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Wangechi Ngugi June 22 2020

The Function of Astronomy in Pre-Historic Africa


Cultural astronomy is described as a set of interdisciplinary fields studying the astronomical systems of current or ancient societies and cultures.

African people have been observing the stars and planets since ancient times. For centuries, Africans have searched the heavens for meaning, order and understanding of their place as a people on earth.

Astronomy was and is still practised in parts of Africa to measure time, seasons, cycles, direction and naming rites. Culturally embedded astronomical knowledge and observation were used to inform social forms, ideologies and behaviours in society. 

Gavin Jantjes Untitled 1989–90 Acrylic on canvas

Mathematical elements in cultural astronomy in the continent’s stories have been discovered in different myths and legends from San folklore, The Dancing Stones of Namoratunga in Kenya, the calendar system of the Dogons of Mali-based on the phases of the moon to the mini megalithic Stonehenge of Nabta Playa in the Sahara. African scientists like Professor Thebe Medupe are working towards conserving this indigenous African astronomy knowledge and information and ultimately reconcile modern and traditional astronomy practices into present-day Africa.

Araika’s Dream by Daniel Muchina

All African traditional science practises were passed down through oral stories and folklore. Visual artists and filmmakers in Africa are tapping into technology to explore and produce new forms of science cinema showcasing these practices in contemporary art forms as a data collection and conservation process as well as a source of communication on the role of indigenous knowledge and practices in shaping the future of Africa.

In Capturing the remarkable journey of African astronomer Thebe Medupe, Cosmic Africa is a multi-award winning documentary that explores and sheds new light on Africa’s rich astronomical knowledge and sacred traditions and seeks to fill in the gap in historical African astronomy and make astronomy relevant to both Africa and the world.

Cosmic Africa

In My Room At the Centre of The Universe and from his small outside room near Sutherland, Elvirdo Booysen begins a process of observation, questioning and discovery, prompted by the death of his grandmother. The film shows the young boy moving out of his room in search of answers. Along the way, he encounters local wisdom-keepers and professional experts who give him new information to work with. He takes this information back to his room, where he makes drawings and models in order to place it within his familiar learning context and through which he continually expands his understanding of himself located within a particular African heritage and simultaneously at the centre of an expanding universe. 

My Room At the Centre of The Universe

In the documentary, The Ancient Astronomers of Timbuktu, a group of modern scientists engage in the first exploration of the scientific contents of the great manuscript archives of Timbuktu led by astrophysicist Dr Thebe Medupe. For four hundred years Timbuktu was an academic centre of the world. The Islamic world brought a different perspective than Ancient Greece, transforming science to solve practical matters such as determining the direction of Mecca and timekeeping. This complex documentary brings ancient science into the modern world, bringing the archives from sandy obscurity to global cyber access.

The Ancient Astronomers of Timbuktu


About the author

Wangechi Ngugi is a Kenyan award-winning film producer. Using the art of storytelling through films, her work raises awareness around global humanitarian issues. Wangechi collaborates with African artists to explore and define different styles and techniques of telling stories through digital media.

In 2016, she was awarded Best of Africa and the African Diaspora producer award by South African Film Festival Rapid Lion.

Wangechi is the co-founder of Monsoons Creative Studio a digital media production company based in Nairobi, Kenya that produces film and video art.

Wangechi works for a future where Africa's storytelling is shaping the identity of its people.

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