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The Dogon Revisited
Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano
In 1976 Robert Temple published the Sirius Mystery claiming
that the extraordinary astronomical knowledge of the Egyptians
and the Dogon of Mali(1) was due to visitations from inhabitants
of the Sirius system. These claims were dealt with in a article
in The Skeptical Inquirer (Ridpath 1978). Since that time,
however, the Afrocentrist movement has revived and expanded these
claims (Adams 1983a; 1983b; 1990; Van Sertima 1983; Ortiz de
Montellano 1991), and they have been naively parroted in more
mainline publications (Gebre-Egziabher 1993/1994; Harding 1991).
Adams (1990: 60) briefly presents the current claims:
They knew of the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter,
the spiral structure of the Milky Way, where our star system
lies. They claimed that billions of stars spiral in space like
the circulation of blood in the human body... Perhaps the most
remarkable facet of their knowledge is their knowing intricate
details of the Sirius star system, which presently can only be
detected with powerful telescopes. The Dogon knew of the white
dwarf companion star of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.
They knew its approximate mass ("it is composed of
'sagala,' an extremely heavy, dense metal such that all
the earthly beings combined cannot lift it') its orbital
period (50 years) and its axial rotation period (one year).
Furthermore, they knew of a third star that orbits Sirius and its
planet [sic]. The X-ray telescope aboard the Einstein Orbiting
Observatory recently confirmed the existence of the third star.
(2) The Dogon with no apparent instrument at their disposal,
appear to have known these facts for at least 500 years.
Claims that the Dogon knew these things for at least 700
years (not 500) and that the ancient Egyptians also possessed
this knowledge were first made in Adams (1983a) and endorsed by
Van Sertima (1983). The sole source this information about Dogon
astronomical knowledge is the research of two French
anthropologists, Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen (1950;
1965), and more directly the book by Temple (1976).
Griaule and Dieterlen describe a world renovation ceremony,
associated with the bright star Sirius (sigu tolo, "star of
Sigui"),(3) 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 (1976: 203-227) argues that the Dogon
learned all this from amphibious beings from a superior
civilization in the Sirius system.(4) Stars are rated on a
visibility scale which differs by a factor of 2.5 brightness per
unit; the higher the number on the scale, the dimmer the star.
Adams (1983b) claims, without any reference, that under optimum
conditions people with blue/green eyes can see stars of 6.5
magnitude, but that dark-eyed, dark-skinned people can see up to
8.1. The very bright, Sirius A has a magnitude of -1.47 while
Sirius B is 8.7 (Allen 1973: 235). The canonical limit of
visibility is 6, although a few exceptional people, with lifelong
training, on high mountains and hyperventilating can achieve 7.8
(Schaefer 1995). This maximum human performance is still 2.26
times less than would be needed for naked eye observation of
Sirius B. Even if Sirius B were bright enough to be seen, it
could not be distinguished by a naked eye because it is too close
to Sirius A. The average separation between Sirius A and B is 9.5
seconds of arc (Allen 1973: 240) with a maximum separation of 11
seconds. However, a person with 20/20 vision can only distinguish
two points of light that are at least 42 seconds apart, i.e. four
times the separation of Sirius A and B (Schaefer 1995).
Adams (1983), based on Temple, argues that the ancient
Egyptians had telescopes which enabled them to see Sirius B,
"The Russians have recently discovered a crystal lens,
perfectly spherical and of great precision, used in ancient
Egypt.(5) It is a short and simple step to place one lens in
front of another to make a basic telescope, and chances are that
it could have happened and many times." This is an example
of a type of reasoning described by Mary Lefkowitz (1993),
referring to Martin Bernal's claims of massive Egyptian
influence on Greece in Black Athena, "because something is
possible, it can be considered probable, or even actual si potest
esse, est." Adams and Van Sertima are even less cautious and
use the following chain of reasoning: if it is conceivable, it is
possible, it is probable-- it is true. In fact, it is impossible.
Even if the evanescent Egyptian telescope existed, it would not
suffice. The glare due to Sirius A requires the use of at least a
5-inch telescope to see Sirius B at its maximum separation; at
its closest approach, about half the time, a minimum of a
100-inch telescope is needed (Schaefer 1991, 1995). The first
sighting of Sirius B in 1844 required an 18_-inch refractor
telescope, the largest in the world at the time (Krupp 1991:
Adams' repeated claims that the Dogon have known about
Sirius B for 700 years are equally devoid of evidence. Adams'
(1983: 38) sole proof is the following statement given without
attribution or citation, "A wooden mask called the kanaga,
used by the Dogon to celebrate the Sirius-related Sigui ceremony,
is among the archaeological finds that indicate their
preoccupation with this star for at least 700 years."
