Stellar Connections: Explorations in Cultural Astronomy – Pt. 1, Gary Urton

AUDIENCE: Aloha. MR. HERMAN: All right that was
pretty good, that’ll do. Aloha and welcome to today’s symposium “Stellar
Connections: Explorations in Cultural Astronomy”. I’m Doug Herman, senior
geographer here at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American
Indian, and very happy to welcome you here today. I myself come to this
topic through my work with Polynesian and Micronesian voyagers who used the
stars to guide canoes thousands of miles across open ocean and find tiny
dots of land. And I’m very excited to be part of this symposium today.
Before we begin, the usual housekeeping stuff applies. If you
have a cell phone, now is the time to turn it off. So please do so, so
that it does not disturb our program. After our last presentation today,
our speakers will return to the stage and we will have a question and
answer session, so please hold all of your questions until that time. You
will see that there is a microphone setup in the middle of the ground
floor here, and we would ask that you speak into the microphone when you
ask a question because we have a huge, I’m sure, studio audience out
there in computer land that is watching this on webcast and if you
don’t use the microphone they will not hear your questions.
The “Stellar Connection” symposium today is taking place in conjunction
with a much larger Smithsonian initiative “African Cosmos: Stellar
Art”. The centerpiece of this initiative is a very impressive major
exhibition currently on view at the National Museum of African Art, which
is just down the road near the Smithsonian Castle, and I encourage
all of you to pay a visit if not today than another time.
The overall project has involved astronomers, art historians, cultural
specialists, and others from around the Smithsonian and beyond, including
the National Air and Space Museum and Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Museum of
Natural History, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Postal
Museum, the National Zoological Park, and of course the National Museum of
the American Indian. It’s a common feature of all cultures
that we look up at the night sky and try to make sense of what you see,
and of course this is an important part of our work here at the NMAI.
If you have not noticed already look up and you will see that we have
incorporated the night sky into our rasmussen theater here.
The knowledge that results from observing the night sky has served us
for timekeeping, navigation, agricultural and ritual of cycles,
explanations for natural, social, and cultural phenomenon, and not least
importantly as a map by which we understand our place in the cosmos.
None of these in my opinion is less significant in our human experience
than any of the others. Now today if you’re a modern person
like myself you live in a box, you hop into a box on wheels and go to
someplace where you work in another box and probably you spend much of
that time staring at a box like this one right here or this one right
here, and then driving back to your box hopefully not looking at this box
at the same time and go back into your box and never really look at the
night sky at all. On the individual level in modern society we don’t
really need it anymore to guide us and we rarely look at it or have any
context really for what we are seeing. But I suggest that nothing
gets your head outside the box like the enormity of the cosmos. And what
we see when we look up is informed by and dependent on cultural
understandings. Our four speakers today share with us
different cultural understandings from different parts of the world,
wherein the stars may look very different, serve different roles for
human society or serve the same roles, but in different ways. It is
my hope that through this cross- cultural encounter we may reignite
ourselves in the role that the cosmos may play in our self-understandings
and in our understandings of the world. We are honored to have each
of our distinguished speakers here today and my very warm thanks to all
four of them for coming here to share their knowledge with us.
Our first presenter today is Dr. Gary Urton. Gary is the Dumbarton Oaks
Professor of Pre-Colombian Studies in the archaeology program of the
Department of Anthropology, Harvard University. He received his PhD in
Anthropology at the University of Illinois Champagne/Urbana in 1979.
His research focuses on a variety of topics in pre-Hispanic and early
Colonial intellectual history in the Andes, drawing on materials and
methods in archeology, ethnohistory, and ethnography. He’s the author of
numerous articles and books on Andean Quechua cultures Inca civilizations,
including “At the Crossroads of the Earth and Sky”, “History of a Myth”,
“The Social Life of Numbers”, “Inca Myths: Signs of the Inca Khipu”, and
“The Khipus of the Laguna de los Condores”. He is the
founder/director of the Khipu database project at Harvard
University since 2002, and a collaborator on NMAI’s upcoming Inca
Road exhibition. Dr. Urton’s presentation is entitled
“Cosmologies of the Milky way: South American Views of the Unity of Earth
and Sky”. Please, a very warm welcome to Dr. Gary Urton.
