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ASTROBC

Historical View of Man’s Place in the Cosmos


When the last Ice Age ended about ten thousand years ago and our ancestors around the world looked up into the sky, did they see different objects than we see today or did they just see the same objects we see today but see those objects differently? Since mankind has existed, we suspect that people have stared up at the stars at night and wondered about them. We will never know what those first “astronomers” thought because they have left us no records. However, about five thousands years ago, mankind began leaving us clues about what they saw and perhaps what they thought when they looked up in the sky. The one thing that is certain is that ancient man saw much more in the sky than we do today. In most of the world today, light (not only visible but also all electromagnetic radiation) pollution from cities and the activities of people have dimmed our view of the nighttime sky considerably. Ancient man also spent more time looking up at the nighttime sky than we do today and knew a great deal more about its movements and changes.

The oldest evidence that we have found of continuing interest in astronomy may be the Stones of Carnac in France. The earliest of these stones dates from about 4,500 B.C. The region contains many upright stones that are found in lines or circles and range in height from 0.8 meters to 6.5 meters. The question as to whether the stone were used as signposts, burial markers, or astronomical aides of some kind is currently being researched. Possible alignments of the stones with the sun or moon in some special pattern are the focus of the research.

Another ancient site with questionable astronomical connections is Pentre Ifan in Wales that dates from 3,500 B.C. No actual alignments with the sun or moon’s rising or setting positions or with the position of a particular star have been uncovered. The actual site has a 16-ton stone suspended on other stone supports eight feet off the ground. Our ancestors obviously didn't have access to the modern technology that we do. They had no advanced tools. They had no means of instant communication so could not benefit from knowledge or techniques being employed in other civilizations. How they compared materials, building techniques and designs in order to decide on the right one is a mystery to us. When we need to research we benefit from the internet. All our questions can be answered online, whether about construction at CIRIA.org, astronomy at http://www.nasa.gov/, or history at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/. The ancients' knowledge of astronomy, before the advent of special telescopes and all the modern equipment we have today, is mind-blowing. eight feet off the ground.

The oldest site that has definite astronomical connections is Newgrange passage Tomb in Ireland that dates from about 3,200 B.C. For about 2 weeks on either side of the winter solstice, light passes through a roof box above the entrance passage. This incoming light causes the entire central passageway to be illuminated. Many of the stones that make up Newgrange are decorated with symbols that look like the sun.

The most famous English site for Neolithic astronomical use is Stonehenge. The main stones of the site date from about 3,000 B.C. Some people believe that the clear alignments of the stones with the sun and the moon allowed the Druids who built it to predict solar and lunar eclipses. However, most people believe that the very rough alignment of the main axis of the monument that faces the horizon where the Sun rises on the summer solstice is more a recognition of some religious importance attached to this date rather than of some astronomically predictive value of the monument.

Whatever ancient monument we view, whether it is in Europe, Africa, South America, or Asia we can be certain that every ancient culture had a view that put the earth at rest at the center of the universe. The Egyptians saw the sky as the arched body of the goddess Nut; the Hindus saw the sky resting on the tusks of an immense elephant; the Babylonians saw the sky as the inside of a huge bell jar; and the Arabs more recently saw the sky as an immense tent. In Greece and in later Alexandria, the actual number of views of the earth’s position in the universe had probably multiplied to equal the number of philosophers. Only a very few of these descriptions suggested that the earth actually turned.

The first individual that modern man identifies with a moving earth is Aristarchus who lived in Greece in the third century B.C. He suggested that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. His analysis was ignored. The man whose view of the universe was to become the accepted view of the Western World until at least the seventeenth century was Plato (~427-327 B.C.). Plato is arguably the most influential secular philosopher of all time. His grip on the Western World’s philosophical and astronomical views is beyond compare and lasted for about 2,000 years!

Simply described, Plato’s universe was built on the perfection of circles, spheres, and the immutable heavens made by an all-powerful creator. Plato’s knowledge of the universe was based his “perfect” logic, reason, and philosophical deductions and not on the observations of his “imperfect” senses. He placed the immobile Earth at its center and that is where it stood for the next 2,000 years.


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