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Resource Guides

The Astronomy of Many Cultures

A Resource Guide

by Andrew Fraknoi (Fromm Institute, U. of San Francisco)
May 2019

© copyright 2019 by Andrew Fraknoi. The right to use or reproduce this guide for any nonprofit educational purposes is hereby granted. For permission to use in other ways, or to suggest additional materials, please contact the author at e-mail: fraknoi {at} fhda {dot} edu

The teaching of astronomy in our colleges and high schools often sidesteps the contributions of cultures out­side of Europe and the U.S. mainstream. Few educators (formal or informal) receive much training in this area, and they therefore tend to stick to people and histories they know from their own training -- even when an increasing number of their students or audiences might be from cultures beyond those familiar to them. Luckily, a wealth of material is slowly becoming available to help celebrate the ideas and contributions of non-western cultures regarding our views of the universe.

This listing of resources about cultures and astronomy makes no claim to be comprehensive, but simply consists of some English-language materials that can be used both by educators and their students or audiences. We include published and web-based materials, plus videos and classroom activities.

General Resources on the Astronomy of Diverse Cultures

Published Materials
  • Aveni, Anthony “Archaeoastronomy: Past, Present and Future” in Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1986, p. 456.  A quick overview.
  • Aveni, Anthony Conversing with the Planets. 1992, Times Books. Celebrates the traditions of many cultures; emphasizes the importance of seeing them in their own context.
  • Aveni, Anthony Empires of Time. 1989, Basic Books. A discussion of calendars, clocks, and cultures, with chapters on the Maya, Aztecs, Incas, Ancient Chinese, and several other early civilizations.
  • Aveni, Anthony Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures. 1997, John Wiley. Focuses of the monuments and astronomy of the people who built Stonehenge, plus the Maya and the Inca.
  • Gleiser, Marcelo The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang. 1997, Dutton/Penguin. An exploration by a physicist of ideas from many cultures of how the universe came to be, including ancient legends and modern science.
  • Hadingham, Evan Early Man and the Cosmos. 1984, Walker & Co. A clear primer on the subject of ancient sites and the astronomical thinking of ancient cultures around the world.
  • Kelley, David & Milone, Eugene Exploring Ancient Skies: A Survey of Ancient and Cultural Astronomy, 2nd ed. 2011, Springer.  A textbook for a course at the University of Calgary, this volume compiles a lot of information from different cultures.
  • Krupp, Edwin Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets. 1991, HarperCollins. Superb collection of astronomical tales from many cultures. Best book to start with.
  • Krupp, Edwin Skywatchers, Shamans, & Kings: Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power. 1997, J. Wiley. Fine guide to sites around the world, written for beginners with humor and verve.
  • Krupp, Edwin Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. 1983, Harper & Row. An excellent introduction on the thoughts and monuments of earlier cultures.
  • Penprase, Bryan The Power of the Stars: How Celestial Observations Have Shaped Civilization. 2011, Springer. Good non-technical introduction to the myths, constellation, calendars, astronomical buildings, and world views of various cultures.
  • Ruggles, Clive Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth.  2005, ABC-Clio.  Mammoth A-Z compilation of the ancient knowledge of a wide range of cultures.
  • Walker, Christopher, ed. Astronomy Before the Telescope. 1996, St. Martin’s Press. 17 essays on how people observed and interpreted the sky before modern instruments.
  • Zeitlin, Steve The Four Corners of the Sky: Creation Stories and Cosmologies from Around the World. 2000, Henry Holt.  Short book introducing and retelling the stories.
Classroom Activities
Some Technical Volumes
  • Aveni, Anthony World Archaeoastronomy. 1989, Cambridge University Press. Proceedings of an international conference held in 1986, collecting scholarly work on the sites and monuments in many regions.
  • Batten, Alan, ed. Astronomy for Developing Countries. 2001, International Astronomical Union. Published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.  Describes the many challenges of starting or continuing astronomy programs in countries without an extensive science infrastructure.
  • Chamberlain, Von Del, et al, eds. Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World.  2005, Ocarina Books. Proceedings of a 1983 international conference on ethnoastronomy (OK, it took a while to publish).  32 papers about the sky knowledge, folklore and art of cultures around the world.
  • Ruggles, Clive & Saunders, Nicholas, eds. Astronomies and Cultures. 1993, University Press of Colorado.  Papers about Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, and Mesoamerican cultures.
  • Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy Across Cultures: The History of Non-western Astronomy. 2000, Kluwer. A series of scholarly articles on the ancient astronomical traditions and monuments of a wide range of cultures.
  • Williamson, Ray & Farrer, Claire, eds. Earth and Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore. 1992, University of New Mexico Press. Collection of essays.

