Part of the Smithsonian’s Exploring the Ancient World Series, this book mixes astronomy and anthropology. It examines the role of astronomy in prehistorical and traditional societies. As it turns out, watching the heavens was, above all else, practical, though it was not without its political uses in some instances.
While there are written records going back thousands of years, there is evidence of skywatching stretching back tens of thousands of years. Most famous are ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, which in its earliest forms is perhaps a mere 5000-6000 years old. Other, less eye-catching finds include a 30,000 year-old bone from an eagle’s wing found in a cave in Dordogne, France etched with the moon cycle.
Author Anthony Aveni, who is also Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University, points out that the role of astronomy differs in each culture as does the role of religion, economics and agriculture. To understand the astronomy—often entwined with astrology—we must understand a bit about the culture as well.
How do the stars move from hour to hour and from night to night? Which way do the sunsets shift on the horizon? What changes does the moon undergo? Where can we expect to see it appear and disappear each month? What is the zodiac and why was it so important to the ancients? How do the sun, moon, and planets advance across this great celestial roadway? When will they pass one another again or slip through that curious periodic backward motion the Greeks called retrograde? How often do eclipses occur and comets appear, and why were they so universally feared and dreaded?” (p. 17)
Aveni examines cultures as diverse as classical and archaic Greece, traditional Pacific Islanders, central African peoples, Paleo Amerindians and Asia. His expertise is in pre-contact the astronomy Central American peoples. While he finds much variety in usage and understanding of astronomy, he also sees common elements. Widely spread cultures with no known contact developed a zodiac based on animals, for example. Some also saw a rabbit on the surface of the surface of the moon.
This is a board, interesting survey which should appeal to people with an interest in anthropology or ancient history more than astronomy. While some astronomy is discussed, it is elementary and no more complicated that most of had in junior high.