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Could a remote African people have gained esoteric knowledge about the sky without having telescopes? Were aliens, lost technology or something else entirely involved? In this week’s eSkeptic, Liam McDaid examines these claims.

Liam McDaid is Astronomy Coordinator and Professor of Astronomy at Sacramento City College. He also gives public talks on astronomy and related fringe topics to international audiences. Liam is the author of Urban Astronomy and is a Senior Scientist for Skeptic.

Below: The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy (discovered in 2003) is the nearest known galaxy to the centre of the Milky Way. Found in the constellation after which it is named, it is about 25,000 light years from the sun and 42,000 light years from the centre of the Milky Way. It is also the home of the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius A. (Copyright: R. Ibata (Strasbourg Observatory, ULP) et al., 2MASS, NASA)


Legends of the Dogon
Belief in a Long-Solved Mystery Resurfaces

by Liam McDaid

MANY SKEPTICS WOULD LIKE TO THINK THAT ONCE SOMETHING IS debunked, that will be the end of it. Readers of Skeptic are not so sanguine. Some pseudosciences such as homeopathy and free energy never die. Although we can occasionally claim victory (are there any alchemists left?), many debunked issues keep rising from the dead like vampires springing from their tombs. Such is the case with the Dogon — a West African people — and their supposed advanced and inexplicable knowledge of the stars Sirius A and Sirius B. Sirius A is the brightest star in our sky. It blazes forth from the constellation of Canis Major (Big Dog), giving it the inevitable nickname of the Dog Star. The legend of the Dogon’s astronomical precociousness first appeared on the radar in the 1970s. It was popularized in an episode from the In Search of… television series narrated by Leonard Nimoy. A recent newsletter from my local astronomy association still found the Dogon and their mysterious knowledge of Sirius B worth mentioning.

map

After being surprised that an astromomy association would, after all this time, bother to publish such an article, I did a web search and found that in 1997 Robert Temple published a second edition of the book that started it all — The Sirius Mystery — in which he addressed none of the main criticisms that had been directed against the first edition, published in 1976. The immunity of pseudoscientists to criticism is well known to skeptics, yet I was curious. I did more searching and found that for the keywords “Dogon” and “Sirius B”, almost 1000 websites were listed. Of those websites, over 400 had been updated within the last three months. The good news is that two of the first five entries were from skeptical websites (CSICOP and Bob Carroll’s Skeptic’s Dictionary). The bad news is that the pseudoscience websites were in seventeen different languages. It seems that Temple’s ideas are still popular among practitioners of pseudoarcheology, as well as with the general public. A review of the astronomical, cultural, and anthropological sides of this issue might be timely.

The basic thesis is this: the Dogon (who live in the African nation of Mali, near the border with Burkina Faso) allegedly have long possessed arcane astronomical knowledge that should have been impossible for them to discover without modern telescopes. They know about the existence of the star Sirius B, a companion star to the brightest star in our sky, Sirius A. Since Sirius B is a very dense white dwarf star about the size of Earth, it can only be seen in dark skies with medium-sized telescopes. The Dogon also hold a big sigui ceremony every 60 years, which some interpret as representing the period of time it takes Sirius B to go around Sirius A. How did the Dogon obtain this knowledge?

This is a complicated issue, because several special interest groups each claim the Dogon for their own. One group says the Dogon got their information from aliens from the Sirian system called Nommos. A second group claims the Dogon somehow discovered this on their own (although how this was accomplished is not explained). The third explanation is that they learned the information from Europeans or in European schools.

illustration

Figure 1. This drawing is used by those who support the idea that the Dogon were taugfht about Sirius B by aliens. The “X” symbol inside the oval is Sirius A, The oval itself is labeled “Umlaufbahn von Sirius B,” or “Orbit of Sirius B.” Pretty convincing. Except that this isn’t the original Dogon drawing.

Let’s start with the first idea, proffered by Robert Temple.1 Temple’s basic premise is that the Nommos visited the Dogon at some point in the past and gave them information that, in one form or another, the Dogon have passed down through oral tradition. Some of this information has been selectively interpreted by Temple to support his claims. For example, he claims that the Dogon have a drawing like the one in Figure 1.

Temple’s response to criticism has so far been evasive. The introduction to his second edition is so full of paranoid theorizing,2 that although it is quoted extensively and interpolated with favorable comments by Michael Bara (or possibly Richard Hoagland), the most extreme conspiracy claims are omitted.3

It is important to look at the assumptions and implications of the claims made about the Dogon. One of the problems the UFO crowd has is providing an answer to the question of where the aliens who visit us come from. The Pleiades are sometimes mentioned, but this is not possible. The stars in this group are too young — only a few tens of millions of years — for planets with life and civilization to have developed.