Astronomy of African-American and Hispanic-American Cultures

Published Materials
  • Baskes Litwin, Laura Benjamin Banneker: Astronomer and Mathematician. 1999, Enslow.
  • Bedini, Silvio The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science, 2nd ed. 2009, Maryland Historical Society.
  • Berne, Jennifer Look Up with Me: Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Life Among the Stars. 2019, Katherine Tegen Books. Biography for kids ages 4-8.
  • Ferris, Jeri What Are You Figuring Now: A Story about Benjamin Banneker. 1988, Carolrhoda Books. Children’s book about 18th century black astronomer, mathematician, surveyor.
  • Krull, Katherine & Brewer, Paul The Cosmic Journey of Neil deGrasse Tyson. 2018, Crown. For children ages 4-8.
  • Rall, Gloria “The Stars of Freedom” in Sky & Telescope, Feb. 1995, p. 36. On how slaves used songs with the Big Dipper to show them escape routes from the South.
  • Tyson, Neil deGrasse The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist. 2004, Prometheus.  An autobiography of the beloved public astronomer, with a section discussing racism.
Websites and Articles on the Web

Profiles of black astronomers on the History Makers Website:

Videos
  • Hubble’s Diverse Universe (a video about the research of African-American and Hispanic-American astronomers & astrophysicists) [1 hr. 52 min]
  • Reaching to the Stars: African American Astronomers (in celebration of Black History Month in 2011, Swarthmore hosted three African-American scientists: Derrick Pitts (Fels Planetarium), Eric Wilcott (U. of Wisconsin) and astronaut Mae Jemison, discussing the future of the field.) [90 min]: 
  • A Story about Race (Neil deGrasse Tyson reflects on cultural issues that arose during his college and graduate years) [12 min]
  • Hakeem Olusey: “Star Search,” an autobiographical talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2014 [56 min]

