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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: 223).

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 1993).


  1. The Dogon live in near Bandiagara, about 300 kilometers south of Timbuktu, Mali in West Africa (Ridpath 1978).
  2. 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 none.
  3. 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."
  4. These space travelers were very ill-informed; Jupiter has sixteen moons, not four, as they supposedly told the Dogon (Brecher 1979).
  5. 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 evanescent.
  6. See Griaule and Dieterlen 1965.
  7. 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.
  8. 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, 195).

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 [1987]. "African and African-American contributions to Science and Technology." In African-American Baseline Essays. Portland, OR: Multnomah School District.
Allen, C. W. 1973. Astrophysical Quantities. 3rd. ed. London: Athlone Press.
Boujou, J. 1991. "Comment," Current Anthropology 12: 159.
Brecher, K. 1979. "Sirius Enigmas," In K. Brecher and M. Feirtag, eds., Astronomy of the Ancients. 91-115. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Chlebowski, T., J. P. Halpern, and J. E. Steiner. 1981. "Discovery of a New X-ray Emitting Dwarf Nova 1e 0643.0-1648." The Astrophysical Journal 247: L35-L38.
Clifford, J. 1983. "Power and Dialogue in Ethnography; Marcel Griaule's Initiation," In G. Stocking, ed. Observers Observed. 121-156. Madison: Univ. Wisconsin Press.
Douglas, M. 1968. "Dogon Culture: Profane and Arcane." Africa 38: 16-24. Gebre-Egziabher, S. 1993/1994. "Africans' Contributions to Science: A Culture of Excellence." Equity Coalition (University of Michigan School of Education) 3 (#2): 30-31.
Goody, J. 1967. "Review of M. Griaule, Conversations with Ogotemmeli: an Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas" American Anthropologist 69: 239-241.
Griaule, M. 1938. Masques Dogon. Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie.
Griaule, M. and G. Dieterlen. 1950. "Un systeme soudanais de Sirius," Journal de la Societe des Africanistes 20: 273-294
-----1965. Le renard pále. vol.1, fasc.1, Le mythe cosmogonique: La creation du monde. Paris: Musée de l'Homme (Travaux et Memoires de l'Institut d'Ethnologie).
Harding, S. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? 223-224. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press.
Kolosimo, P. 1973. Timeless Earth. P. Stevenson, trans. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books Inc.
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Lane, P. 1991. "Comment," Current Anthropology 12: 162.
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-----1993. "Afrocentricity, Melanin and Pseudoscience." Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 36: 33-58.
Ridpath, I. 1978. "Investigating the Sirius Mystery," The Skeptical Inquirer Fall: 56-62.
Roberts, A. E. 1987/1988."The Serious Business of Dogon Cosmology," Archaeoastronomy 10: 148-153.
Sagan, C. 1980. Broca's Brain. New York: Ballantine Books.
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Schaefer, B. E. (Physics Department, Yale University). 1995. Personal Communication, 5/18.
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Welsing, F. C. 1987. "Lecture 1st Melanin Conference, San Francisco, September 16-17, 1987." Broadcast "African-American World View" WDTR 90.9 Detroit Public School's Radio, September 5 and 12, 1989.
-----1991. The Isis Papers. Chicago: Third World Press.

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