Zeta Reticuli 2 (with about the same temperature and mass as the Sun) is another candidate. The inspiration for this claim was a star map produced by Betty Hill while under hypnosis. She claimed an alien starship commander had originally shown it to her. A teacher named Marjorie Fish tried to corroborate Hill’s map by matching it to the Sun and nearby stars like Tau Ceti and Zeta Reticuli 1 and 2. But Fish’s map used an arbitrary viewpoint in space. Fish’s map and Hill’s map look similar only because the lines connecting the stars look the same. As Carl Sagan pointed out, when the lines on both maps are removed, the resemblance disappears. Sagan further commented that he was surprised, given the freedom of viewpoint that Fish used, that her map didn’t match the Hill map better!4

illustration

Figure 2. This is the original Dogon drawing. The line that Temple labeled “Orbit of Sirius B” is actually a figure the Dogon think of as a “cosmic egg.” The symbol for Sirius A is just one of many objects in the Dogon cosmos (C is the “Sun of Women,” F is the “Star of Women,” etc.). The diagram is only convincing as a representation of Sirius B orbiting Sirius A when most of the original symbols are eliminated.

What about Sirius? It has a mass of 2.35 times the mass of the Sun. This means that it will have a lifetime on the stellar Main Sequence, which is where stars spend 90% of their lives, of about 1.2 billion years. By comparison, our own Sun was that old 3.4 billion years ago. The oldest traces of life on Earth go back to about that time. Obviously, no Earth-based species was flying to other stars back then!

Even if you allow for a much higher biological mutation rate on any Sirian planet compared to the Earth, it still isn’t enough time. Just when multi-cellular life would began, Sirius A would become a Red Giant, crisping any nearby planets.

On top of that, there is another star, Sirius B, orbiting at an average distance of about 20 AU (1 AU is the distance between the Earth and Sun). Because Sirius B moves from 8 to 31 AU distance from Sirius A, it is unlikely that planets orbiting Sirius A would have stable orbits. Worse still, hundreds of thousands of years ago, Sirius B was a dying red giant. This would have wreaked havoc on the climate of any planets orbiting Sirius A. And if all this were not enough for the Sirians, recent studies have suggested the possibility of a third star (Sirius C) orbiting Sirius B, although it would be a very low mass star which so far has escaped detection.5 Stable planetary orbits may be very hard to find in the Sirian system. Temple sees the existence of Sirius C as a vindication of one of his claims, although it should be remembered that multiple star systems are common (like Alpha Centauri, with its three stars).

Some might argue that if there were a planet really close to Sirius A, it could be in a stable orbit. This is true, but Sirius has about 25 times the luminosity of the Sun. Any planet that close would make Venus, with an average temperature of 450ºC (840ºF), look cool and comfortable by comparison. So much for the Nommos.

The second idea, championed by Afrocentrist historians, is that the Dogons either found out about Sirius B on their own or learned about it from the Egyptians. They point out that the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians used spherical lenses6 (even though they are a bad choice to use in telescopes — try seeing an image through a glass bead). Also it would take a very good set of lenses to see Sirius B, which has an apparent magnitude of 8.44 and a separation from Sirius A of 10 arcseconds (0.3% of a 1º angle) under the best conditions. The difference in brightness between Sirius A and B is a factor of 10,000!

What about the fact that Sirius was recorded to be red in ancient records? Could Sirius B have been a red giant a few thousand years ago? In that case the Dogon (and everyone else) would have had little trouble seeing both stars then. One problem with this idea is that Sirius B has been a white dwarf for at least tens of thousands of years. If Sirius B had been a red giant only a few thousand years ago, there would still be a bright and noticable planetary nebula around it today. No such nebula is seen. The second problem is that ancient writers seemed to use color for stars in a way different from the way that we do (they described Pollux, Arcturus, and Capella as “red” — a modern observer would call them yellow-orange, orange, and yellow, respectively). And finally, even if Sirius B had been a visible red giant a few thousand years ago, how would the Dogon know that Sirius B was still there after it became a white dwarf?

