The oldest astronomical observatory is located in Africa

The oldest astronomical observatory is located in Africa
The oldest astronomical observatory is located in Africa

For millennia, ancient societies around the world have erected megalithic stone circles, aligning them with the Sun and stars to mark the seasons. These early calendars predicted the coming of spring, summer, fall, and winter, helping civilizations keep track of when to plant and harvest. They also served as ceremonial objects for both celebration and sacrifice.

These megaliths - large prehistoric monuments made of stone - may seem mysterious in our modern era, when many people don't even look at the stars.

Some even consider them to be supernatural or alien-created. But many ancient societies saved time by keeping track of which constellations rose at sunset, like reading the giant Heavenly Clock.

Others accurately determined the position of the Sun in the sky during the summer and winter solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year, or the spring and autumn equinoxes.

In Europe alone, there are about 35,000 megaliths, including many astronomically aligned stone circles, as well as tombs (or cromlechs) and other standing stones. These structures were mainly built between 6500 and 4500 years ago, mainly along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

The most famous of these sites is Stonehenge, a monument in England believed to be about 5,000 years old. Although Stonehenge may have been one of the earliest such stone structures to be built in Europe.

The chronology and extreme similarity between these widespread European megaliths leads some researchers to believe that a regional tradition of megalith building first arose along the French coast. This experience was then passed on across the region, eventually reaching the UK.

But even these ancient monuments are at least centuries younger than the world's oldest known stone circle: Nabta Playa.

Megalith Nabta - Playa is located in Africa, about 700 miles south of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It was built over 7,000 years ago, making Nabta Playa the oldest stone circle in the world and possibly the oldest astronomical observatory on Earth. It was built by nomadic people to celebrate the summer solstice and the arrival of the monsoons.

"This is the first human attempt to establish some kind of serious connection with the heavens," says astronomer Jay McKim Mulville, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and an expert on archaeoastronomy.

“It was the dawn of observational astronomy,” he adds. -What did they think about it? Did they imagine that these stars are gods? And what kind of connection did they have with the stars and stones?"


Discovery of the city of Nabta Playa

In the 1960s, Egypt planned to build a large dam along the Nile River, which would flood important ancient archaeological sites. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has provided funds to help relocate famous ancient structures as well as find new sites before they are lost forever.

But the eminent American archaeologist Fred Wendorf saw another opportunity. He wanted to find the ancient origins of Egypt from the time of the pharaohs, away from the Nile River.

"While everyone was looking at the temples, Wendorf decided that he would be looking at the desert," says Malville. "He ushered in the era of prehistoric Egypt and the Old Kingdom."

As luck would have it, in 1973, a Bedouin - or nomadic Arab - guide and smuggler named Eide Mariff stumbled upon a group of rocks that looked like large stone megaliths crossing the Sahara. Mariff brought Wendorf, with whom he had worked since the 1960s, to a site about 60 miles from the Nile.

At first, Wendorf thought they were natural formations. But he soon realized that this place had once been a large lake that would have destroyed any such rocks. Over the past decades, he has returned here many times. Then, during excavations in the early 1990s, Wendorf and a team of archaeologists, including the Polish archaeologist Romuald Schild, discovered a circle of stones that seemed to be mysteriously aligned with the stars in some way.

The first astronomers

After seven years of unsuccessful attempts to solve their mystery, Wendorf called Malville, an expert on archaeoastronomy in the American Southwest.

Mulville says he was also taken aback when he first looked at the maps of the ancient site. He knew that he would have to go there in person to get an idea of this place, as well as its creators and celestial significance.

They drove across the flat sandy landscape until they reached a large sand dune next to a dry lake, with a beautiful view all the way to the horizon. There they pitched their tents and camped. And while Malvil was sitting on the sand near the stones, he says that he experienced an "epiphany."

“I found that these stones were part of an alignment that radiated from a large Mound [burial mound],” Mulville says. "A pile of these megaliths formed the covering of the tomb, and it turned out that each of the megaliths that we found buried in the sedimentary rocks formed a line like spokes in a wheel spreading out to the sides."

The team has already carried out radiocarbon dating at the site, taking samples from the hearth and tamarisk roofing material found within the stone circle.

"It was like a Zen experience to see how it fits together," he says. "Knowing the dates, I could calculate when these stones should have been in line with the brightest stars in the northern sky."

