A Short History of Cultural Astronomy and a Very Brief Introduction to Indigenous Methodologies

A brief history of cultural astronomy

Archaeoastronomy, an ancestor of cultural astronomy, got its start with Great Britainʻs Stonehenge, a megalithic site whose constructors left nothing written, no known language, and few clues about their culture.  Such sites are present throughout much of Europe, perhaps most famously in Ireland and England and Malta.  Scottish engineer Alexander Thom (1894-1985) was the first person to examine Stonehenge with theodolites and other engineering/surveying equipment that produced quantifiable data. Following Thom were others who, like Thom, used measurements and statistical means to survey and draw conclusions about various megalithic monuments.  Thom and those who followed over the next few decades were sometimes admired, sometimes criticized.  They were trying to understand the astronomy they believed to be present in the design and use of megalithic sites, as much as 6,000 years old.  The culture and language of these sitesʻ builders was not known and the people who built the structures left nothing in writing.  Thus Thom and others sought to discover the cultureʻs astronomy through astronomical alignments in the sitesʻ archaeological remains.

Following an International Astronomical Union meeting at Oxford, England in 1981 two volumes, distinguished by methodology, were published.  One volume had a green cover, the other a brown cover.  The color of the volumesʻ covers became shorthand for the methodological divide.  “The Green volume of old world archaeoastronomy contained studies that were heavily dependent on statistical analysis of places where little ethnographic data was available [Green archaeoastronomy]. The Brown volume described archaeoastronomy of the new world and benefitted from ethnography, anthropology, and cultural history [Brown archaeoastronomy].”[i]

That difference in methodologies and methodological options was and remains significant.  It did not, though, result in a general acceptance or approval of archaeoastronomy.  A wonderful “discussion” appeared in two essays published in the Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy News of the Center for Archaeoastronomy.  The first, by archaeologist Keith Kintigh and titled “I Wasnʻt Going to Say Anything, But Since You Asked” criticized archaeoastronomers as alignment hunters who found alignments to astronomical objects or events but without those findings having any significant relationship to the cultures in which those alignments were found.[ii]  Kintigh pointed out that alignments alone did not address issues or questions of anthropological importance.  Archaeoastronomers, he said, were much like celestial “butterfly collectors.”  The following issue of the Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy News contained a reply to Kintigh from renouned American archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni.  Aveniʻs reply was titled “Nobody Asked, But I Couldnʻt Resist: A Reply to Keith Kintigh on Archaeoastronomy and Archaeology.”[iii]  Aveniʻs reply argued that archaeoastronomy had matured and, despite some researchersʻ penchant for imaginative interpretations of archaeological sites as “observatories” or other even more imaginative or sometimes fanciful conclusions about the astronomical intent of the builders and their culture(s), was contributing anthropologically useful research.

Nearly four decades have past since the Green and Brown distinctions were made.  Archaeoastronomy has undergone disputes and changes.  The changes are ongoing.  One of those changes is centered on the interdisciplinarity apparent in both Green and Brown, but especially and importantly in Brown archaeoastronomy.  Culture, however that word may be understood, puts the Brown archaeoastronomy as much in the social sciences as in the mathematical and hard sciences.  Anthropology and its subset ethnology and their interdisciplinary interaction with sociology, political science, religion, history, literature, linguistics, art and art history, to name only some of the disciplines, all inform, or at at least can and often should, our research, interpretation, analysis, and understanding of culturesʻ, both past and present, knowledges and uses of the sky.  From the 1990s onward archaeoastronomical publications added various terms to their titles or subtitles – archaeoastronomy and astronomy in culture, for example – or abandonned the term archaeoastronomy in favor of the term cultural astronomy.  Changes of terminology, however, do not entirely reflect the reality of works published since the 1990s.  In the last couple of years a few scholars have redefined the field by asserting that cultural astronomy is the umbrella under which archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy both shelter.

For me, cultural astronomy still differs from archeaoastronomy.  Archeaoastronomy requires the physical presence of archaeological structures.  These structures are examined for possible alignments and orientations and looks for rationales for those alignments and orientations.  As archaeoastronomy somewhat divided along the green-brown lines – the absence of ethnological information on the one hand and the presence and availability of ethnological information on the other – cultural astronomy began to overtake archaeoastronomy as a preferred name for research about astronomical relationships to past and present cultures and the uses those cultures made of astronomy.