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It seems clear that the Dogon did indeed get their information from other cultures. But from whom? Several possibilities exist. Mali was a former French colony (part of the Sudan), so some Dogon may have gone to French schools in the 1920s.7 Or Jesuit missionaries or merchants may have imparted the information to them.8

There may be an even simpler explanation. The two anthropologists who first studied the Dogon (Griaule and Deiterlen) conducted their research in the 1930s. Sirius B was known to exist then. In their original findings, Griaule and Deiterlen make no comment about the Dogon knowledge of Sirius B. This is strange, because one would think that it would be a major discovery in anthropology. Also, in the 1980s and 1990s, anthropologist Walter van Beek could find no evidence that the Dogon possessed knowledge about Sirius B today.9 But more enlightening is the fact that Griaule studied astronomy in Paris and brought star maps with him to Mali. Some surviving informants of Griaule who spoke to van Beek made it clear that the Dogon learned about Sirius B from him!10

The Dogon don’t speak of objects in the Kuiper Belt, or spokes in Saturn’s rings, or the ring arcs of Neptune. Even in the most optimistic reading of this tale, the Dogon know no more than we knew about the Solar System and nearby stars in the 1930s, which is about the time that Griaule and Deiterlen first interacted with them. Hmm…

References
  1. Temple, Robert 1997. The Sirius Mystery (2nd ed.), Destiny Books, 6–8.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bara, Michael 1999. www.lunaranomalies.com/temple.htm
  4. Sagan, Carl 1980. “Encyclopedia Galactica,” Cosmos (television series).
  5. Benest, D. and J. L. Duvent. 1995. “Is Sirius a Triple Star?” Astronomy & Astrophysics, 299: 621–628.
    Schroder, D.J., et al. 2000. “A Search for Faint Companions to Nearby Stars Using the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2,” Astronomical Journal, 119, 2: 906–922.
  6. Adams, H. H. 1983. “African Observers of the Universe: The Sirius Question.” In Blacks in Science. van Sertima (ed.): 36.
  7. Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. 1996. “The Dogon People Revisited.” Skeptical Inquirer, 20/6: 39–42.
  8. Sagan, Carl 1979. Broca’s Brain. New York: Random House, 73.
  9. Ortiz de Montellano, op cit.
  10. James, P., N. Thorpe, and I. J. Thorpe. 1999. Ancient Mysteries. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum!

photo by John and Keturah

The Cardiff Giant, one of the most celebrated hoaxes in American history, on display at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, NY.
(Photo by John and Keturah. Used under a Creative Commons license.)

There were Giants in the earth
in those days… —Genesis 6:1

Giants appear in cultures around the world: Biblical tales of giants more than ten feet tall; Roman and Greek stories of titans and heroes; European stories of giants of mountain and hill. They all have one thing in common: enormous monsters.

On this episode of MonsterTalk we chat with archeologist Dr. Ken Feder about giants, biblical archeology — and one of the biggest hoaxes in American history.


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Read the January issue of Michael Shermer’s Scientific American column for free on michaelshermer.com: Kool-Aid Psychology: How optimism trumped realism in the positive-psychology movement.

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In the Name of God:
The Neuron Bomb of Terrorism

Nothing fuels religious extremism more than the belief that one has found the absolute moral truth. It is a type of fuel that can lead to what Clay Farris Naff cleverly calls the “neuron bomb.” In this post, Michael Shermer asks, “ Is there a moral standard that stands above all the world’s religions that is based on some transcendent source?”

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15 Comments »

15 Comments

  1. Como says:

    If you’re looking for story ideas, the “dowsing rod” has made a reappearance. The Iraqi military is being duped into buying a modern version for detecting explosives.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/world/middleeast/04sensors.html?_r=2&hp

  2. Pennywhistler says:

    re: Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum!
    There were Giants in the earth in those days… —Genesis 6:1

    Before you go about debunking things, it behooves you to get your facts straight.

    The Hebrew Bible in Gen. 6 makes no mention of “giants”. (God alone knows what the BS Christian “translations” say — they are the Sarah Palins of religion.)

    Gen 6:1 merely says: “And it came to pass when man commenced to multiply upon the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them.” That’s all,

    Five verses down there is mention of the “nephilim”, described as “those were the mighty men who were of old – the men of renown”. No mention of large bodies – just large amounts of power and fame. See http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8171

    If I said that Paul Dirac was a giant of 20th Century physics, I would not be commenting on his height.

    In Verse 2 there is also mention of “nobles” – people with power over other people, about whom no one could object. Remember the “droit du seigneur”? Well, they weren’t giants either.

    • DoctorAtlantis says:

      @Pennywhistler

      Perhaps we should have added KJV to the notes?

