Cosmic Africa explores Africa's astronomy

Cosmic Africa film poster In a journey that stretched from Namibia to the coastline and steamy jungles of Ghana, across crocodile infested lakes and deserts of Northern Kenya, the cliff-side dwellings of the Dogon in Mali and on to the mysterious archaeological sites of the Egyptian Sahara, the recently launched film Cosmic Africa explores Africa's ancient astronomy history.

Cosmic Africa , a co-production between Cosmos Studios, Åland Pictures and Anne Rogers is a unique 72 minute feature length documentary film that both explores and sheds new light on traditional African astronomy and in turn global understanding of the world's oldest science. Cosmic Africa is directed and filmed by the multi-award winning duo, Craig and Damon Foster.

In developing the film, the team's celestial quest put them in touch with chiefs, calendar specialists, diviners, healers, storytellers, nomads, shamans, sky lore experts, archaeologists, linguists and anthropologists from six different countries.

Nabta Playa

With logistic and research support from the Combined Prehistoric Expedition and the Egyptian government, the team journeyed to Nabta Playa - a mysterious archaeological site in the wind-swept Sahara. Situated in Southern Egypt and about 100 kilometres west of Abu Simbel temple, Nabta Playa is a large hollowed-out shallow depression that contains evidence of a seasonal lake where prehistoric cattle herders once lived.

During an international scientific expedition in the spring of 1988, experts discovered evidence of what is believed to be the world's earliest astronomical site.

Evidence of charred grass seeds, including wild millet and sorghum, suggest that the people cultivated plantations around the banks of the lake. Ancient trash heaps containing a variety of animal bones, indicate that they also kept goats, sheep and cattle. The settlements probably date back to eleven thousand years ago, when the African monsoons moved north and filled the lake with water. About five thousand years ago the rainfall pattern shifted once again and Nabta Playa became arid and uninhabitable.

The team were told that that the ancient "Nabtans" were involved in some form of cattle worship. A previous excavation had revealed the remains of a complete adult cow buried in a clay-lined and roofed chamber

The potential significance of Nabta as a ceremonial site was further strengthened by the discovery of an arrangement of stone megaliths (large free standing stones) on the western edge of the Nabta basin. Some of these stones had been carefully shaped, and weighed up to one and a half tons. They appeared to radiate out from a central point.

Sirius - Earth's brightest star, held special significance for the nomadic cattle herders of Nabta. When Sirius miraculously appeared in the early dawn sky on the shortest day of the year around 4800 BC, it indicated that life and water would soon return.

The 12-foot-in diameter stone circle contains four sets of upright slabs. Two sets were aligned in a north-south direction while the second pair of slabs provides a line of sight toward the summer solstice horizon. Because of Nabta's proximity to the Tropic of Cancer, the noon sun is at its zenith about three weeks before and three weeks after the summer solstice, preventing upright objects from casting shadows.

The Summer solstice brought life - soon after the Sun reached its northernmost point in its annual journey across the sky, the monsoons brought precious rainfall.

The Dogon

In the West African country of Mali, they visited the amazing cliff dwellings of the mysterious Dogon people, a traditional farming community, renowned for their skilled craftsmen, spectacular wooden masks and intricate religious beliefs. The Dogon, who are represented by four major clans, live along the spectacular sand stone escarpment of the Bandiagara cliffs in southeastern Mali. They settled there around the fifteenth century and even today, despite the infiltration of other cultural beliefs, their religious traditions remain strong.

There they met people who still navigate by the stars and who acknowledge aspects of the sky and earth in their daily lives, songs, dances and ceremonies. What makes certain parts of Africa extra special, says Ann Rogers, is the absence of light and air pollution. People still rely on campfires, oil lamps or moonlight as a source of nocturnal illumination. At full moon, people can hunt or travel or have village dances - their world is still defined by the power and natural rhythm of the cosmos. Their knowledge of the sky is the result of hundreds of years of naked-eye observations.


"In Namibia, where people have left an extraordinary legacy of prehistoric rock art, the sky was crystal clear. We were overwhelmed to be surrounded by countless glittering stars that threaded the blackness of space. It was not difficult to see why certain people still pay homage to the sky. We gained different perspectives of the night sky as we crisscrossed Africa from south to north," said Ann Rogers.

In Namibia, they travelled to the ancestral home of the Ju/'hoan of Nyae Nyae, formerly known as eastern Bushmanland. Situated in a remote corner of northeastern Namibia and due west of Botswana, the land is still largely a wilderness area, sprinkled with saltpans and ancient Baobab trees.

"It was here where we were introduced to some famous traditional Bushmen healers and shamans. They told us they only dance when they feel happy. The bright evening star, the planet Venus, is sometimes greeted with a special dance. Today, western clothing is worn in combination with more traditional apparel and watches and radios have become a link with the world beyond, but some of the elderly hunters who live in more remote villages still rely on the position of the Sun to give them a sense of time - they observe the shadows cast by the Sun and still count the days by the phases of the Moon. They pay particular attention to the Milky Way: they call it the Spine of the Night and observe three different positions during the course of the night. It tells them about time and the changing seasons.

Thebe Medupe

Staring at the stars through a telescopeThe film also captures a remarkable personal journey for African astronomer, Thebe Medupe who is the presenter/astronomer in Cosmic Africa.

When Halley's comet passed near the earth in 1986, it sparked off Thebe Medupe's interest in astronomy. At the age of thirteen, he built his first telescope and made his own map of the moon. From modest beginnings in a small South African village near Mafikeng, Thebe went on to obtain his doctorate in Astrophysics from the University of Cape Town (December 2002), to become one of the first three black South African astronomers laude) in astrophysics. His research focuses on the use of sound waves, generated inside stars, to probe the interiors of a particular class of pulsating stars (astero-seismology). He is currently working and continuing his research at the SAAO - the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town and is also a visiting lecturer in physics and astronomy at the University of the North West in Mafikeng. He is the leader of the University of the North West's newly established theoretical astrophysics programme that he founded over two years ago.

Thebe Medupe has always been keen to travel through Africa, to explore the celestial beliefs from different parts of the continent. He would like to compile a database of traditional African astronomy and link some of the ancient African perceptions with current scientific knowledge in order to use if for science education.

Cosmic Africa is his first film project.