Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ancient American Astronomy, Part 1: The Moundbuilders

The New World: a place long thought to be a world of largely uncivilized wilderness upon the arrival of the first European explorers in around the year 1500. However, as the explorers pressed inward, they came across the traces of past, high civilizations and even a few that were still flourishing as the culmination of Native American civilization. .

In short, the civilizations the first European explorers encountered upon their arrival in the New World were the last in a long line of peoples to inhabit North America starting with the migration across the Bering Land Bridge before it was cut off by the rising seas following the end of the last Ice Age in around 10,000 B.C. Following the land free of ice down from Alaska, through Canada, and into what would eventually become the Continental U.S., these people fanned out across the vast expanse of land and were creating permanent settlements by 8,000 B.C. Unfortunately, as only the Maya developed writing (some of which scholars still can't understand), we are left with only artifacts and records from the first Europeans as to what the cultures that dominated the continent were once like. Obviously, with thousands of years of history before around 1500 A.D., there are a lot of unknowns, and educated guesses.
So, starting in North America, we will attempt to trace the astronomical legacies of the earliest Americans.

Some of the mounds are over 60 feet tall.

The first major group of peoples to be addressed are collectively known a the Moundbuilders, whose civilization was centered in the area of the Ohio and later Mississippi Valleys. However, as the general name implies, there is a lot more to the Moundbuilders than one group of people. Their dominance stretching from about 1000 B.C. to the arrival of the Europeans in around 1500 A.D., the Moundbuilders were actually a diverse group of people with a continually evolving culture. Despite the changing centuries, though, these people left quite an astronomical legacy in piles upon piles of soil.

Early rendering of the Great Serpent Mound.

Of all the mounds build in the early stages of the Moundbuilder civilization, the Great Serpent Mound, Located in Adams County, Ohio, is the most mysterious. At nearly 1,400 feet long, the Great Serpent Mound is the largest effigy (animal-shaped) mound in the world. Making the whole structure more mysterious is the fact that no one knows who built it, when, or why. However, at least for the last part, there are some possible guesses.

The Great Serpent Mound from the air.

Naturally, with all of its undulations, some people believe that there are astronomical alignments to be found within the Serpent's coils. For instance, there is the thought that the head of the snake points toward the Summer Solstice Sunset. In the main body, some think that the coils could be representing solar and/or lunar movements throughout their well-known cycles. On the other hand, other experts believe that these alignments are merely coincidental and that the giant snake was not built with these in the plans as there is not a single straight line on the outline. Either way, the Great Serpent Mound is and will remain a mystery.

The Octagon

Onto another Ohio earthwork, this one almost certainly with astronomical alignments that are not by chance. The Octagon is an acres-large geometric earthwork in Newark, Ohio that consists of a giant circle connected to, guess what, a huge octagon. Although no one can pin down an exact date for construction, it has been determined by looking at objects in the same strata that the Octagon was built by the Hopewell Culture, which flourished from around 200 B.C. to 500 A.D. In the 1980s, scientists decided to analyze the Octagon in the thought that they would find solar alignments. Unfortunately, no solar alignments were found. However, several lunar alignments, some of amazing precision, came to light.
First up, the main axis. Connecting the circle and octagon is a narrow lane with earthen banks on either side. It just so happens that this avenue points right at the Moon's northernmost rise of its 18.6 year cycle. Four other sides of the Octagon point to the maximum Southern rise, minimum Northern rise, maximum North set, and minimum Southern set. Obviously, with all the straight lines in the Octagon (versus all the curves in the Great Serpent Mound), chances are that the builders of the Octagon were intentionally trying to reflect the Moon's movements on Earth. In all, a pretty remarkable achievement for the time. However, things get better: the Octagon has a twin.

The High Banks Earthworks.

Located about 55 miles away in Chillicothe, Ohio, there is another earthwork called the High Banks Earthwork. In reality, it could be called the Octagon 2 as the two sites are virtually identical in layout (preservation is a very different story, though).


The supposed Great Hopewell Road.

On top of this, there is another amazing probability linking these two far flung (in the time of construction) sites: a road. Starting at the Octagon, remnants of a road 200 feet wide with earthen embankments for boundaries have been found leading out 6 milers toward Chillicothe. In the intervening miles between the two sites, more probable remnants of the “Great Hopewell Road” have been found, largely due aerial infrared photography that can detect changes in soil density) always parallel earthen banks 200 feet apart running on a direct line between the 2 sites.

Sunwatch Village, last astronomical achievement in the Ohio Valley.

After the decline of the Moundbuilders in Ohio, the culture would shift in focus to the Mississippi Valley (more later), but the astronomical achievements of the people in what is now Ohio were not at an end.

In Dayton, Ohio, a farming community was so in-touch with the sky, particularly the movements of the life-giving Sun, that they designed their whole settlement around solar motions. Appropriately called Sunwatch Village, the ancient settlement from around 1000-1500 A.D., originally excavated as a salvage operation, has now been fully restored to as original a condition as is possible after scholars realized its importance. Centered around tall posts in the ground, the Sun at various days will produce line of sight equinox and solstice alignments directed toward prominent buildings in the village. By looking at later constructions in the Americas, Sunwatch Village, though not overly spectacular in itself, was the start of a new trend of building to astronomical alignments that reflected the heavens' ever-growing influence on life as the old hunter-gatherer ways gave way to settled agriculture, which required precise timekeeping.

Monk's Mound in Cahokia. 

Moving to the South and West, the Moundbuilder culture reached its apex in the area of modern St. Louis at a city named Cahokia that flourished from around 650-1400 A.D. Unlike the ruins of other civilizations that were built in stone, the grandeur of Cahokia is largely unseen today except for one very prominent exception: Monk's Mound. Thought to be there center of the great city that once may have housed as many as 50,000 people, Monk's Mound is, at least in area, a third larger than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. While Monk's Mound may take all the limelight, another achievement reduced to post holes is the object of a lot of scholarly interest, too.

Artist's depiction of 'Woodhenge.'

Located to the West of Monk's Mound is a ring of ancient post holes. In all, there are over 100 holes in the ground in circles as large as 400 feet across. However, all of these posts together cannot represent a single structure, rather the evolution of a single site from a simple circle of 12 holes to t largest, most complex one that contains 48. Obviously, holes in the Earth were not always just holes and what historians think that all the post holes at Cahokia represent are the remains of circular rings of posts in the ground not unlike Stonehenge in England. In the interest of hands-on archeology, “Woodhenge,” the 48 post, 400 foot diameter version of the henge, has been fully reconstructed. So far, solstice and equinox alignments have been discovered and far more may await recognition.
For anyone looking at the dates, one cannot help but notice how the fall of the final Moundbuilder civilizations coincides with the arrival of the first European explorers. However, in contrast to what many would assume, the Moundbuilder culture was already in a sharp decline when the Europeans arrived and was not spurred on, as in Central and South America, by the Europeans themselves. In fact, Spanish explorers wandered into Cahokia in the early 1500s, a point in time where the once great city was nearly abandoned. No one knows why the great Moundbuilder civilization faltered around 1500, but the consequences of the mysterious downturn, namely the unsolved puzzles which tey left us with, are the consequence. Hopefully, with enough time, the mysteries of the Moundbuilders, astronomical and not, will finally be solved.
*Note: This is the first in a 4-part series dealing with ancient American Astronomy, check back for more in the coming weeks.

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