The year was 1947. The French anthropologist Marcel Griaule had been studying African culture for 19 years, and had been living among and studying the Dogon tribe of French West Africa for 16 of those years. The Dogon live in a place called Bandiagara, in what is today the nation of Mali, between the fabled city of Timbouctou and the city of Ougadougou. Bandiagara is quite isolated, although Timbouctou was once a mighty trading center on the Trans-Saharan trade routes. By the beginning of the twentieth century, all of this area had become a French possession known as French West Africa.
That year, Griaule was approached by some of the Dogon elders who said that they wished to tell him some of the secret knowledge of their tribe. Griaule had been among them for sixteen years and they had come to accept and respect him. The elders had decided that he could be trusted with their secret knowledge, the knowledge that even most of the Dogon people did not know. This knowledge had been passed down in the oral traditions of the Dogon for centuries. It is common for the peoples of Africa to transmit their tribal lore and their history from generation to generation by this method of oral transmission, as you might recall from Roots.
The Dogon elders proceeded to tell Griaule the story of how the universe was created according to their secret mythology. They told him how the Nommo, creatures that were half-human and half-fish, began civilization on the Earth. Griaule was told of the Sigui ceremony which is held every sixty years and which represents the renewal of the universe. He was shown four hundred-year-old masks that were used in the Sigui rites.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that the elders told Griaule was their cosmology. They told him of their knowledge that the moon is dry and barren, that Saturn – the star of limiting place – has rings around it and that Jupiter – dana tolo – has four large moons. They knew that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy of stars, and that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the Sun.
The Dogon have a special reverence for Sirius. The elders told Griaule that Sirius is not just one star, but three. The one we see, sigi tolo (Sirius A) is just the largest and brightest. It is orbited by a smaller star, po tolo (Sirius B) which is named after a tiny grain that is also called Digitaria. They believe that this tiny star is the heaviest thing in the universe and that it is made of a metal called sagala. This tiny star orbits sigi tolo every fifty years, in an elliptical orbit. The third star in the system is called emme ya, the sun of women. It is four times lighter in weight than po tolo, and it travels in the same direction around sigi tolo, but in a larger orbit. It moves much more quickly through space, so that it takes the same amount of time to complete an orbit around sigi tolo. Emme ya has a satellite or planet of its own, called the Goatherd or the star of women. There are drawings on the four-hundred-year old sigui mask that represent this cosmology.
Griaule’s paper on the Dogon, written with his colleague Germaine Dieterlen, was published in 1950. It was called A Sudanese Sirius System. Griaule died an untimely death from a heart attack in Paris in 1956 and the Dogon in far away Mali held a funeral ceremony for him that showed their high esteem for this man. In 1965 a book about the Dogon by Griaule and Dieterlen was published. It was called Le Renard Pale, or The Pale Fox.
Robert Temple and The Sirius Mystery
In 1966, Robert Temple, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the author of several books, happened to read some of the Griaule material on Dogon Cosmology, and in 1968 he obtained an English translation of Le Renard Pale.
He became interested in the question of how the isolated Dogon could have known for hundreds of years that Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the sky, has an invisible companion, Sirius B. Sirius B, a type of star called a white dwarf, is so small that it cannot be seen without a telescope. It was completely unknown to astronomers until 1862, when the American astronomer Alvan Clark managed to see it for the first time. Sirius B, like all white dwarf stars, is composed of densely packed matter that, if it is not the heaviest matter in the universe, is very close to it. It was not discovered until around 1926 that white dwarves are so heavy that a cubic meter of one may weigh as much as 20,000 tons. It was also discovered that Sirius B orbits Sirius A in an elliptical orbit that takes 50 years to complete. Sirius B was finally photographed in 1970.
How did the Dogon know about Sirius B, when they had no telescopes? How, for that matter, did they know that Saturn has rings, that the moon is dry and barren, and that Jupiter has four large moons? These four moons of Jupiter are called Galilean, because Galileo was the first to see them when he pointed his telescope at Jupiter. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn’s rings are only visible through a telescope.
As Temple read Graiule’s material on the Dogon, he found that their mythology traced their origins back to the Nommo, the human-fish creatures from their creation myths. Temple related these creatures to Oannes of Sumerian mythology who was also a half-fish, half-human creature who brought civilization to an ancient people. Further, Temple found links with Egyptian and Greek mythology. He wrote a book about his interpretation of the Dogon beliefs, called The Sirius Mystery, which was published in the 1970s. In the book, Temple contends that the Nommo were extraterrestrials who came to Earth from a planet in the Sirius system. They visited the Dogon, the Babylonians, and possibly the Egyptians, and the astronomical knowledge of the Dogon came from this contact.
