Sirius and the Dogon


A Dogon Granary (courtesy Lecane)


In 1950 there appeared a curious account in the French anthropological literature describing the traditional beliefs regarding the star Sirius held by the Dogon tribe of Central Africa.  The article was written by Marcel Griaule, and a colleague Germine Dieterlen.  Griaule was a renowned French anthropologist with decades of experience in Africa. These Dogon beliefs were elaborated on several years later in a book Le Renard pâle, or the Pale Fox, written by Griaule and his colleague Germaine Dieterlen, and published after Griaule's death.  As described, the beliefs appear to contain many of the essential facets of modern scientific knowledge about Sirius and its companion; knowledge that could only have been obtained with powerful telescopes, coupled with sophisticated scientific theories about stellar interiors.  For example, it was stated that Sirius was orbited by a tiny star moving in an elliptical path with a period of 50 years.  Moreover, the faint star was made from a "dense metal", so heavy that all the people on earth could not lift it.


If true, (and accurate) how could the Dogon have acquired such astonishing knowledge?  The Dogon stories about Sirius bear unmistakable parallels to modern scientific knowledge about Sirius: the fifty year elliptical orbit of the white dwarf, the super dense matter that it was composed of, and other curious pieces of information.  All of this information was available in both the scientific and popular literature from the early 1930s on.   For many years the Griaule article lay uncommented on.  For the most part astronomers didn't read the French anthropological literature and anthologists did not recognize the unique astronomical signature of the information.  It finally gained widespread attention in the late 1970s.   Astronomers generally regarded the stories as cultural artifacts, products of contacts by the modern world with the Dogon, which they incorporated into their own traditional culture.  Others, however, were quick to seize on the stories as evidence of a much more astonishing narrative.  The Dogon, they claimed, must have been contacted in the distant past by ancient visitors from Sirius!  Books have been written around this theme.  By now the Dogon Sirius stories have irretrievably become a fixture of the mystical and pseudo-scientific landscape.



What is the real explanation for the Dogon Sirius lore?  First, it should be realized that all of the original first hand source material used by Griaule, and later by Griaule and Dieterlen, are based on anthropological interviews conducted by Griaule with four Dogon elders after 1946.  Most of the subsequent commentary on the Dogon and Sirius is elaboration, extrapolation and speculation based on Griaule's original reports.  Griaule and the four Dogon principals are long dead.  Subsequent attempts, decades later, by anthropologists to confirm Dogon unique beliefs about Sirius have been unsuccessful.  Nevertheless, explanations attributing the stories to contacts with scientifically literate Europeans (possibly missionaries or French Colonial Officials) before or just after World War II are equally unproductive.  Those who are personally familiar with the Dogon and who knew Griaule and others involved in the stories are adamant that the stories are not the product of an unknown outside informant and that speculation about such contacts is not credible.  More information on the Dogon and Sirius can be found in the book Sirius: The Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky.



Further Reading:

Chapter 11 - Modern Mysteries in Sirius: The Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky


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