Astronomy of Native North American Cultures

Published Materials
  • Bol, Marcia, ed. Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature. 1993, Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Collection of essays describing how indigenous groups examine the natural world, with a chapter on astronomy.
  • Canby, T. “The Anasazi: Riddles in the Ruins” in National Geog­raphic, Nov. 1982, p. 554.
  • Carlson, J. “America’s Ancient Skywatchers” in National Geographic, vol. 177, #3, Mar 1990, p. 76.
  • Dempsey, Frank “Aboriginal Sky Lore of the Pleiades Star Group in North America” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, vol. 103, p. 233 (2009).
  • Dempsey, Frank “Aboriginal Sky Lore of the Constellation Orion in North America” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, vol. 103, p. 65 (2009).
  • Dempsey, Frank “Aboriginal Sky Lore of the Big Dipper in North America” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, vol. 102, p. 59 (2008).
  • Krupp, E. “Whiter Shade of Pale” in Sky & Telescope, July 2000, p. 86. A rock that looks like the Milky Way and was used in ceremonies by Native Americans in California.
  • MacDonald, John The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore and Legend.  1998, Royal Ontario Museum. Astronomical stories and explanations from Northern Canada and Alaska, including a discussion of interpretations of the aurora.
  • Malville, J.M. & Putnam, Claudia Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest. 1993, Johnson Books.  A nice introductory book about cultures and monuments in the Arizona area.
  • Maryboy, Nancy & David Begay Sharing the Skies: Navajo and Western Cosmos. 2006, Indigenous Education Institute & World Hope Foundation (available from Amazon.com).  An authoritative compilation by Navajo and Western astronomers of illustrations, stories, and observations of Navajo constellations coupled with stories from corresponding Greek constellations and Hubble Space Telescope images of objects found in that part of the sky.  This is a kit that includes an audio CD, a small poster of the Diné Universe, and learning activities.
  • Mayo, Gretchen Star Tales: North American Indian Stories. 1991, Walker & Co. A book of traditional stories for kids.  (See sequel, More Star Tales, from same publisher.)
  • McLeary, Timothy The Stars We Know, 2nd ed. 2012, Waveland. An examination of the astronomy in the traditions and world view of the Crow people.
  • Miller, Dorcas Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations. 1997, Pruett.
  • Monroe, Jean & Williamson, Ray They Dance the Sky: Native American Star Myths. 1987, Houghton Mifflin. Skylore from a number of tribes retold.
  • Schulz, T. “Mask of Black God: The Pleiades in Navajo Cosmology” in Journal of College Science Teaching, Oct. 2005, p. 30.
  • Williamson, Ray Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American In­dian. 1984, Houghton Mifflin/University of Oklahoma Press. The sky world of the Native Americans, through their tales and their observing sites.
Websites and Articles on the Web
Videos
  • Animated story of “Coyote and Eagle Steal the Sun and Moon” (from Zuni tradition) [~2 min]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwyVDadt7QE
  • Annette Lee (a Native American astronomer discusses her personal development and work in the astronomy of native cultures in this brief video; hers is not the first one you come to, but just go down the page): http://www.northstarstem.org/about
  • “Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun to the Earth” (from the Cherokee tradition, told by Elaine Cohen) [~9 min]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNBNGL9uLCI  (A shorter version is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbTkP0gbNGQ )
  • NASA Connect: Indigenous Astronomers (a segment of NASA Connect’s Ancient Observatories episode follows Native American educators Nancy Maryboy and David Begay as they show examples of structures used to track the sun in the sky) [~7 min]: http://archive.org/details/NasaConnect-Ao-IndigenousAstronomers 
Classroom Activities

Astronomy of African Cultures

Published Materials

  • DeVries, Dan “Teaching Across Cultures” in Mercury (the magazine of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific), Jul/Aug. 2005, p. 12.  A physicist recounts his experience teaching science in Botswana.
  • Doyle, Laurence and Frank, Edward “Astronomy of Africa” in Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Edited by H. Selin (2008, Springer)
  • Holbrook, Jarita, et al., eds. African Cultural Astronomy. 2008, Springer. A variety of papers with much useful information.
  • Holbrook, Jarita “Sun Gods and Moon Deities of Africa” in Campion, N. & Curry, P., eds. Sky and Psyche.  2006, Floris Books.
  • Kreamer, Christine African Cosmos: Stellar Arts. 2012, Monacelli Press. Book of essays on African views of the skies, compiled for an exhibit at the National Museum of African Art.
  • Schilling, G. “The Star-Pyramid Connection” in Mercury, Jul/Aug. 2001, p. 28. On the Egyptian pyramids and their astronomical orientation.
  • Snedegar, Keith “Ikhwezi is the Morning Star” in Mercury, Nov/Dec. 1997, p. 12. On African myths related to the sky.
Websites and Articles on the Web
Videos
Classroom Activities

Astronomy of Islamic Cultures

Published Materials
  • Ahmad, I. & Khalid Shaukat, S. “Muslim Moon Sightings” in Mercury (the magazine of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific), May/June 1995, p. 38. The Muslim calendar and sighting the first crescent moon.
  • Gingerich, Owen “Islamic Astronomy” in Scientific American, April 1986, vol. 254, p74. (Available on the web at: 
  • King, David A., “Mathematical Astronomy in Islamic Civilization,” in Selin, H., ed. Astronomy Across Cultures:  The History of Non-Western Astronomy. 2000, Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 585-613.
  • King, David A.  In Synchrony with the Heavens, Studies in Astronomical Timekeeping and Instrumentation in Medieval Islamic Civilization. 2005, Brill Publishers.  Multi-volume, authoritative study.
  • Saliba, George. A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories during the Golden Age of Islam. 1994, New York University Press. A scholarly history.
Web Sites and Web Articles
Video