[applause] GARY URTON, PhD: Thanks very much to
Doug for that welcome and thanks to Doug and to Elizabeth for their help
in calling this symposium and getting it together. And I feel extremely
pleased and honored to be a participant in the program. I also
just want to say that I’m very pleased that the native peoples of
South America and their cosmological traditions are considered to be a
part of the subject matter of American Indian cosmologies.
What I want to talk to you about today is a set of cosmological
traditions that in the end as you will see focus to a large extent on
the Milky way. We’ll talk about the Milky way and we’ll talk about how
people in the Southern hemisphere see the Milky way and what they actually
do with it in terms of constructing a cosmological tradition. What we’ll
talk about today are traditions in two major areas; we’ll talk primarily
about the Desana and the Barasana who were people who lived her in Colombia
in the Southeastern part of Colombia. We’ll then turn and talk about
Quechua or ancient pre-Colombian Inca astronomy. And I put another name on
the map there, the Barruro [phonetic] who live in North-Central Brazil and
about whose cosmology we know a fair amount, but unfortunately we don’t
have very good visual materials on that, so I won’t be talking about
that today. Today we’ll focus on the Desana and the Barasana and on the
Quechua tradition that descended from the Inaeic tradition.
The thing that I’ve mentioned that will stand out so strikingly when we
look at these cosmological traditions is the importance of the Milky way,
we of course see the Milky way here in the Northern hemisphere, but I
want to demonstrate to you here in the first few slides or so that the
Milky way that we see in the Northern hemisphere is not the same Milky way
they see in the Southern hemisphere. Well in fact it is the same Milky
way, but it’s visually quite a different phenomenon when we look at
it in the Northern hemisphere. So when we talk about the Milky way
we’re of course talking about our galaxy, we’re located here, so we’re
not in the center of our galaxy, rather we’re on one side of it.
If we think about the shape of that Milky way, we see that it’s not like
a single, big ball, but rather it’s more shaped like a plate, so that if
we begin to turn it on its side it begins to take on the appearance from
distant space of a plate-like structure. So that when we look up
at the Milky way down on Earth we see the Milky way passing through the sky
as a single line. Now what’s important about this and
what’s important about the point of how we see the Milky way in the
Northern hemisphere versus how they see it in the Southern hemisphere, is
that of course the Earth is tilted on its axis, so we have a certain view
of our galaxy and it’s a view that’s really quite different than those
people see in Southern hemisphere. From the Southern hemisphere the view
they see is looking towards essentially the center of our galaxy,
so it’s the view that we see in this direction through the center of the
galaxy. So we’re looking through a very dense array of stars. Where
we’re situated in our galaxy we look through a portion of the Milky Way
that has a much lesser number of stars within our galaxy. So that in
fact the view that we get, this is a rollout, photomosaic view of the
total line of the Milky Way through the skies. We see it here on Earth,
but you have to be in the Southern hemisphere in order to see that
portion from about here over to here. We in the Northern hemisphere see
from about here to there and then if we pull this total line into a
circle, we see from about here to there and there to there. So the
brightest stars in the Milky Way, the most spectacular view of the Milky
Way is seen only when you cross the equator and go into the Southern
hemisphere. The South Celestial Pole is located
about there, and it’s very important in terms of what I’ll be talking
about to recognize that the line, so what we call the line of the Milky
Way through the sky passes through the sky at a point about 23° south of
the axis of rotation of our Earth. So you see there the point more or
less of the South Celestial Pole, there’s no south start like Polaris
that marks the South Celestial Pole, it’s empty, it’s black, but there’s
a distance of about 23° from the point
of the axis of rotation, so the South Celestial Pole point and the line of
the Milky Way. So that as the Earth spins on its axis the Milky Way—the
axis of the Milky Way since it does not coincide with the axis of
rotation of the Earth, but rather is slanted to it by about 23° or so that
one actually sees when the Milky Way stands overheard in the Zenith we see
one or the other of the two sides or the branches of the Milky Way. We
see either one side that goes from the Northeast to the Southwest or if
we’re at that point say immediately under here, and as our Earth turns 12
hours later, we see the other arm of the Milky Way that goes then from the
Northwest to the Southeast. So over time we see this alternation of axes
between the Northeast, Southwest, Northwest, Southeast of the line of
the Milky Way through the sky. And we’ll see that this alternation,
these two arms or these two views of the Milky Way were central to the
cosmological traditions that we’ll be talking about.