The difference between archaeoastronomy and cultural astronomy, despite the alterations in terminology, is not yet sufficiently or adequately represented in published research.  Alejandro Lopez, much of whose research is with the Chaco people of Argentina, made the argument that ethnoastronomy is part of cultural astronomy, and that the subject is rather more a social science than a hard science, although archaeoastronomy continues to get more scholarly attention that ethnoastronomy and cultural astronomy.  He wrote that “Ethnoastronomy is an important part of the academic field of cultural astronomy. Using ethnographic and anthropological techniques, it deals with practices relating to, and representations of, the sky of different human societies and their processes of construction and change. These are social facts and these social characteristics are the proper starting point for any interpretation of the ethnographic evidence related to astronomy.”[iv]

A couple of years ago I met at Kūkaniloko with a well-regarded archaeoastronomer whose educational training was in mathematics and astrophysics.  He asserted that archaeoastronomical evidence had to be science.  I like science but I do not at all think that either cultural astronomy or ethnoastronomy fails the test of science by including and favoring ethnology, anthropology, and other bits of not only the social sciences but also of the humanities.  These departmental walls donʻt work.  Science does not function in a vacuum, untouched and unaffected by politics, education, language, history, literature, philosophy, metaphysics, religion, culture both in the small and large senses, and other academic “disciplines.”  How does anyone attempting to research, understand, and share/disseminate astronomically associated knowledge and understandings of any group of people do so in the absence of anything that is not hard science?  Quantifiable data matters.  It is not all that matters.  How does one interpret, explain, or transmit meaning to the numbers, the quantifiable data, in the absence of knowledge of the history/culture/lives of those whose astronomy is researched?

Juan Antonio Belmonte, an experienced and respected archaeoastronomer, wrote that from his point of view “scientific research – as jurisprudence, from where the expression is original − should be guided by the premise testis unus, testis nullus. This rule confirms that a single proof of something is like a proof of nothing and we must be very cautious of risking in too adventurous conclusions.”[v]  That is a valuable point, but it should not be solely decisive in matters such as how cultures or parts of cultures or subsets of cultures used and/or understood the sky.  It is a statement that requires permeable and indistinct borders that accept that a single proof is single only because the researcher is not yet aware of the interwoven, intermeaninged, intermingled, in a word holistic, context of that “single” proof.

Lopez said, “In the field, the researcher must keep an open attitude, and it is important to practice an “epistemological surveillance” about the mental models and metaphors being used to make interpretations.”[vi]  Epistemological surveillance.  I am not entirely certain what that means, but to me it means that one must be conscious, aware, of knowledge systems, knowledge gathering and recordation (this does not mean only recordation in writing), knowledge transmission, and knowledge creation and how oneʻs own epistemology differs from the epistemology that undergirds the astronomy and astronomy-associated knowledges being researched.

In the decade-plus time Iʻve spent (so far) researching Kūkanilokoʻs astronomical assocations Iʻve needed to consult and/or research subjects that on their surface are unrelated to astronomy.  Geography, topography, gods and their kino pau (the plant, animal, and other forms they take), symbolism, orality and poetics, social and political structure, philosophy and metaphysics, genealogies, chants and prayers and songs, land use, calendrics, navigation, human reproduction practices, dogs and birds and fish, weather patterns, history, biographies, sacrifice, the structure of time and space, house structure, native flora and native fauna, precontact education practices, and more. In short, my experience has taught me that culture and cultural fluency, even cultural affiliation, form a critical foundation for researching a cultureʻs astronomical knowledges and understandings.  I donʻt yet know enough.  I will never know enough.

And all of this, all of these things, have political effects, political biases, and unconscious or conscious political purposes.  Most researchers prefer to ignore, except when it is useful on occasion not to, the politics of our work.  We cannot, however.  Most of us study/research the astronomies and/or astronomical knowledges of cultures other than our own.  More bluntly stated, most researchers are not members of the culture whose astronomy they research.  That I believe, no, I am sure, asks questions of knowledge ownership.  Who owns the researchersʻ work?  The researcher?  The organization, institution, or individual who funded the research?  The people whose astronomy is researched?

