Passion of the People – 1.1.5

Prehistoric Cultures and Mankind’s First Star Witnesses

Based on experience and tools, ancient cultures utilized the stars to figure out when to plant and harvest their crops, they named the constellations and told stories about heroes and gods, animals and mythological creatures represented in the stars. These stories about the stars were part of oral traditions with much more implications beyond the entertaining elements which they surely had. The stories preserved ancient cultures by transferring knowledge from one generation to the next. 

As early as 5000 years ago, some of the first astronomers observed changes in the Sun and Moon. They noticed patterns in the Sun’s rising and setting and in the shape and position of the Moon on any given evening. They often built shrines or henges that told them of key astrological moments such as the winter and summer solstices or the spring and fall equinoxes. This helped them to know when to plant crops after frosts and when to harvest them before winter descended. Henges exist e.g. all over the United Kingdom, the most famous being Stonehenge. Henges can be found in other European regions as well e.g. as a circular ditch, a circular mound, or consist of stones and timbers to define the circle.

Ancient sailors used the stars to help guide them while they were at sea. The Phoenicians looked to the Sun’s movement across the heavens to tell them their direction. Early astronomers realized that some constellations, such as the Big Dipper, were only seen in the northern part of the sky. The location of the North Star – Polaris – helped travellers figure out the direction they needed to reach their destination. As part of the Ursus Minor constellation, the lesser bear, Polaris sits above the northern planetary pole without moving too much, making it an excellent navigational tool.

The creation of astrological signs came from some of Earth’s earliest astronomers. In ancient Babylon, astronomers kept track of the paths and movements of the planets. Most ancient civilizations believed that observing the movement of the planets could help to predict the future and determine the course an individual’s life would take. The ancient Egyptians developed a system of astronomy, as they believed that solar movements could predict natural environmental events such as famine and floods. This system of predicting and drawing connections between human experiences and the cosmos has become known as Egyptian astrology. Although today there is a differentiation between astronomy and astrology, the former being a science, astronomy and astrology were one in the early days of civilization

Constellation card – Image by DorothePixabay
Meridian – Image by DorothePixabay
Stonehenge at night – Image by Karin HenselerPixabay

Further Resources

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How some ancient civilizations have brought significant impacts on the understanding of modern astronomy

Pictures in the sky: the origin and history of the constellations

How ancient astronomy mixed science with mythology (National Geographic)

Dr Stuart Clark discusses his book Beneath The Night, and how stargazing has shaped the development of our species

Dalla via lattea di Era alla ninfa Callisto nell’Orsa Maggiore. I miti delle stelle: ecco cosa cercavano gli antichi nel cielo – Cristina dell’Acqua, Corriere TV

Dagli antichi greci agli arabi, come l’astronomia è diventata una scienza [Pillole di Storia] – La Biblioteca di Alessandria

L’orientamento durante la notte (tratto da Geografia. Territori e problemi 3° edizione) – Zanichelli editore

Come iniziare a osservare il cielo – Oneira

Cosa sono le costellazioni? – Elena Lazzaretto

“A riveder le stelle”: l’Orsa Maggiore e l’Orsa Minore – TGR Valle d’Aosta

Odifreddi a Kilimangiaro: astrologia vs. astronomia – Piergiorgio Odifreddi

Callisto: Il Mito dell’Origine della Costellazione dell’Orsa Maggiore e dell’Orsa Minore – Storia e Mitologia Illustrate

Online Resources

How Did Ancient People Use the Stars and Planets? –  A short overview how ancient people utilised the stars by Julie Ackendorf.

How ancient cultures explained comets and meteors (Eve Macdonald, Cardiff University)

A game that explores the galaxy, expands to new worlds, and competes with other races at unlocking the mysteries of the Ancient Star

How did ancient civilizations make sense of the cosmos, and what did they get right?” – The history of star gazing through mankind’s history (Susan Bell, University of Southern California)

Gli antichi e le stelle, ovvero l’archeoastronomia – LifeGate Daily

Orsa Minore Piccolo Carro – Summa Gallicana

Costellazioni e mitologia: Orsa Maggiore e Orsa Minore – Passione Astronomia

Orsa Maggiore: guida alle costellazioni – Star Walk 2

Come e quando sono nati i segni astrologici? – Focus

Qual è la differenza tra astronomia e astrologia? – Focus

Teaching Material

A teaching lesson on the development of astronomy in ancient history (Requires registration)

 A course on history and science of ancient astronomy

 The History of Astronomy in the Ancient World – (Course of the World History Encyclopedia)

 Video lessons about the history of astronomy

For Kids

Training material specific for preschool children

This is for kids discovering the history of astronomy

Ancient Astronomy for Elementary Schools

Le costellazioni – La scienza di Ido

Astronomia per bambini | Come spiegare le costellazioni | Editoriale ScienzaEditoriale Scienza

Trova le Costellazioni – Giochiamo con la Scienza