The other thing we’ll see is that the Milky Way is very often thought of as
a river and in a lot of the metaphorical commentaries about the
Milky Way and statements about it, claims made about it in the various
mythological traditions, it is very often likened to a great river like
those mini-rivers of the Amazonia forest that cut through the forest of
the Amazon. When we look first at the tradition
of the Desana Indians who are also Tucano peoples, Tucano speaking
peoples of Colombia, they have a very complex cosmological tradition, which
has been described in a very important work by Herardo Rikel
Domatoff [phonetic], “Amazonia Cosmos”. What we learn from Rikel
Domatoff’s work is that the Desana universe consists essentially of
three superimposed cosmic zones; the upper or celestial zone, the
intermediate zone or our earth, and the lower zone, a paradise. The most
important structural component of the upper zone of the cosmos is the Milky
Way. The Milky Way is conceived of as a large scan of fibers of the
Kumari palm that floats in a turbulent current arching over the
earth. This current comes from the lower zone flowing from east to west.
The fibers of Kumari, which are yellowish or whitish symbolize sperm
among the Desana, and the Milky Way is commonly interpreted as an immense
seminal flow that fertilizes all of the intermediate zone or the
underlying biosphere. The Milky Way is as well the zone of communication
where contact between terrestrial beings and supernatural beings is
established. These contacts are obtained primarily through the use of
the hallucinogenic drugs and the Milky Way itself is directly
designated as the zone of hallucinations and visions into which
the shaman and other persons who take hallucinogenic drugs can penetrate
and then pass from one cosmic level to the next.
On the other hand it’s also important to note that the Milky Way is the
dwelling place of sickness, it can be thought of as a large rising river in
whose turbulent and foaming waters float residue and waste, these are
the essences of putrefaction and consequently they are very dangerous
pathogenic factors for living beings. The sun I would just note is an
important component of this cosmology as well and the principle energy of
the sun constitutes a huge closed circuit in which the entire biosphere
participates. The Desana imagine this circuit has having a fixed
quantity of energy that flows eternally between man and animal,
between society and nature. The Desana designate the circuit of
energy by the term bulga [phonetic], and this word can be translated as
current and it is identified itself with the Milky Way.
So going on to look at another of these tropical forest traditions in
Colombia, we move from the Desana who are located here, to the Barasana,
the west of them on another river system, but one whose waters then
flow from west to east into that great watershed that collections into
the northern tributaries of the Amazon river basin. The universe
among the Barasana is believed to be composed of three basic layers as
with the Desana; the sky, the Earth, and the underworld, and these are
modeled on the longhouses that the Barasana that live in. So there’s
the front view of one of these longhouses. Although all stars are
said to be—here’s a drawing of the stars and the constellations by
Barasana shaman, although all stars are said to be people, only some are
selected to be given names and individual identities, and of these
most lie along the path of the Milky Way or what’s known as the star path.
The Milky Way is variously described as being a reflection of the milk
river on Earth a continuation of that river in the sky. The milk river on
Earth is a huge river in the east that’s often identified with the
Amazon and the Rio Negro. Water flows downstream to the east on
land, where it is taken up into the sky by the Milky Way and is brought
down again on the other side in the west. As the constellations rise
they take up water from the Earth to cause a dry season and as they come
down again they bring celestial water as rain.
