Chapter 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy

2.2 Ancient Astronomy Around the World

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe early examples of astronomy around the world

Astronomy around the World

Let us now look briefly back into history. Much of modern Western civilization is derived in one way or another from the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and this is true in astronomy as well. However, many other ancient cultures also developed sophisticated systems for observing and interpreting the sky.

Ancient Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian astronomers knew the approximate length of the year. The Egyptians of 3000 years ago, for example, adopted a calendar based on a 365-day year. They kept careful track of the rising time of the bright star Sirius in the predawn sky, which has a yearly cycle that corresponded with the flooding of the Nile River.

The Chinese also had a working calendar; they determined the length of the year at about the same time as the Egyptians. The Chinese also recorded comets, bright meteors, and dark spots on the Sun. (Many types of astronomical objects were introduced in Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour. If you are not familiar with terms like comets and meteors, you may want to review that chapter.) Later, Chinese astronomers kept careful records of “guest stars”—those that are normally too faint to see but suddenly flare up to become visible to the unaided eye for a few weeks or months. We still use some of these records in studying stars that exploded a long time ago.   They used a lunar-solar calendar.  The Calgary, Alberta, Canada section of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada have produced a bilingual (English-Chinese) handout detailing Chinese New Year and its astronomical connections.

The Mayan culture in Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar based on the planet Venus, and they made astronomical observations from sites dedicated to this purpose a thousand years ago.

In July 2021 a site in Chile was awarded  UNESCO World Heritage status. Chanquillo[1][2][3][4][5] or Chankillo[3][6][7][8] is an ancient monumental complex in the Peruvian coastal desert, found in the Casma-Sechin basin in the Ancash Department of Peru.  The Thirteen Towers have been interpreted as an astronomical observatory built in the 4th century BC.[6][9] The regularly-spaced thirteen towers of Chankillo were constructed atop the ridge of a low hill running near north to south, forming a “toothed” horizon with narrow gaps at regular intervals. To the east and west investigators designated two possible observation points. From these vantages, the 300m long spread of the towers along the horizon corresponds very closely to the rising and setting positions of the sun over the year. On the winter solstice, the sun would rise behind the leftmost tower of Chankillo and rise behind each of the towers until it reached the rightmost tower six months later on the summer solstice, marking the passage of time.[11] The Thirteen Towers of Chankillo could be the earliest known observatory in the Americas.

The Polynesians learned to navigate by the stars over hundreds of kilometres of open ocean—a skill that enabled them to colonize new islands far away from where they began.  The positions of the stars helped guide Polynesian voyages. Stars, as opposed to planets, hold fixed celestial positions year-round, changing only their rising time with the seasons. Each star has a specific declination, and can give a bearing for navigation as it rises or sets. Polynesian voyagers would set a heading by a star near the horizon, switching to a new one once the first rose too high. A specific sequence of stars would be memorized for each route.[20]


Shells and stones placed in a circle with text naming each shell as a star.
A photograph of a recreation of the star compass of Mau Piailug depicted with shells on sand, with Satawalese (See Trukic languages) text labels, as described by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Original archived by Webcite. Shown here north-up. By Newportm – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Newportm – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In Britain, before the widespread use of writing, ancient people used stones to keep track of the motions of the Sun and Moon. We still find some of the great stone circles they built for this purpose, dating from as far back as 2800 BCE. The best known of these is Stonehenge, which is discussed in Earth, Moon, and Sky.

        There is more material in the upcoming chapter on the calendar.  Stanford has published a great website called Ancient Observatories, Timeless Knowledge (Stanford Solar Center): An introduction to ancient sites where the movements of celestial objects were tracked over the years (with a special focus on tracking the Sun).