Astronomy of Central and South American Cultures

Published Materials
  • Aveni, Anthony “Emissaries to the Stars: The Astronomers of Ancient Maya” in Mercury (the magazine of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific), Jan/Feb. 1995, p. 15. 
  • Aveni, Anthony The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012. 2009, University Press of Colorado. A fine introduction to Maya astronomy and debunking of the notion that their calendar means the end of the world in 2012.
  • Aveni, Anthony Skywatchers.  2001, U. of Texas Press. An updated version of Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico, this is an introduction to the astronomy of the Maya.
  • Aveni, Anthony Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru. 2000, U. of Texas Press.
  • (See also some of the books by Aveni in section 1 of this guide.)
  • Barnhart, Edwin “Reconstructing the Heavens: Archaeoastronomy and the Ancient Maya World” in Mercury, Jan/Feb. 2004, p. 20. The Mayan calendar, sky observations, and monuments.
  • Bauer, Brian & David Dearborn Astronomy and Empire in the Ancient Andes. 1995, U. of Texas Press. Examines the role of astronomy among the Incas.
  • Kurtz, P. “An Astronomer Reads Archeology’s Message” in Astronomy, Oct. 2002, p. 48. Profile of Anthony Aveni, with a focus on his work on Mayan structures.
  • Milbrath, Susan Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars. 2000, University of Texas Press.  Scholarly monograph.
  • Van Stone, Mark Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya.  This self-published book by a Maya expert addressed the issue of whether the Maya predicted Doomsday in 2012, but also has material on their astronomical and calendar systems
Websites and Articles on the Web
Videos
Classroom Activities

Astronomy of Hawaiian, Polynesian, and Native Australian Cultures

Published Materials:
  • Bryan, E.H. & Crowe, Richard Stars Over Hawaii, 2nd ed. 2002, Petroglyph Press (available from BasicallyBooks.com).  An introduction to the stars as seen from Hawaii and their use as navigation aids in traditional Hawaiian voyaging.
  • Finney, Ben Hokule’a: The Way to Tahiti. 1976, Dodd Mead.  An anthropologist describes recreating the voyages of the ancient Polynesians using the stars to navigate. Updated in his Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging. 2004, Bishop Museum Press.
  • Haynes, R. “Dreaming the Sky” in Sky & Telescope, Sep. 1997, p. 72. On the astronomical ideas in Australian aborigines culture.
  • Kyselka, Will & Ray Lanterman North Star to Southern Cross. 1976, University of Hawai‘i Press. A geologist and planetarium educator recounts how he became part of the project to rediscover the ancient art of navigating by the stars and a voyage to see how it was done.
  • Makemson, Maud The Morning Star Rises: An Account of Polynesian Astronomy.  1941, Yale University Press.
  • Norris, Ray & Cilia Emu Dreaming: An Introduction to Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. 2014, brief self-published book by an astronomer and his wife.  Available on Amazon.

Websites and Articles on the Web

Websites and Articles on the Web

Videos
  • Polynesian Wayfinders (a nice introduction to the ancient voyages and navigation by the stars) [10 min]
  • The Light at the Edge of the World: Polynesian Wayfarers (a National Geographic video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWp5MiiVR1k 
  • Australian Indigenous Astronomy (10 min introduction) (a full lecture on the topic online)
  • Report on the PBS News Hour on the class between building telescopes and native claims on Mauna Kea in Hawaii (9 min; 2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onERw0-ixLA
Classroom Materials