Though the overall path of the stars for the Barasana obviously is east to
west, the diagonal orientation of the Milky Way with respect to the
ecliptic serves to divide the star path into two segments; a new path
and old path, and these coincide with these two axes of the Milky Way, so
the new star path there and the old star path there. Each star path has
a focal constellation; what’s called the star thing or the ploidies, is
the leader of the new path where you see to the right, it’s the most
important constellation in the Barasana’s zodiac. We’ll return to
the ploidies much later with the Inca. As the woman shaman who is the
sky, the creatress, and the first shaman, the ploidies regulate the
seasonal, agricultural, and ritual calendars. The new path is in the
sky during the dry season when the ploidies set in the west at dusk, and
this marks the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy
season. If the connotations of the star path
as we’ve just—the new path are positive, those of the old path to
the left there are equally negative. The first four constellations of this
are spider, scorpion, snake, and caterpillar, jaguar. These are all
poisonous creatures, and in addition to being poisonous these creatures
are also believed to be the vehicles and the agents of sorcery. The old
path is described as old, worn out, and decayed as its stars as bad, and
this is consistent with the fact that they dominate the sky during the
rainy season when there is much sickness.
So for both the Desana and the Barasana the Milky Way is the
principle object orienting time, celestial space, and cosmological
symbolic values. These values are built around dual opposed principles
of fertility, creation, and health on the one hand and poison, sorcery, and
sickness on the other. The universe according to these views is held in
the balance between positive and negative forces, between fertility
and sickness. The Milky Way is the object in the visible universe that
signals and is most directly responsible for the eternal cyclical
balancing of these opposed forces in the universe. So these are two
views; some of the best views that have been described by ethnographers
working with various peoples in the tropical forest of the Amazon.
Let’s turn now to the Inca Empire and to their descendents, the Quechua
speakers of present day Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia primarily. So the
Inca Empire was known as Tawantinsuyu, the four parts
intimately bound together so this was the great Empire that stretched from
the border between present day Ecuador and Colombia down through
Peru, through Bolivia, Northwest Argentina, and down through Central
Chile. It was divided into four parts, those four suyu’s that you see
in the map on the left there, and it was articulated by a very complicated
road system that you see in the map on the right, the famous Capaq Nan,
the road system of the Inca Empire. The world of the Incas, of
Tawantinsuyu was conceived of as a world that was laid out as a unified
whole as we just saw before, divided into four parts. This is a map from
a native chronicler named Wama Poma de ya ala who worked at the end of
the 16th, beginning of the 17th century, and this is his version of
the mapa mundi, the map of the universe, showing here the Pacific
Ocean at the bottom with the various sea creatures here, the Andes
Mountains at the back, the whole of the Empire divided into the four
quarters and with various creatures floating through the sky here and I
think this may have been Wama Poma’s own understanding of the
extraordinary number and very complex creatures that pass through the sky
in the Milky Way, which I’ll explain later.
We have other representations of the cosmological features of the Inca
universe as they understand it in a 17th century chronicle. This is a
page from that chronicle that contains a drawing that was said to
be a drawing that was painted on a wall of the church, of the building
known as the Coricancha, which was called The Temple of the Sun, the
most sacred temple in the city of Cuzco. When we look at what’s
included on the map as central elements of the Inca cosmos, we see a
number of features. On the left top, the sun; on the right we see a cross
of stars, which is in the center; then a larger lip called the vida
cocha over on the right; and the sun on the left is balanced by the moon
on the right; the venus on the morning is on the left, the venus on
the evening on the right, etc., and you see a number of those features.
Essentially what we see is that the map, the universe is composed of this
balanced opposition between a number of units linked to males, so there’s
a human couple in the center there; the king and the queen. So we have
the sun linked to and balanced by the powers of the moon, the venus of the
morning linked to that of the evening and a set of other features on either
side. On the left we have the ploidies, again important in those
other tropical forest cosmologies, rainbow, lightening. And on the
right we have a lake, we have a dark cloud, which I’ll come back to, and
the ancestral tree, and then store houses.
