Learning about the ancients from their astronomy


            More than 100,000 years ago, human beings first became aware of themselves and of their surroundings. They began to notice the ever-changing patterns of this world involving transformation from birth and growth to death. The heavens would have appeared as the most important agency that seemingly controlled this cycle by bringing light, warmth and water. Yet, beyond the clouds in the sky, there seemed to be a cycle of stars that was both, ever changing on daily basis and almost stable in the long term.


The wandering of the Sun and the Moon in the celestial dome would only have added to their fascination of the skies. Astronomy must therefore have been a part of some of the earliest studies of humans. The earliest human mythologies were about the dead and their resurgence, analogous to what happened to plants and animals around them. The fact that plants resurrected with rains from the heavens must have made humans feel that their dead would also be resurrected by or in the heavens. The heavens therefore, would be central to their lives. In all early human myths, Gods reside in Heaven, which is above us. In the stone carvings in the Lexus caves in France, stone paintings dated to 15,000 YBP show detailed sky charts with Orion and Taurus clearly marked out.


The human mind must have very soon begun to recognise patterns and rhythms in the world around them. Astronomical mythologies must have evolved with changing times. The advent of farming some 10,000 years ago, saw human existence undergo a profound change. It also brought a new urgency to the study of astronomy. Earliest farmers must have asked for the blessings of the skies that brought forth the rains, and rains did not come randomly.  They must have noticed that it was only when the sunrise occurred in the company of some specific stars, that the rain gods showed their mercy on humans. Clearly therefore, from the earliest times, humans must have attempted to devise methods and technologies to keep track of the movement of the Sun and the stars. The earliest of such monuments must have consisted of stones marking important points on the horizon to note the arrival and departure points of the Sun. These markings should still be available for us to study.


A study of ancient astronomy or archaeo astronomy is, therefore, a study of the evolution of human intellect, more than any other field of study of the prehistoric past. Other studies, at best reveal human technological achievements but not their intellectual growth. Its role in organising the societies must have been crucial, since even today, we use the concepts of weeks and months that are derived from lunar astronomy and name our days based on celestial objects. Indeed, even in the most ancient of Indian literature, the Ŗg Veda, as also in literature from other parts of the world, astronomy finds a place of pride alongside myths of humans, ancestors, and gods. Indeed, Ŗg Veda – Vedāńga Jyotişa (35) notes, “Just like the combs of peacocks and the crest jewels of the serpents, so does Jyotişa (astronomy) stand at the head of the auxiliaries of the Vedas”.


Yet, in the Indian context, the studies of evolution of astronomical ideas and related technologies have not received the careful attention they deserve. Recently we have undertaken studies targeted to identifying the astronomical recordings in all ancient materials from stone etching to religious writings of Indian origin. Our initial studies suggest that astronomical records even older than those in the Lexus caves probably exist in the stone carving traditions of Kashmir where even comet showers seems to have been recorded (Vahia et al., 2006)[1]. Records dated to 7000 years before present appear to show astronomical recording of supernovae (Joglekar et al., 2006).


The precession of the Earth’s rotation axis on time scales of thousands of years provide a very powerful clock to time some of the past events. By tracking how the path of the Moon has drifted away from its Nakshatras allows us to determine that they were designed 5000 years ago (Bhujle and Vahia, 2006).  Some of the recorded renditions of omens related to astronomical observations seem to date back to 7300 YBP, even if they were written down much later (Mahajani et al., 2006). All these dates predate the archaeological evidence of earliest human settlements by a couple of millennia.


In written literature from the period of Mahabharata onwards, astronomical recordings consist not only of a mention of a constellation in the sky, but far more definitive use of astronomical changes as calendars. The most enigmatic of these, the Saptarshi calendar, also turns out to be far more accurate than had been hitherto assumed (Sule et al., 2006). Search for evolution of astronomical ideas in the Vedic literature has the potential of allowing us to analyse the impact of Harappan Culture on the Vedic people (Vahia, 2006).


In recent times, since the beginning of written history some 2500 years ago, the records are even more accurate and open a gold mine of data on human intellectual growth. With new and varied ideas of the cosmogony of the Universe, a wealth of data on the thinking of the best minds of that period allow us to understand the path of intellectual growth in a manner not possible till now. Vast improvements in computational power and improved understanding of the cosmos allow us to open the window that had remained closed until now. For example, Varahmihira’s method of calculation of tithies is remarkably versatile and can be extended to thousands of years with small modifications (Bhujle and Vahia, 2006). Indian historic literature should have been full of references to supernovae visible as bright transient objects in the sky (Joglekar, Sule and Vahia, 2006), but no systematic search for such references have been conducted so far. Archaeo Astronomy, in the Indian context, therefore offers exciting opportunities to understand human intellectual growth.


With this web site, we present to you some of our recent work published in various Indian journals that will allow you to follow this journey. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


[1] Abstracts of all these papers are attached to this note. Detailed papers are posted on www.tifr.res.in/~archaeo/papers/Papers.html