He discovered that the stone circle once coincided with Arcturus, Sirius and Alpha Centauri. There were also rocks that seemed to correspond to the constellation Orion. After tracing the movement of Arcturus across the night sky, they assumed that the star corresponded to the stone circle of Nabta Playa around 4800 BC.

"This makes it the oldest astronomical object we've ever discovered," says Melville. Their analysis was published in the journal Nature in 1998, with the headline "Stonehenge in the Sahara."

In the decades that followed, archaeologists continued to unravel the mystery of the ancient people of Nabta Playa, which was used to observe the stars.


Cattle cult

More than 10,000 years ago, North Africa moved away from the cold, dry Ice Age climate that had persisted for tens of thousands of years. With this shift, African monsoons migrated northward relatively quickly, filling in the seasonal lakes, or Playa, that provided short-lived oases for life.

For the nomadic peoples who lived in the area, these summer rains were probably sacred. In an era when agriculture had not yet spread across the globe, these nomads survived mainly on wild resources. But around the same time in the same region, people began to domesticate goats, as well as an ancient species of livestock called bison.

Cattle have been a central part of the Nabta Playa culture. When Wendorf's team excavated the central tomb of the site, they hoped to find human remains. Instead, they dug up cattle bones and a huge stone that appeared to be carved in the shape of a cow.

The people of Nabta Playa traveled across the Sahara from seasonal lake to seasonal lake, bringing their livestock to graze and drink.

"Their experience was quite similar to that of Polynesian sailors who had to sail from one place to another," says Mulville. "They used the stars to travel through the desert to find small watering places like Nabta Playa, where there was water for about four months a year, probably starting with the summer monsoon."

At that time there was still no North Star, so people were guided by the bright stars and the circular motion of the heavens.

Wendorf himself had powerful experiences that strengthened his belief in this idea. Once, while working at Nabta Playa, the team lost track of time and had to return to the desert at night. Mariff, the Bedouin who first discovered Nabta Playa, got behind the wheel and crossed the Sahara, sticking his head out the window to navigate the stars.

This type of celestial navigation would have made the stone circle of Nabta Playa a powerful symbol for the ancient nomadic peoples. The stones would be visible from the western shore of the lake.

“You could see the stars reflecting off the dark waters of the lake, and you could see rocks partially submerged in the water, lining up along with the reflections of the stars on the horizon,” he says.

Ancient Granary

Practically speaking, the megaliths would also help the people of Nabta Playa during the rainy season, which has only become more important as society has evolved over thousands of years. The summer solstice was supposed to coincide with the arrival of the annual monsoons. Thus, tracking the location of the Sun could alert them to the coming rainy season.

The first strong evidence of human existence in Nabta Playa appears around 9000 BC. At the time, the Sahara was a wetter and more pleasant place to live. After all, there was enough water for people to even dig wells and build houses around them. An excavation at Nabta Playa unearthed rows of huts with hearths, storage pits, and wells that were scattered over several thousand square feet. The archaeological team called it "a well-organized village."

But between 5000 and 3000 BC. BC, thousands of years after the stone circle was built at Nabta Playa, the region dried up again. Some researchers believe that this environmental stress could force the residents of Nabta Playa to develop a complex society that most scientists believe depended on agricultural development.

Ancient society studied constellations and understood the movements of the night sky. They made sacrifices and worshiped the gods. They made jewelry out of cow bones. They ground pigments for body painting. Researchers have even found carvings of fish at the site, suggesting that the nomads traded all the way to the Red Sea. Finally, the stone slabs on the site - some of them as high as nine feet - had to be dragged from over a mile away.

However, this complex culture seems to have disappeared somewhere between nomadic and agrarian. Besides the oldest astronomical site, Nabta Playa is also home to the oldest known remains of sorghum, a crop first domesticated in Africa and now one of the most important foodstuffs in the world, especially in the tropics.

Hundreds of sorghum seeds have been found in Nabta Playa and appear to be more closely related to domestic sorghum than wild varieties. Millet, another crop critical to world agricultural history, has also been domesticated in the region. And excavations at Nabta Playa have also uncovered pits for storing seeds of herbs, tubers, legumes and fruits.

The nomads probably ate wild food, but also planted some semi-domesticated crops along the shores of the lake at the start of each wet season. They then moved on after harvest, Mulville says.

African sorghum and millet seeds domesticated in this area would eventually spread along the trade route that stretched across the Red Sea to India, where they arrived about 4,000 years ago and continued to play an important role in the development of numerous civilizations.

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