      I had multiple verses referring to giants to pick from but went with that one. Of course in the episode, as I’m sure you noticed, we didn’t talk about the Nephilim. We WOULD have talked about them but the audio for that portion broke. Sadly, I’m unable to read Hebrew – but if you get a chance to refer to the story of Goliath (the main biblical giant we talk about in the episode) perhaps you could tell me how tall he his in the Hebrew version? In the translation you linked to it says he was six cubits and a span, the same as the KJV translation.

      Within the episode, Dr. Feder’s research indicates Goliath is well over ten feet tall by modern measure – a giant by most standards.

      I certainly wouldn’t argue that the KJV is a better tranlsation than any other – it just happens to be the version I read the most growing up. If I remember correctly, I included the 1st Samuel (Shmuel I) verse about Goliath in my original notes but they got trimmed.

      It might interest you to know that the verse about the “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” also had variant versions, though it is of much more recent origin. Both the seemingly non-sense bit of sounds and “smelling English” as well as the last part about bones and bread had several variants.

      Now that we’ve discussed words a bit – what’s your take on Joshua 17:15, Joshua 21:11, and Numbers 22:30?

  3. kenn pappas says:

    One of the problems that I have always had with calculations of how long it would take for life to evolve on other planets is that the mathematics and science that work based on one example, Earth, cannot be compared adequately to the conditions in other solar systems alleged to have life. There are just too many factors involved to say that life could not evolve at an unfathomable rate to us based on calculations dependent on one actual example. This is like calculating the odds of hemoglobin occurring in the current form in the human body as some astronomical number such as 10 to the 650th exponent based on calculating all the combinations of all known enzymes and proteins … while leaving out all other factors such as the possiblity of atoms to come together to form molecules, the possibility of some gases to stay in the atmosphere based on current mass, gravity, and other factors … in other words, once real world factors are introduced, the odds decrease. When calculating numbers and possibilities of life occurring, there are too many factors involved that can change given conditions such as clashing together of tectonic plates releasing oceanic gases, algae forming to increase photosynthesis and release of oxygen, and other factors that can contribute to life forming systems. How is it possible to calculate comparisons with merely one life forming system in our back pockets?

    That said, the Dogon idea is so absurd that it really breaks down to this: Those who believe that because of a couple sketches and the absurd coincidence that a ritual worship every 60 years mimics the time a star revolves around a companion star is evidence of a visitation from another world in a galaxy zillions of light years away … those people will never be convinced otherwise because it would be overtasking for them to review the myriad of facts that dispel such absurd beliefs. I could go into a myriad of facts, but it would make no difference … if one wants to find the face of god in a breakfast pancake and believe that the face is a vision of the divine that will bring him a million bucks, then there’s no facts available that will change that person’s mind. Some people accept facts, and some look for facts based on flimsy evidence. In this particular case, the more people who address the issue of Dogons who have seen or experienced visitors from Sirius as though it were a real issue, the greater the issue lives on … dogonnit.

  4. Tony Q King says:

    I once went to a lecture at McGill back in ’70s. By some long forgotten UFO promoter. I was dragged there by my girlfriend at the time –
    She happened to conveniently be
    – 1. Beautiful
    – 2. a nymphomaniac,
    – 3. (albeit) quite intelligent …Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad
    So! I went without too much protestation. With, I assumed, promises of better things after we went home.
    Hey, who am I to argue?

    Anyhow, the McGill lecture hall was full of (I assume) academics and other toadies, who nodded sagely at the startling revelations by this learned prof.
    The lecture was about aliens and the nearby star system Zeta Crapsilon, or some such place, about 14 light-years from the solar system. (it was North-Northwest from Earth as I recall)
    He dragged out all kinds of star charts, and everything except Erich Von Danigen (remember that schlockmeister?) and the kitchen sinkhole.

    The audience ooo’ed and gasped. We all went home terrified, with visions of aliens shoving flashlights up our asses on some dark rural road.

    Probably the Long-Dong Dogons were explained in his lecture. But I forget.
    I even forgot the rest of the evening/dawn in my apartment with my girlfriend. But it was prob just like a hundred other nights. Ah, youth!

    Where’s that Zeta-Crapsilon conspiratorial myth stuff now that I need it in my old age?

    -aqk

    • Nunya Bizniss says:

      She happened to conveniently be
      – 1. Beautiful
      – 2. a nymphomaniac,
      – 3. (albeit) quite intelligent …Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad

      Comments like this make me want to become a lesbian. Why are some guys such asses? Sorry, off topic I know, but this is just misogynistic and unnecessary in a scientific forum. Tony should go have a drink with Larry Summers.

