Ancient African Astronomy

We’ve all heard that Stonehenge was a type of calendar or observatory that has been around longer than civilization. I did some digging to find other examples of ancient astronomy practices and I came across the following video:

Nabta Playa video source. More information.

This is an example of ancient people demonstrating an understanding of astronomy much before the first civilizations began. This structure, like Stonehenge has sight lines oriented toward the sunrise and set locations during a solstice. More interestingly, outlying monoliths marked the location or sight line where particular stars from the constellation Orion were to make their vernal equinox heliacal rising (where the star rises with the sun on the first day of spring). This is a very rare event for a particular star, and occurs once every 26,000 years and represents a restarting of the star’s precession timeline.

Even more interestingly, the distance of these monoliths from the central observers location accurately represents the true distance to each of these stars. This structure was created 6,000-8,000 years ago, and to fathom how these people could accurately know, measure, and represent these distances is absolutely mind-boggling.


Historical Astronomers in Context

Isaac Newton had several major discoveries or influences on the field of astronomy. First, he developed a theory to describe motion in the universe, gravity, and has three laws of motion named after him. Secondly, and perhaps more important to the field of astronomical observation, rather than theory, Newton’s work in optics allowed him to invent the reflecting telescope using mirrors, which provided better quality than the refracting telescopes which used lenses. (source)

Historical Events contemporary with Isaac Newton:

Glorious Revolution (England). A revolution in England surrounding the issues of religious tolerance and unjust taxation lead to the overthrow of James II, which placed William III on the throne. The reforms that accompanied this rebellion gave Parliament greater power over taxation, crown expenditures, as well as succession. This development paved the way for later uprisings and changes of government, such as the American and French Revolutions. (source)

War of Spanish Succession (Europe). In 1700, the last Hapsburg king of Spain dies without a direct heir. The ensuing squabbling over the crown lead to land war in Europe and a shifting balance of power between the colonial empires. This has implications for Europe throughout the 18th century, but also for parts of the New World. (source)

Benjamin Franklin (17 Jan 1706 – 17 Apr 1790) (21 year overlap with Newton). Franklin was an important figure in early American history, contributing much to the new nation through his contribution to the continental congress and his position as the first postmaster general. Franklin had great ties to France, which of course became America’s greatest ally during the war of independence. (source)

Part of what is very interesting to me about history is the notion that so many things that we would normally study separate from one another, occur all around the same time. Studying Newton and other contemporary events shows the complexity of world history. One would normally not consider Newton and Cromwell related, yet the lived at the same time. Their contributions to history and society were very different, yet they were countrymen.