The Milky Way Galaxy in Myth and Legend

To most of us living in the twenty-first century, the Milky Way Galaxy is an elusive sight. We must make an effort to leave our well-lit homes and streets and venture beyond our cities and suburbs into less populated environments. Once the light pollution subsides to negligible levels, the Milky Way can be readily spotted arching over the sky on clear, moonless nights. The Milky Way is especially bright in late summer and early fall in the Northern Hemisphere. Some of the best places to view the Milky Way are in our national and state parks, where residential and industrial developments have been kept to a minimum. Some of these parks host special sky-gazing events that are definitely worth checking out—especially during the two weeks surrounding the new moon, when the faint stars and Milky Way don’t have to compete with the Moon’s brilliance.

Go back a few centuries, and these starlit sights would have been the norm rather than the exception. Before the advent of electric or even gas lighting, people relied on short-lived fires to illuminate their homes and byways. Consequently, their night skies were typically much darker. Confronted by myriad stellar patterns and the Milky Way’s gauzy band of diffuse light, people of all cultures developed myths to make sense of it all.

Some of the oldest myths relating to the Milky Way are maintained by the aboriginal Australians through their rock painting and storytelling. These legacies are thought to go back tens of thousands of years, to when the aboriginal people were being “dreamed” along with the rest of the cosmos. The Milky Way played a central role as an arbiter of the Creation. Taking the form of a great serpent, it joined with the Earth serpent to dream and thus create all the creatures on Earth.

The ancient Greeks viewed the Milky Way as a spray of milk that spilled from the breast of the goddess Hera. In this legend, Zeus had secretly placed his infant son Heracles at Hera’s breast while she was asleep in order to give his half-human son immortal powers. When Hera awoke and found Heracles suckling, she pushed him away, causing her milk to spray forth into the cosmos as shown in Figure 1.

The dynastic Chinese regarded the Milky Way as a “silver river” that was made to separate two star-crossed lovers. To the east of the Milky Way, Zhi Nu, the weaving maiden, was identified with the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra the Harp. To the west of the Milky Way, her lover Niu Lang, the cowherd, was associated with the star Altair in the constellation of Aquila the Eagle. They had been exiled on opposite sides of the Milky Way by Zhi Nu’s mother, the Queen of Heaven, after she heard of their secret marriage and the birth of their two children. However, once a year, they are permitted to reunite. On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (which typically occurs in our month of August), they would meet on a bridge over the Milky Way that thousands of magpies had made as shown in Figure 1. This romantic time continues to be celebrated today as Qi Xi, meaning “Double Seventh,” with couples reenacting the cosmic reunion of Zhi Nu and Niu Lang.

The Milky Way in Myth.
Renaissance era painting titled “Origin of the Milky Way” by Jacopo Tintoretto. Painting "The Moon of the Milky Way" by Japanese painter Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
Figure 1. (a) Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto (circa 1575) illustrates the Greek myth that explains the formation of the Milky Way. (b) The Moon of the Milky Way by Japanese painter Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicts the Chinese legend of Zhi Nu and Niu Lang.

To the Quechua Indians of Andean Peru, the Milky Way was seen as the celestial abode for all sorts of cosmic creatures. Arrayed along the Milky Way are myriad dark patches that they identified with partridges, llamas, a toad, a snake, a fox, and other animals. The Quechua’s orientation toward the dark regions rather than the glowing band of starlight appears to be unique among all the myth makers. Likely, their access to the richly structured southern Milky Way had something to do with it.

Among Finns, Estonians, and related northern European cultures, the Milky Way is regarded as the “pathway of birds” across the night sky. Having noted that birds seasonally migrate along a north-south route, they identified this byway with the Milky Way. Recent scientific studies have shown that this myth is rooted in fact: the birds of this region use the Milky Way as a guide for their annual migrations.

Today, we regard the Milky Way as our galactic abode, where the foment of star birth and star death plays out on a grand stage, and where sundry planets have been found to be orbiting all sorts of stars. Although our perspective on the Milky Way is based on scientific investigations, we share with our forebears an affinity for telling stories of origin and transformation. In these regards, the Milky Way continues to fascinate and inspire us.


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Douglas College Astronomy 1105 Copyright © 2017 by Douglas College Department of Physics and Astronomy, Open Stax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.