Adams' source is actually Griaule and Dieterlen (1950; Temple
1976: 37-38). The kanaga mask represents a crane-like bird, the
bustard, and is connected to the Dogon creator god Amma (Griaule
1938: 470). The dating of the sigui ceremony involves a different
set of enormous wooden masks that are not worn but kept in
protected shelters. These masks were not dated with C14, and
their true age is not known. Griaule extrapolated the age of the
masks by counting the number of masks in shelters and multiplying
by 60 years per mask because a new mask was made for each 60-year
sigui ceremony.(4) Most shelters had 3 or 4 masks taking the
ceremony back to AD 1720-1760 (Griaule 1938: 242-244; Temple
1976: 38). A single location had 8 masks, the remains of another
and 3 piles of dust, which Griaule (1938: 245) interpreted as
possibly three further masks. This very shaky hypothetical
extrapolation is the sole evidence dating the sigui ceremony to
AD 1300, and tells us nothing concerning knowledge of Sirius B,
the invisible dwarf star.
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 (Goody:
1967; Douglas 1968; Lettens 1971; Clifford 1983). Even a
sympathetic reviewer (Roberts 1987\1988), who believes that
Sirius and its two companions are important components of Dogon
thought, feels that the actual existence of Sirius B is purely
coincidental, "... it is equally clear that the first
companion of Sirius (Po Tolo) as recognized by the Dogon is not
[sic] the companion (Sirius B) recognized by Western
astronomers... The two companion stars that the Dogon recognize
are elements of a particular cosmology that would exist even if
Sirius B did not. That Sirius has a second companion for Dogon,
which has never been discovered or presumed to exist by Western
astronomers, should make this point obvious."
Recently, a Belgian anthropologist, Walter van Beek, who has
spent 11 years among the Dogon, pointed out that Griaule's
data is unique: "Is Sirius a double star? The ethnographic
facts are quite straightforward. The Dogon of course, know Sirius
as a star [it is after all the brightest star in the sky]...
Knowledge of the stars is not important either in daily life or
in ritual. 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 [or according to Renard Pále,(6) even a
triple one, with B and C orbiting A]. Consequently, the purported
knowledge of the mass of Sirius B or the orbiting time was absent
(van Beek 1991).
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 (van Beek 1991: 152-155). As an example of the process,
van Beek points out a Dogon tale which explains the differences
between white people and the Dogon, but which, in fact, is taken
from the Bible. "Thus the story of the drunken Noah [Genesis
9: 21-27] has found its way into the stories of the se Dogon, who
emphatically denied that this was a 'white' story."
Traditionalists and Christians unanimously declared it to be
Dogon: it belonged to the tem. In many other instances the
process was discernible: foreign elements were adopted and in a
single generation became "traditional."
It might be argued that the knowledge given to Griaule was
very secret and known only to a few, including Ambara. Van Beek
points out that "neither the myths nor the song
texts--though they are sacred-- are secret. In fact, the tem
[collective knowledge] is public knowledge." Van Beek
argues, given the fact that he cannot find traces of these data,
that "The question is then, how secret secrets can be and
yet be part and parcel of a culture. As shared meaning is a
crucial aspect of any definition of culture, a secret not shared
is not cultural, while one shared by very few is by definition
marginal... Thus, if the secrets revealed to Griaule are part of
Dogon culture, one should be able to retrace them to some
extent." Jacky Boujou, an anthropologist with 10 years
experience with the Dogon, is in complete agreement with van
Beek, "I am struck by the degree to which van Beek's
analyses coincide with those I have gradually arrived at... The
third period is represented by the Renard Pále,(7) which
remains altogether strange and entirely unverifiable in the
field, whatever Dogon region investigated." And also,
"I would underline the obvious desire of the Dogon for
collective harmony and consensus that is striking to the
participant observer (Boujou 1991)." Another anthropologist
with fieldwork among the Dogon, Paul Lane, agrees, "Many of
van Beek's substantive claims come to me as no surprise.
Thus, for instance, although the objectives of my research in the
Sanga region in the early 1980s were quite different, along with
van Beek I found little evidence for the complex but nonetheless
allegedly unified symbolic ordering of daily life described by
Griaule (Lane 1991)."
Sagan (1980: 81-87) and Brecher (1979: 110) have proposed
that the information about the discovery of Sirius B and its
characteristics were told to the Dogon by another European prior
to Griaule's fieldwork. Although derided by Van Sertima
(1983: 13) and Adams (1983: 37) this explanation, or the one
given by van Beek, are plausible and do not require
extraterrestrials or mythical telescopes.