Indigenous Methodologies

The above are not idle questions.  Nor are they apolitical.  They reflect decolonization, post-colonialism, issues of sovereignty, matters of cultural copyright and ownership and cultural representation.  Linda Tuhiwai Smithʻs groundbreaking book, Decolonizing Methodologies, laid out foundations for researching indigenous cultures.  Decolonizing Methodologies has been followed by many other publications building on matters of methodology, process, and ownership of indigenous knowledge.  Do these issues affect researchers?  They do, or at least they should, affect most researchers.  Do they affect how research is conducted?  Yes, or if they donʻt they should.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, whose seminal work introduced the many ways Western research, however unwittingly, not only classifies and categorizes people and peoples and works concerning them but has failed to either correctly and adequately recognize Indigenous knowledge(s) while nevertheless judging them.  Early in her book she addresses the notion of “history,” a Western and linear concept and not a particularly Indigenous one.  Iʻll include a long passage from her book here, a passage that speaks about space and time.

Similar claims can be made about other concepts, such as time and space. These concepts are particularly significant for some indigenous languages because the language makes no clear or absolute distinction between the two: for example, the Maori and Hawaiian words for time or space is one word. In other words, the word for time is also the word for space.   Other indigenous languages have no recorded word for either space or time, having instead a series of very precise terms for parts of these ideas, or for relationships between the idea and something else in the environment. There are positions within time and space in which people and events are located, but these cannot necessarily be described as distinct categories of thought. Western ideas about time and space are encoded in language, philosophy and science. Philosophical conceptions of time and space have been concerned with: (1) the relationships between the two ideas, that is, whether space and time are absolute categories or whether they exist relationally; and (2) the measurement of time and space.[vii]

Indigenous methodologies address the shortcomings of Western research methods and propose alternative, postcolonial, corrective methodologies.  Geography scholar Renee Pualani Louis wrote “So what exactly are Indigenous methodologies?  To assume there is a singular answer to this question only feeds scholarly beliefs of essentialism emphasising the ‘messenger’ instead of the ‘message’. . . Indigenous methodologies are alternative ways of thinking about research processes. They are fluid and dynamic approaches that emphasise circular and cyclical perspectives. Their main aim is to ensure that research on Indigenous issues is accomplished in a more sympathetic, respectful, and ethically correct fashion from an Indigenous perspective. There are overwhelming commonalities in the literature on Indigenous methodologies and Indigenous research agendas. These include four unwavering principles: relational accountability; respectful representation; reciprocal appropriation; and rights and regulation.”[viii]

Indigenous methodologies recognize the holistic form of indigenous knowledge and knowledge systems and that the search for knowledge is a spiritual experience.[ix]  Indigenous methodologies acknowledge that native knowledge systems do not, or at least may not, fit within Western academic structures.  Louis pointed out that Indigenous knowledges often hold knowledge through oral means, means that frequently are expressed with symbolism, allusions, references, names, and so on that are often undecipherable to a researcher not a part of or fluent in the culture being researched.  To Louis this means that “attempting to decipher this rich code and to represent it adequately requires that the researcher becomes an advocate of the Indigenous knowledge system and at the very least incorporates the ‘Indigenous voice’ in their work.”[x]

I do not own what Kūkaniloko taught me.  First, it was Kūkaniloko who was my teacher, my kumu, the source of the knowledge I gained.  What I learned was already present, inscribed on the land, “written” in names of stars and planets and places.  It wasnʻt new knowledge.  It was alive and present long before I was born, long before my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were born.


[i] Andrew M. Munro and J. McKim Malville, “Archaeoastronomy in the Field: Methodologies Applied in Chaco Canyon,” Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol 9, 2147-2159, at http://journalofcosmology.com/AncientAstronomy115.html

[ii] Keith Kintigh, “I Wasnʻt Going to Say Anything, but Since You Asked,” Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy News, September 1992.

[iii] Anthony Aveni, “Nobody Asked, But I Couldnʻt Resist: A Reply to Keith Kintigh on Archaeoastronomy and Archaeology,” Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy News, December 1992.

[iv] Alejandro Martin Lopez, “Cultural Interpretation of Ethnographic Evidence

Relating to Astronomy, Chapter 23 in Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, Clive Ruggles, ed., New York: Springer, 2015, p. 342.

[v] Juan Antonio Belmonte, “Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: The Role of Astronomy In Ancient Cultures,” Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol 9, 2052-2062.

[vi] Lopez, p. 346.

[vii] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, London: Zed Books, 2002, p. 50.

[viii] Louis, Renee Pualani, “Can You Hear us Now? Voices from the Margin: Using Indigenous Methodologies in Geographic Research” (2007). Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium International (APRCi). Paper 175, pp. 132-133.

[ix] Louis, p. 134.

[x] Louis, p. 134.