The most important identities in the Inca universe were the Inca king and
the queen who from the 10th Inca onward was his sister, so there was a
brother/sister marriage practiced at a certain point in the dynasty of the
Inca’s. The Inca was considered to be the divine and the descendent of
the sun. The Inca upon death was mummified and the bodies of the
Inca’s were kept in mummified form in the order of their death in the
Coricancha, in the Temple of the Sun, and they were brought out and paraded
around the Inca capital of Cuzco on ceremonial occasions and they were
fed and given drink, etc. So these were very important objects, very
important entities in the universe, so they stood at the hierarchy
actually of what was a whole world of sacred things that populated the Inca
landscape and the Inca universe. Here we see another drawing by this
native chronicler, Wama Poma showing the Inca king and queen at a
mountain, at a sacred place, which was being worshipped. The universe
was alive with these sacred places that the Quechua knew, that the
Quechua and the Inca knew as Waca’s, so those are sacred places. And we
have in one Colonial document here a drawing of the Incas worshipping the
sacred stones, the carved stones. These all were organized throughout
the Empire in very complicated systems of alignments, of Waca’s, or
alignments of sacred places. These alignments are called seci’s, and
we’ll come back a little later and talk about the very complicated
system of this whole alignment of sacred places in the capital city of
Cuzco because it’s intimately connected with how they understood
the cosmos, but several of those lines were projected outside the
valley of the capital through the Empire. One of the most central ones
was a line that went from the city of Cuzco, the capital up here down to
Tiahuanaco, which was the capital of a former pre-Inca Empire, where the
Incas considered not only their ancestors to have originated, but of
all things in the universe to have originated as well. And it’s just
important to point out here that that axis from Cuzco down to Tiahuanaco
coincides with a river called the Vilcanota River and it was conceived
of, it was metaphorically thought of as one of these great axes of the
Milky Way. At Lake Titicaca as I said, this was
the origin place of some of the most important objects that made up the
universe, beginning with the sun. So here’s a rock on an island in Lake
Titicaca and the island of which is called The Island of the Sun, and if
you see that crack in the rock that’s actually the origin place of the sun,
that’s where the sun came, and so this was one of the most important
sanctuaries for the Incas in their worship of the sun. Priests made
that pilgrimage down the Vilcanota River once a year and back to Cuzco.
In thinking about Inca and then later Quechua/Andean astronomy, we need to
recognize the fact that here we’re in the south celestial hemisphere, so we
want to see the universe turn completely upside down from the way
we normally think of it. We have some statements in the Spanish
Chronicles to the effect that the Incas wanted to actually carry their
empire to the equator, and that’s about how far the empire extended.
They were interested in the place where the sun sat most comfortably
between the right and the left from its extreme rise points over the
course of the year. So we are holy within the Southern
hemisphere, in the Inca Empire, and again we are looking at that visual
manifestation of the Milky Way that’s quite different from the one we see
here. This is a tropical system of astronomy in the sense that as they
are located between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of
Capricorn in the south, the sun passes overhead in the Zenith two
times a year; once when it’s moving to the south and once when it’s
moving back to the north. And the Inca calendar system was built around
observations of the solar extremes, the June solstice, and then the point
when the sun moved from there through the point directly underground, they
were also interested in that, through the equinox, through the December
solstice, and then the two times a year when it passed through this
Zenith point. So we know their solar observations were quite complicated.
When we go back to this drawing of the one chronicler in the 17th century
we can ask what is this great ellipse? And my theory has been for
some time that it is a representation of the great line of the Milky Way.
