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Dogon and Sirius
The Dogon are a people of about 100,000 who dwell in western Africa. According to Robert Temple (The Sirius Mystery), the Dogon had contact with some ugly, amphibious* extraterrestrials, the Nommos, some 5,000 years ago. The aliens came here for some unknown reason from a planet orbiting Sirius some 8.6 light years from earth. The alleged visitors from outer space seem to have done little else than give the earthlings some useless astronomical information.
One of Temple's main pieces of evidence is the tribe's alleged knowledge of Sirius B, a companion to the star Sirius. The Dogon are supposed to have known that Sirius B orbits Sirius and that a complete orbit takes fifty years. One of the pieces of evidence Temple cites is a sand picture made by the Dogon to explain their beliefs. The diagram that Temple presents, however, is not the complete diagram that the Dogon showed to the French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, who were the original sources for Temple's story. Temple has either misinterpreted Dogon beliefs, or distorted Griaule and Dieterlen's claims, to fit his fantastic story.
Griaule and Dieterlen describe a world renovation ceremony, associated with the bright star Sirius (sigu tolo, "star of Sigui"), called sigui, held by the Dogon every sixty years. According to Griaule and Dieterlen the Dogon also name a companion star, po tolo "Digitaria star" (Sirius B) and describe its density and rotational characteristics. Griaule did not attempt to explain how the Dogon could know this about a star that cannot be seen without telescopes, and he made no claims about the antiquity of this information or of a connection with ancient Egypt.*
Temple lists a number of astronomical beliefs held by the Dogon that seem curious. They have a traditional belief in a heliocentric system and in elliptical orbits of astronomical phenomena. They seem to have knowledge of the satellites of Jupiter and rings of Saturn, among other things. Where did they get this knowledge, he asks, if not from extraterrestrial visitors? They don’t have telescopes or other scientific equipment, so how could they get this knowledge? Temple’s answer is that they got this information from amphibious aliens from outer space.
Afrocentrists, on the other hand, claimed that the Dogon could see Sirius B without the need of a telescope because of their special eyesight due to quantities of melanin (Welsing, F. C. 1987. "Lecture 1st Melanin Conference, San Francisco, September 16-17, 1987"). There is, of course, no evidence for this special eyesight, nor for other equally implausible notions such as the claim that the Dogon got their knowledge from black Egyptians who had telescopes.
a terrestrial source?
Carl Sagan agreed with Temple that the Dogon could not have acquired their knowledge without contact with an advanced technological civilization. Sagan suggests, however, that that civilization was terrestrial rather than extraterrestrial. Perhaps the source was Temple himself and his loose speculations on what he learned from Griaule, who based his account on an interview with one person, Ambara, and an interpreter.
According to Sagan, western Africa has had many visitors from technological societies located on planet earth. The Dogon have a traditional interest in the sky and astronomical phenomena. If a European had visited the Dogon in the 1920's and 1930's, conversation would likely have turned to astronomical matters, including Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and the center of Dogon mythology. Furthermore, there had been a good amount of discussion of Sirius in the scientific press in the '20s so that by the time Griaule arrived, the Dogon may have had a grounding in 20th century technological matters brought to them by visitors from other parts of earth and transmitted in conversation.
Or, Griaule's account may reflect his own interests more than that of the Dogon. He made no secret of the fact that his intention was to redeem African thought. When Walter van Beek studied the Dogon, he found no evidence they knew Sirius was a double star or that Sirius B is extremely dense and has a fifty-year orbit.
Knowledge of the stars is not important either in daily life or in ritual [to the Dogon]. The position of the sun and the phases of the moon are more pertinent for Dogon reckoning. No Dogon outside of the circle of Griaule's informants had ever heard of sigu tolo or po tolo... Most important, no one, even within the circle of Griaule informants, had ever heard or understood that Sirius was a double star (Ortiz de Montellano).*
According to Thomas Bullard, van Beek speculates that Griaule "wished to affirm the complexity of African religions and questioned his informants in such a forceful leading manner that they created new myths by confabulation." Griaule either informed the Dogon of Sirius B or "he misinterpreted their references to other visible stars near Sirius as recognition of the invisible companion" (Bullard).
The only mystery is how anyone could take seriously either the notion of amphibious aliens or telescopic vision due to melanin.
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books and articles
van Beek, Walter E. A. "Dogon Restudied: A Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule," Current Anthropology 32, 1992, pp. 139-167.
Investigating the Sirius "Mystery" by Ian Ridpath, Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1978.
The Dogon Revisited by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano
Can Tales of Sirius Be Serious? by Jay Ingram