Astronomy of Asian Cultures

Published Materials
  • Bartusiak, Marcia “The Remarkable Odyssey of Jane Luu” in Astronomy, Feb. 1996, p. 46.  On the life and work of the first Vietnamese-American woman to get an astronomy PhD.  (See also: Career profile at the Science magazine site)
  • Nakayama, Shigeru A History of Japanese Astronomy. 1969, Harvard University Press. From ancient times through the 19th century, with a look at Chinese influences.
  • Pankenier, David “The Mandate of Heaven” in Archaeology, Mar./Apr. 1998, p. 26. On early Chinese astronomy, as recorded on art and artifacts.  On the web. 
  • Pankenier, David Astrology and Cosmology in Early China: Conforming Earth to Heaven. 2013. Cambridge University Press. Shows how astronomy profoundly influenced every aspect of culture in the formative period, from art and architecture, to city planning, to political and military decision-making.
  • Park, Changbom Astronomy: Traditional Korean Science. 2008, Ewha Womans University Press. A historical study.
  • Peng, Eric “China’s Race to Study the Cosmos” in Astronomy, Mar. 2013, p. 44.  Modern astronomical instruments China plans to build and projects it is joining with other countries to do.
  • Schafer, Edward Pacing the Void: Tang Approaches to the Stars. 2006, Floating World Editions [1977]. Chinese astral lore in the literature, religion, and folkways of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
  • Sinnott, Roger “Japan’s Zany Passion for Telescopes,” in Sky & Telescope, March 1992, pp. 267-273.
  • Spitz, Anna “Visiting the Moon Lady” in Mercury, Jul/Aug. 2006, p. 24.  On Chinese moon legends and how they continue to be used in cultural celebrations.
  • Sun, Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker The Chinese Sky During the Han: Constellating Stars and Society. 1997, Brill. Reconstructs the appearance and understanding of the sky in Han time (206 BC – AD 220). Technical in parts (chapter on the dating of positional observations) but excellent introduction to the history of mapping the sky in China (and East Asia).
  • Tseng, Lilian Lan-ying Picturing Heaven in Early China. 2011, Harvard East Asia Center. Stunning Han Dynasty visual representations of the celestial, in cosmology, mythology, and astronomy.
  • Vowahsen, Andreas Cosmic Architecture in India. 2001, Prestel. On the astronomical and ceremonial observatories built by Jai Singh in the 17th & 18th centuries.
Websites and Articles on the Web

Appendix A: Astronomy of Ancient European Cultures

Selected Published Materials
  • Burl, Aubrey The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany. 2000, Yale University Press. Detailed guide to Stonehenge and other ancient stone monuments.
  • Cunningham, Clifford “The Scottish Moon” in Mercury (the magazine of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific), Jul/Aug. 2006, p. 10.  On the Callanish stones off the coast of Scotland their alignments with the motion of the Moon in the sky.
  • Gingerich, Owen “The Basic Astronomy of Stonehenge” in The Great Copernicus Chase. 1992, Cambridge U. Press. Uses a wonderful Coca-Cola can model to explain how the builders thought of the sky.
  • Krupp, E.C. “Inner Glow” in Sky & Telescope, Dec. 2004, p. 50. About the underground shrine at Newgrange, Ireland.
  • Maranto, G. “Stonehenge: Can It Be Saved?” in Discover, Dec. 1985, p. 60. On what tourism is doing to the ancient monument.
  • Zimmermann, L. “Heads and Tales of Celestial Coins” in Sky & Telescope, Mar. 1995, p. 28. On astronomical events depicted on Roman coins.
  • In addition, see many of the books suggested in section 1 of this Guide.

Appendix B: Reports and Articles on Achieving Greater Diversity in Astronomy (and Science in General)

Acknowledgements:  I am very grateful to Claudia Alexander, David Bruning, David Dearborn, Jarita Holbrook, Hyun-chul Lee, Bryan Mendez, Dara Norman, David Pankenier, Phil Sakimoto, Jessica Santascoy, Cary Sneider, Keivan Stassun and others for suggesting entries for this list. I also thank former Haverford student Miriam Lamb for summer research in connection with this guide.

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