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Telescopic observation of stars in Sinai

The Dogon in ceremonial mood. Their head-dresses have been the subject of much anthropological study.

The Dogon people live in the deserts beyond Timbuktu. They believe that they have come from a planet orbiting a small dim star which in turn orbits Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and clearly visible this month in the eastern sky after sunset.

An extraordinary claim given that this companion star to Sirius is not visible to the naked eye and was only deduced in the 19th century by kinematic studies on Sirius.

Extraordinary enough that a shamanistic tribe should have any conception of deep space and planetary systems, never mind the configuration of a remote star system.

So extraordinary that a recent anthropological study by Walter van Beek of Utrecht University suggests that the early anthropological work by Marcel Griaule that first publicised the stories got it wrong, a dampener for the more unhinged speculations of Robert Temple who claims in The Sirius Mystery that the Dogon received their information from an amphibian race of extra-terrestrials that arrived from the Sirius star system 5000 years ago to catalyse the birth of Egyptian civilization.

The Sirius star system lies only 8.6 light years away, just a hop away for extra-terrestrials. It includes Sirius A, the bright star we see, and Sirius B, its dim companion. Since the two are gravitationally bound, both must have arisen from the same molecular cloud about 250 million years ago. Sirius B, however, is a white dwarf at the end of its life. It must therefore have passed through its life cycle more quickly than Sirius A. This tells us that it was once more massive than Sirius A, burnt more brightly and used up its fuel more quickly until it finally ballooned out into a red giant then collapsed into a white dwarf, a relic star shining not from thermonuclear reactions but from the residual heat of its more violent past.

And there lies the problem for the Dogon and their planet which they believe to orbit this star. Not only is 250 million years not enough time for life to have evolved on the planet, but the turbulent history of the star would have destabilised the planet’s orbit and blasted its surface with lethal radiation. The Dogon must have got it wrong.

As for Marcel Griaule who first spread the stories about the Dogon, he was a member of France’s surrealist movement that sought revelation in dreams and the dark recesses of the primitive mind. He was attracted by secret knowledge, interviewed only one old man and failed to check the stories. His avowed intention was to redeem African thought.

When Van Beek came to study the Dogon, he couldn’t confirm any of Griaule’s data but found instead a culture that avoided dispute and placed great store on consensus. It is therefore possible that Griaule was too quick to construe the stories he heard in his own eccentric way and had his views confirmed by the polite and compliant Dogon.

This story first appeared in the Cairo BCA magazine of March 2011 to encourage visitors to come to Sinai for star gazing where we have an 8″ Meade telescope.