Adams does not provide any explanation for Dogon knowledge
although one is current among the Afrocentric circles in which he
runs.(8) Frances Welsing (1987, 1991), as well as Adams (1987,
1988), argue that melanin has the ability to pick up all kinds of
energy frequencies. Welsing (1987) further claims that the Dogon
by virtue of their melanin are able to pick up vibrations from
Sirius B just as if they possessed infra-red telescopes.(9)
Welsing also claims that melanin gives ancient Egyptians and
other Blacks extra-sensory perception, psi and the ability to
foretell the future. This explanation of an extraordinary claim
is also not supported by any evidence (Ortiz de Montellano
- The Dogon live in near Bandiagara, about 300 kilometers south
of Timbuktu, Mali in West Africa (Ridpath 1978).
- The paper cited as evidence for this (Chlebowski, Halpern,
and Steiner 1981) does not claim that the X-ray emitting dwarf
9' south of sirius is a third companion. This star is,
actually 37 times farther from the Earth (325 light years) than
is Sirius (8.7 light years). Linden blad (1973) deliberately
searched for a third component in the Sirius system and found
- The bright star sirius is also referred to as "Sirius
A", with its dense companion being "Sirius B." The
sigui ceremony deals with Sirius A, which everyone agrees is
known to the dogon. It is, after all, the brightest star in the
sky. It is also known as the "Dog Star."
- These space travelers were very ill-informed; Jupiter has
sixteen moons, not four, as they supposedly told the Dogon
- A sphere would be useless as a lens because the focal length
would be extremely short, and because the image produced would be
greatly distorted by spherical and chromatic aberration (Muirden
1969: 6-7). In order to focus light adequately the lens should be
either concave or convex. The sole evidence for this Russian (why
always the Russians?) discovery is a citation to a journalist
Peter Tompkins (1978: 219). The academic credibility and accuracy
of Tompkins can be judged by his co-authorship with Christopher
Bird (1973) of a book which claims that plants can speak to
people. In turn, Tompkins' sole evidence for the Russian
discovery is a reference with no page number to an Italian
publication ("Peter Kolosimo in Terra Senza Tempo )
published in Milan in 1969") that is not listed in the
bibliography to Tompkins book. The claim can be found in the
translated version (Kolosimo 1973: 3). In the book Kolosimo, who
is even less critical than Von Dänniken, claims that both
Atlantis and Lemuria existed and were the possible sources for
this advanced technology. He also postulates that visitors from
outer space have visited earth. The Egyptian telescopes, accepted
so easily by Van Sertima and Harding, turn out to be quite
- See Griaule and Dieterlen 1965.
- This book (Griaule and Dieterlen 1965) represents the third
and final period of Griaule and Dieterlen's writing on the
Sirius myth among the Dogon.
A number of Afrocentrists, whom I have labeled as melanists,
propose that melanin has extraordinary properties, which, in
turn, make black people biologically superior in intellect,
morals, and spirituality to white people (Ortiz de Montellano
1993). Hunter Adams is a melanist, and may well believe that
melanin is the source of Dogon knowledge since even his
exaggerated claims of visual acuity for "dark-eyed"
people are not enough to see Sirius B.
- Even this far-fetched claim is not
applicable to Sirius B. sirius B is too hot (22,000 degrees
Kelvin). Most of its radiation is emitted in the far ultraviolet,
and little is emitted in the infrared (Seeds 1988, 137,
Adams, H. H. 1983a. "African Observers of the Universe: The
Sirius Question." In I. Van Sertima, ed. Blacks in Science.
Ancient and Modern. 27-46. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.
-----1983b. "New Light on the Dogon and Sirius." In I.
Van Sertima,ed. Blacks in Science. Ancient and Modern. 47-49. New
Brunswick: Transaction Books.
-----1987. "Lecture 1st Melanin Conference. San Francisco,
Sept. 16-18, 1987. Broadcast "African-American World
View" WDTR 90.9 FM Detroit Public School's Radio,
September 25, 1990.
-----1988. "Lecture 2nd melanin conference New York, 1988.
Broadcast on "African American World View," WDTR 90.9
FM Detroit Public School's Radio, October 2.
-----1990 . "African and African-American
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M. Feirtag, eds., Astronomy of the Ancients. 91-115. Cambridge:
Chlebowski, T., J. P. Halpern, and J. E. Steiner. 1981.
"Discovery of a New X-ray Emitting Dwarf Nova 1e
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Clifford, J. 1983. "Power and Dialogue in Ethnography;
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Observers Observed. 121-156. Madison: Univ. Wisconsin Press.
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-----1993. "Afrocentricity, Melanin and
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