So in my own research I did research and wrote my doctoral dissertation
actually on the astronomical system of people in a village in – – Peru,
and in that village they do recognize this matter of the Milky Way having
these two diagonal orientations when it passes through the Zenith, so one
northeast/southwest, the other northwest/southeast. And on the
basis of that then, in that village of – – they had four roads that
passed through the village, which they conceptually linked to the four-
part division of the community; those roads are conceptually extended to
the horizon, each to meet a point where the sun at its extreme, at the
solstice, either rises or sets and those then are linked to the sky by
these two diagonal axes of the Milky Way. So the whole thing, this is why
I called my book “At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky”, in the
community it’s thought of as this place that links these terrestrial
axes and the celestial axes as well, then they conceive of that river of
the Vilcanota River as the earthly manifestation of the celestial river,
the Milky Way. And the Milky Way itself is known as mau or river, so
it’s there. The waters of the Earth flow across
the Earth and they flow down into what the Quechua conceive of as a
cosmic sea that encircles the Earth. The Milky Way passes through the sky,
goes underground and takes up water, carries the water back up into the
sky, seeds the sky with water and that’s the origin of rain, but the
Milky Way also takes up a very fertile kind of mud from under the
Earth that’s called – – , which combines the Quechua and Spanish
words for Earth. This is very fertile, – – earth, and it takes that
up and takes it up into the sky, and we’ll come back and see what becomes
of that a little later. But when we talk about that, then we get into the
matter of other objects that are represented in that drawing, a cross
of stars at the top of the drawing up here, and then a dark spot, an animal
drawn in black in the right center of the drawing. And these I think
represent the two basic types of constellations in the Quechua
universe, both of which are located along the line of the Milky Way, so
again, they see their primary view of the Milky Way is this very bright
section down here, and they recognize two different kinds of
constellations; one is what one can call, they don’t have a specific
designation for it, star to star constellations, these are like our
constellations made by conceptually forming shapes in the sky by linking
neighboring stars into shapes. They don’t know—they don’t recognize
Centaurus and Cancer and Sagittarius and all the constellations we
recognize. They have their own constellations, which you see
designated here in the line of the Milky Way. The Ploidies was a very
important constellation for them as you see in that quotation then, they
were used to divine how good the agricultural crops would be during
the year. But also there are streaks that cut
through the Milky Way and these are actually—these are clouds of
interstellar dust, so they’re not meteorological clouds, they’re fixed
clouds of interstellar dust that cut through the Milky Way and that block
our view of the stars in that direction. So these the Quechua
recognize as a line of animals that pass through the sky that are located
in the middle of the Milky Way; there’s a snake and there’s a toad,
there a Tinamus, which is like a partridge, there’s a mother llama
located here with her baby stretched out under her suckling, and then
there’s a fox that’s trying to get at the baby llama and is being trampled
on by the mother llama. So there’s a great drama that’s going on in the
sky and these constellations are made of that Pachatira, the fecund earth
under the world. And these are considered the
prototypical animals, the origin of those animals on the Earth. So
here’s a statement from the 17th century that we see that talks about
this mother llama, the animator of llama, moving through the middle of
the sky. And we see here is a black spot here, so these constellations,
people talk about them today so I was able to collection information about
them, but they were known in pre- Colombian times as well, so that we
see in the map then several signs of a Milky Way-based astronomical
tradition in the Andes that went through the Colonial period and that
we can identify to the present day. Just in the last two minutes here let
me talk about the sort of grand synthesis of all of this, the
calendar and astronomy. This took place in the Secci system, which was
the organization of the city of Cuzco, the political, social, and
ritual organization of the city. I’ve talked about these lines of
orientation, of sacred places, of the Oaxaca’s, the sacred places of the
Oaxaca’s and the Secci’s or the lines of orientation. In the Cuzco system
many of these lines were astronomically oriented and one for
instance was view went in the direction of the rise of the ploidies
as viewed from the Temple of the Sun that most sacred—that Temple in the
city of Cuzco. And this formed part key component of
the ritual calendar of the Incas when the ploidies rose on the—to the east
in the first day at dawn they began a count of what were 328 sacred sites,
sacred or Oaxaca’s around the city of Cuzco. These are actually named item
by item, place by place in one Colonial document, each day was
associated with one of these places. That was also linked to a lunar
calendar of this idea of lunar cycle of 27 1/3 days, but this gives us 328
days. At the end of the count of 328 days, it happens that at the latitude
of Cuzco the ploidies disappears for 37 days, so you have the count then
of the 328 days, plus 37, that gives 365 days, so that correlates the
ritual calendar with the solar calendar and it’s key to the
ploidies, one of those principles constellations of the Milky Way for
the Inca, and then that all regulated the 12 annual festivals of the Inca
calendar. So— [END RECORDING]

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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