The astronomy practiced by Native Americans is impossible to summarize in one explanation, since the tribes had such diverse traditions and legends. The impressive aspect of their astronomy lies in the fact that many of the tribes were hunters and gatherers. This contrasts sharply with the other ancient cultures studied here, which developed the practice of astronomy after becoming equipped with the technology of agriculture.
The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
The Anasazi were a mysterious people who lived in Arizona and New Mexico about a thousand years ago. They built high cliff dwellings, the ruins of which remain today. Little is known about their way of life, but several tantalizing clues were left in the form of cave art. A recently discovered site called Penasco Blanco shows a depiction on a cave wall of what must be a supernova explosion (see picture below). The relative orientations of the crescent moon and the star make it very likely that this is a recording of the supernova which created the Crab Nebula in 1054 A.D. This supernova, which would have been about five times brighter than Venus for about three weeks, was also recorded by Chinese astronomers. Another very interesting site is called the Anasazi sun dagger. It is a spiral design traced into a cave wall, and during midsummer, midwinter, and the equinoxes it is perfectly bisected or surrounded by daggers of sunlight which enter the specially placed windows. The Anasazi also built a solar observatory called Hovenweep Castle at Four Corners. All of this evidence points to the fact that the Anasazi were quite experienced sky-watchers, as are their probable descendents, the Pueblo Indians.
The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico
Studying the astronomical practices of the Pueblo gives us a glimpse into the astronomy of ancient groups such as the Anasazi. The Pueblo Indians lived in a society completely dominated by a strict religious order. Timing ceremonies was vital to them, and they devised a type of knotted cord that allowed them to keep track of the solar cycles. Summer solstice was a particularly important time for them: an individual known as the sun priest would watch for the summer solstice through a notch in the wall of a 'sun tower'. At the proper time, the sun priest would warn the people, speaking words which were thought to come directly from the sun.
Big Horn Medicine Wheel, Wyoming
The Big Horn Medicine Wheel is a mysterious stone marking which was placed at the summit of a 10,000 foot mountain between 200-400 years ago, probably by the Cheyenne Indians (see photo below). It has a diameter of 90 feet, with 28 spokes that radiate outward and apparently stand for the number of days in a month. Although the orientation has been debated, it seems that the medicine wheel marks both the rising and setting sun on the summer solstice. Other stones in the arrangement mark the rising of the bright stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius. Other medicine wheels have also been found to have astronomical orientations, such as one at Moose Mountain in Canada, which was probably built between 100-500 A.D.
Pawnee Indians of the North Central U.S.
The Skidi band of Pawnee are known to have had a complex religion of which astronomy was a large part. Their attempts to feel connected with the sky went so far as to design their lodges and villages with astronomy in mind. Villages were laid out in the position of the most important stars in the sky. In the last corner of the village was a shrine to the morning star (Venus), and in the west was another shrine to the evening star (also Venus). The doors of the lodges always faced east to the rising sun, and four posts representing the four important directions (northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast) were used to hold up the lodge. The domed roof represented the sky. Part of their creation myth says that Mars, the red morning star warrior, mated with Venus, the female evening star, to produce the first humans. To the Pawnee, the solstices were not important, and they instead worshipped the Pleiades cluster. The pole star was considered to be a chief protecting the stars and the people, which makes sense because the north star is always up and everything else in the sky revolves around it. A Pawnee star chart can be seen in the picture below.
Chumash Indians of the California Coast
The Chumash had a particularly developed view of astronomy. The Sun was seen as a widower who carried a torch through the sky, while the Moon was a female god in charge of human health. They viewed Venus differently depending on when it appeared. As the morning star it was good, and as the evening star it was feared because it represented the underworld. The Chumash identified Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as a number of stars as dim as sixth magnitude. Their major religious ceremonies took place around the time of the winter solstice, which was seen as a critical time during which the Sun might decide not to return. Winter solstice ceremonies were marked by praying and chanting to pull the Sun back to Earth.
REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:
Evan Hadingham, Early Man and the Cosmos, Walker and Company, 1984.
Penasco Blanco. http://www.colorado.edu/Conferences/chaco/tour/blanco.htm.
Skidi Pawnee Star Charts. http://www.tulane.edu/~danny/plains.html.
Medicine Wheels: Sun and Stars. http://www.kstrom.net/isk/stars/starkno5.html.