  5. Tony Q King says:

    >>> the Dogon idea is so absurd that it really breaks down to this: Those who believe that because of a couple sketches and the absurd coincidence that a ritual worship every 60 years mimics the time a star revolves around a companion star is evidence of a visitation from another world in a galaxy zillions of light years away…. <<<

    Helloo, Kenn?
    Speaking of absurd, you're preaching to the choir here (although I truly wish the audience was indeed wider)
    Sadly, we know all this stuff.
    Get some humour, the better to grab a less intelligent being than you… most of them are actuality human, in spite of our sad contradictory evidence.
    No offense. Just late-night imbibing ;-)
    -aqk

  6. Noiqrqrd says:

    Interesting name for a tribe …. “Dogon” …. “No God” reversed :)

    Yes yes I know they didn’t speak or understand English before the white man came and it probably has some deep meaning to them.

    But still, funny.

  7. Loki says:

    The new theory behind the Dogon is that they were able to Astral Travel, and advance their mind to a zen like state. Their elders then traveled the universe as beings of pure thought, and from that came their knowledge of the Dogon.

    One statement even has a Dogon say that they knew the star was there because they had ‘visited’ it.

    This is the new theory that is permeating the population, driven by the Pseudoscience of positive thinking,altered mental states etc. as described in The Secret and even more recently Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol.

  8. Al says:

    Kenn–When first reading the article, I also felt that it might not matter whether life had time to evolve near Sirius (or some other star named), because the aliens wouldn’t necessarily have come from the star system on which they evolved.

    The Griaule explanation makes sense. Reminds me of some story I heard some time ago of a Central American Indian tribe that was found to revere horses–though they had not yet encountered horses. Turned out there was some old dusty record of early explorers leaving them a horse (I might be misremembering the details).

  9. Ulrike Gross says:

    From the “dogon” article:
    “Although we can occasionally claim victory (are there any alchemists left?)”
    This may be overly optimistic. Traditional chinese medicine is full of alchemy and it is a rising charlatanery in Germany, where I live.

  10. JB says:

    I find this blog entry most unusual. For one, in your references you have:

    Benest, D. and J. L. Duvent. 1995. “Is Sirius a Triple Star?” Astronomy & Astrophysics, 299: 621–628.

    ^This citation alludes to two scientists who may have found evidence for Sirius C, another star to have been known to the Dogon but not documented in any European tradition up to that point. You make no allusion to this in the write-up but it is cited. Why? Also, to attribute such knowledge automatically, and with no evidence whatsoever, to European influence is ostensibly Eurocentric. The write-up also mentioned Van Beek’s weird claims, but not the rebuttal of his claims by Geneveaave Griaule and Luc De Heush, or Andrew Apter. Your write-up seeks skepticism for skepticism’s sake, it is not objective. Forget about “alien contact” or diffusion from Egypt, it is highly political which is why any notion that Dogon were as clever as other cultures and maybe, perhaps, figured these things out on their own through some unknown process, is seen as “Afrocentric”. That is beyond fallacious, offensive, and is outright bad scholarship, and Geneveave Griaule clearly shows why in her refutation of Van Beek. You’ve skipped so many points that it is obvious that this write-up is as biased as you claim New age theorists and “afrocentrists” to be, as if Eurocentrism has no part in the motivation for these claims. So easy to put people and ideas associated with people into one political box, isn’t it? Not so easy to address all of the points and empirically prove your case, now is it?

  11. Jlfv says:

    So the Europeans believe that they are source of the Dogon’s astronomical knowledge? Just what we’d expect from those lying bastards.

  12. Press To Digitate says:

    This is a very shallow article, which neglects the facts.

    There are written Dogon records which prove their civilization was aware of Sirius B at least 400 years ago, long preceding any Euro-centric awareness of its existence.

    There is *NO* plausible explanation other than the transfer of this information from extraterrestrials; which, ‘coincidentally’, is EXACTLY how the Dogon records describe the information as having been imparted. Specifically, they revere, TO THIS DAY, ‘men who came down and landed from the stars’, and gave them the secrets of the universe, and pointed them to Sirius B.

    The failed bunkery of fundamentalist scientific materialist dogma cannot overcome objective fact. Aliens are Real. Randi is an Illusion, paid for by The Man. Your Tax Dollars at Work. Get over it.

  13. uyreo says:

    As if the Dogon or any group would have to reveal ALL of their knowledge and wisdom to these thieves and interlopers posing as scientists, historians, archaeologists, etc.

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