia Commons

Having one of the most advanced and affluent cultures, Ancient Egypt has significant contributions to astronomy of today. Just like in any ancient civilization, the movements and patterns of the sky ignited the creation of myths to explain astronomical events.

The Egyptians are not an exemption to this. They have huge pyramids and temples based on astronomical positions. An example of this practice is The Great Pyramid of Giza. It was built to align with the North Star which at that time was Thuban instead of Polaris.

The Nabta Playa is one of the most intriguing astronomical locations in Egypt. It is where a circular stone structure can be found that is presumed to be a giant calendar to identify the summer solstice.

The Egyptian inclination to astronomy is not purely religious but practical as well. They used the observations of the celestial bodies to predict and therefore prepare for the flooding of the Nile River. The Egyptians developed a calendar system that is close to the one we currently use. It has 30 days in one month and 365 days divided into 12 months. The difference is that they have 10 days for each week with 3 weeks each month.

Chinese Astronomy

The Dunhuang map from the Tang Dynasty (North Polar region). This map is thought to date from the reign of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (705–710). Founded in Dunhuang, Gansu. Constellations of the three schools were distinguished with different colors: white, black and yellow for stars of Wu Xian, Gan De and Shi Shen respectively. The whole set of star maps contain 1,300 stars. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese have one of the most detailed documentation of astronomical observations. Gan De is one of the most notable astronomers in Ancient China. He was the first to take notice of Ganymede, which at that time he described as a small reddish “star” around Jupiter. Shi Shen also created one of the most detailed and oldest catalogs of the stars – Star Catalogue of Shi.

The Chinese took notice of stars that suddenly appear among other fixed stars. It was believed that what they observed was a supernova.

The Dunhuang Star Atlas was discovered by an archaeologist in a Buddhist cave in Dunhuang, China. It is said to be the earliest known preserved star map in the world which dates back before AD 700.

Persian Astronomy

A Persian astronomical calendar / Creative Commons

Astronomy was highly popular during the Post-Islam Persian civilization. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi or commonly known as Azophi is one of the most brilliant astronomers of all time.

The Andromeda Galaxy was first described in his book The Book of Fixed Stars. He made some corrections and revisions on the original concept of constellations by Ptolemy.

Abu Mahmud Hamid ibn Khidr al-Khujandi is a brilliant astronomer who built a giant sextant with the purpose of calculating the earth’s axis. It was his own invention and its massive size made it possible to come up with a lot more accurate calculation. His measurement was just off by two minutes; a level of accuracy that has never been attained.


Originally published by the International Astronomical Union, 2018, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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