Finally, in 1995, French astronomers Daniel Benest and J.L. Duvent published a study in Astronomy and Astrophysics that proposed that certain perturbations seemed to exist in the Sirius system that could be explained by the existence of a third star in the system. They proposed that this third member is a small red dwarf star that would be Sirius C. If so, then this would verify yet another part of the Dogon beliefs, the belief in the third Sirian sun called emme ya.
Inevitably, there are skeptics. Carl Sagan made an issue of what the Dogon don’t know. He asks why extraterrestrials would tell them about only four of Jupiter’s moons, and about Saturn’s rings, but nothing about any of the planets beyond Saturn? He suggests that the reason is because these things, along with Sirius B, were what a European visitor would have told the Dogon in the years between 1925 to 1935
Therefore, Sagan and others say, the Dogon must have obtained their knowledge of astronomy from missionaries or traders or other visitors to the area in the years before Griaule was told of their cosmology. He says that the Dogon simply incorporated this new knowledge into their already existing beliefs about Sirius A. Reverence for Sirius A, the brightest star in the sky, was not uncommon among ancient peoples, because its appearance in the dawn sky signaled the nearness of summer, with implications for agriculture.
Were there missionaries among the Dogon before 1931? Robert Temple said in 1990 that he had written to the Father Superior of the White Fathers Mission in Mali, asking when the first missionaries had been sent to the Dogon region. He said that the Father Superior replied that the earliest missionaries had arrived there in 1949. Such things should be verifiable. Missionaries record their activities rather thoroughly and make regular reports to their churches. However, the presence of traders or other Europeans among the Dogon between 1925 and 1931 would be very difficult to verify.
Griaule’s colleague and co-author, anthropologist Germaine Dieterlen, who had lived among the Dogon for most of her life, was asked by a reporter for BBC-TV’s Horizon program whether the Dogon could have learned the Sirius information from other Europeans. She called the idea “absurd” and displayed a 400-year-old Dogon object that clearly indicated Sirius and its companion stars.
Skeptics say that the object, a ceremonial mask, has never been carbon-dated.
In an article called The Dogon Revisited, Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano flatly questions Griaule’s work regarding Dogon cosmology:
In fact, the entire Dogon question may be futile theorizing, because Griaule’s original data, on which this whole edifice is built, is very questionable. His methodology with its declared intent to redeem African thought, its formal interviews with a single informant through an interpreter, and the absence of texts in the Dogon language have been criticized for years.
Other anthropologists who have studied the Dogon in more recent years, have been unable to find evidence of the knowledge of the Sirius system that was related to Griaule. One of these, a Belgian anthropologist named Walter van Beek, is particularly critical of Griaule, according to de Montellano:
Van Beek points out that Griaule’s data was developed in long intense sessions with one primary informant, Ambara. In this process, Griaule probably reinterpreted statements from his informant in the light of his own knowledge about Sirius and its heavy companion, which had been much in the news at the time he began his field work. In turn, the Dogon, because Griaule was extremely respected and liked and because the Dogon culture places enormous importance on consensus and in avoiding contradictions, would have accepted his analysis as if it were theirs.
Oddly, in Griaule’s first paper on the subject, Un Systeme Soudanais de Sirius, he names his “informants”, their tribes, and their languages. There are four of them, and none is named “Ambara.” In another place Griaule names his Dogon instructor as Ogotemmeli of Lower Ogol, who claimed authority from the Dogon priests of Sanga. In fact, one of Griaule’s papers is called Conversations with Ogotemmeli. One wonders whether the problem here is that the Dogon elders simply do not trust Van Beek and the later anthropologists such as Boujou and Lane as much as they trusted Griaule. One also wonders whether de Montellano’s criticisms of Griaule aren’t unnecessarily harsh.
Temple’s The Sirius Mystery has been the object of much criticism as well. Nowhere in his book does he cite an assertion by Griaule that the Nommo were extraterrestrials who visited the Dogon. Rather, the Nommo are a part of the Dogon creation myth. Nor does Griaule directly state that the Dogon obtained their knowledge of the Sirius system from extraterrestrials. Yet Temple somehow manages to conclude these things from Griaule’s data. Temple also takes Benest and Duvent’s theory of a small red dwarf in the Sirius system (Sirius C), which is given as a possible explanation for a perturbation, and turns it into confirmation. That’s a bit premature.
However one chooses to believe, the question of how the Dogon came by their knowledge of Sirius B and possibly of Sirius C is far from settled.