Africa : Africans Studied Astronomy in Medieval Times

Discussion in 'All Things Africa' started by Aqil, Feb 7, 2006.

  1. Aqil

    Aqil Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Feb 3, 2001
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    New York
    By Christine Eke

    Africans studied astronomy in medieval times, according to an acclaimed South African astronomer who is researching old manuscripts that record the works of scholars from around Africa.

    Thebe Medupe, an astronomer at the University of Cape Town and the South African Astronomical Observatory, has been analyzing books and manuscripts for the last two years in a project that will see him eventually translate them and publish the results. Speaking to Black Britain, Medupe said: "On a basic level, farming communities in Africa used the stars to predict the likelihood of rain, so they could prepare the land."

    Alternatively, in Southern Africa there was a calendar system based on the Moon and its orbit around the Earth. The number of days to the next Full Moon became a "month," and even now in South Africa some people still use the same word for month and moon.

    The most exciting discovery came 20 years ago when anthropologists and archaeologists uncovered stone structures older than Stonehenge in the southern part of Egypt near the border with Sudan. Medupe said: “The stones were aligned with the different rising positions of the Sun because every day the Sun rises at different points along the horizon, and that is an effect caused by the Earth’s movement around the Sun. “The alignment worked to determine the seasons. The interesting thing about these African stones is that they were built a thousand years before Stonehenge, so right now they are believed to be the oldest astronomical alignments in the world. “That should give us pride because it shows that our people were the first to do this astronomical study of the movement of the Sun or the positions of the Sun.” The stones are believed to have nothing to do with the Pharaohs, and were built before the pyramids by nomadic people from Central Africa.

    The presumed absence of written records from Africa led to the continent being dismissed as uncivilized by historians in the past and perhaps the present. Yet during his search for written work, Medupe found books and manuscripts in Mali dating back 500, 600 or even 800 years to the time when West Africa was under the rule of two powerful empires - Mali and Songhay - 200 years later. These empires stretched over the regions of Mali, Senegal and Mauritania, and allowed stability in those areas, which meant trade routes were protected. As a result of trade the towns and cities prospered, attracting Muslim scholars with it.

    This is the point at which West Africa was coming in contact with Islamic scholars who came into the cities and established learning centers. During this time the African scholars in West Africa wrote in Arabic, but some also wrote in local languages. Medupe said: “I’ve been in Mali and I've seen the books. We have identified 37 books dealing with astronomy and astrology from just one library, and there are 200 libraries in Mali alone.”

    He says there are thousands of books and libraries all over West Africa, East and Southern Africa. So considering the lack of the presence of history, why have these books and manuscripts remained hidden from the world to see? He replies: “These are private libraries, many of them owned by the descendants of some of the scholars from the era – we are talking about 500, 600 years ago. I think people have had bad experiences with colonizers who came and took some of these manuscripts away and displayed them in Europe, so there’s a lot of mistrust that the families who still keep these libraries have for outsiders.”

    That could all change as Medupe is planning to release a book from the findings, but not for some years yet.