SECTION 2: ALLEGED KNOWLEDGE
What did the Dogon allegedly know about the Sirius system?
Alleged Knowledge: Sirius B and its period of rotation
Sirius A is the brightest star in the sky. Sirius B, on the other hand, much dimmer. It is not visible to the naked eye. Yet the Dogon reportedly discussed Sirius B with Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen between 1931 and 1950. Not only that, but Robert Temple claims the Dogon know the actual orbital period of this invisible star, which is fifty years.
The statement actually attributed to the Dogon is slightly more ambiguous: The period of the orbit is counted double, that is, one hundred years, because the Siguis are convened in pairs of 'twins', so as to insist on the principle of twin-ness (Temple, 1976, page 24;Temple, 1998, page 100).
However, the Dogon statements about the existence of Sirius B and its orbital period reflected information known in the West for nearly a century prior to the visits by Griaule and Dieterlen. The German astronomer F W Bessel suggested that long-term motion of Sirius A was affected by the gravitational influence of a dark companion with a fifty-year period (Bessel, 1844). Sirius B was discovered by a direct visual observation eighteen years later by Alvan G Clark (Flammarion, 1877; Sagan, 1979, pages 90-91).
Could some early visitor to the Dogon people have been aware of that information? Yes. MIT physicist Dr Kenneth Brecher wrote an article in 1977 that reported that Sirius B was important and widely disseminated news in the 1920s and stated that he had found references in the 1920s to Sirius B in 'Le Monde', 'The New York Times', and 'Scientific American' (Story, 1980, page 119).
Robert Temple's own book mentions in passing an article by a Dr P. Baize which appeared in the September 1931 issue of Astronomie concerned the discovery, orbit, period and density of Sirius B (Temple, 1976, page 27; Temple, 1998, page 103).
Alleged Knowledge: Density of Sirius B
One of the most remarkable facts the Dogon are supposed to have known relates to the density of Sirius B.
Sirius B is a white dwarf star. White dwarfs have mass comparable to that of the Sun, but a relatively small volume - comparable to that of something only the size of the Earth (see the Wikipedia page relating to white dwarfs at the link below).
Robert Temple quotes Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen as reporting the following about the Dogon's views: the star which is considered to be the smallest thing in the sky is also the heaviest: 'Digitaria is the smallest thing there is. It is the heaviest star:' It consists of a metal called sagala, which is a little brighter than iron and so heavy 'that all earthly beings combined cannot lift it'. In effect the star weighs the equivalent of 480 donkey-loads (about 38,000 kg. = 85,000 lb.), the equivalent of all seeds, or of all the iron on earth,' although, in theory, it is the size of a stretched ox-skin or a mortar. (Griaule and Dieterlen, 1950, at Temple, 1976, page 42-44; Temple, 1998, page 492).
Temple suggests that the statement that The star which is considered to be the smallest thing in the sky is also the heaviest is the most amazing of all the Dogon statements (Temple, 1976, page 24; Temple, 1998, pages 100 and 102).
While the Dogon did not have the technology to find out for themselves that Sirius B had a high density, they could have learnt this from others (not necessarily aliens) prior to the 1930s.
Europeans had thought that Sirius B had a high density since the late nineteenth century, i.e. long before Griaule visited the Dogon. Knowledge of the relative motion of Sirius A and Sirius B permitted estimates of their masses. Both Sirius A and Sirius B have masses about the same as the Sun. But Sirius B is about ten thousand times fainter. Either it is much smaller or has a much lower temperature. But in the late nineteenth century it was believed that stars of the same mass had approximately the same temperature. Carl Sagan has stated, therefore, by the turn of the [nineteenth] century it was widely held that the temperature of Sirius B was not remarkably low. Accordingly, the concept of Sirius B as an extremely dense star was widely held in the first few decades of this century (Sagan, 1979, page 91).
Indeed, while Temple suggests that the Dogon knowledge of Sirius B's high density was amazing, even the background information of his book indicates that this knowledge was available to humans prior to the 1930s. Somewhat buried in a footnote in Temple's book is the following information: In 1915 Dr W. S. Adams of Mt Wilson Observatory made the necessary observations to learn the temperature of Sirius B, which is 80000, half as much again as our sun's. It then began to be realized that Sirius B was an intensely hot star which radiated three to four times more heat and light per square foot than our sun. It then became possible to calculate the size of Sirius B, which is only three times the radius of the Earth, yet its mass was just a little less than that of our sun. A theory of white dwarfs then developed to account for Sirius B, and other white dwarfs were later discovered (Temple, 1976, pages 33-34, footnote 4; Temple, 1998, page 115, footnote 4).
Was information about Sirius B's high density only reported in some obscure technical journal, unlikely to be conveyed to the Dogon by any Western visitors? No, it wasn't limited in this way. Carl Sagan has reported that the peculiar nature of the companion of Sirius was extensively reported in books and in the press (Sagan, 1979, page 91). He quotes a discussion of white dwarfs, including the Companion of Sirius, in Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington's book The Nature of the Physical World. That book was published in 1928 and was translated into many languages, including French (Sagan, 1979, page 92).
So, the Dogon's knowledge was not that amazing. It was already information known to those in the West (and, according to various skeptics, the Dogon may have got thatinformation from the West).
SECTION 3: CONTAMINATION
Contamination: Introduction As discussed in more detail below, numerous sceptics (including Carl Sagan) have suggested that the astronomical knowledge attributed to the Dogon may have been obtained from Europeans prior to questioning by Griaule and Dieterlen.
Sirius A is the brightest star in the sky. It's appearance in the dawn sky marked the beginning of the Egyptian calendar - and warned of the impending summer's heat and Nile floods (Oberg, 1982, page 122). Thus, it is not improbable that the Dogon already had some myths about that star and/or may have wished to discuss Sirius with any Western contacts.
Carl Sagan is one of many skeptical researchers that have suggested that the Dogon may have regaled a visitor with their Sirius lore and asks a Western visitor what his Sirius myths may be (Sagan, 1979, page 92).
Many of the discussions of the Dogon mystery give examples of the problems that can arise in anthropological investigations as a consequence of prior contact between the subjects of the study and other cultures. The subjects of the study may be contaminated by such prior contact.
One rather extreme and amusing example is given by Carl Sagan. He recounts a tale about an (apocryphal?) anthropologist that visited an elderly member of a tribe of Native Americans in the first decade of the twentieth century. After each question, the old man retreated into the darkened depths of the hogan. In each case, he emerged quarter of an hour later with a rich set of answers. Eventually the anthropologist asked his informant what he did each time he retreated into the Hogan. The old man smiled, withdrew, and returned with a well-thumbed copy of the Dictionary of American Ethnography, compiled by anthropologists in the previous decade (Sagan, 1979, pages 92-93).
Carl Sagan also recounts two stories which show how such contamination can arise. Both were told by the physician Dr D Carleton Gajdusek. In the more amusing of those stories, Dr Gajdusek visited a village in New Guinea in which there remained a tradition of cannibalism. While they, the visitors sang several Russian songs, including Otchi chornye. Some years later, Dr Gajdusek discussed traditional songs with young men elsewhere in the same region. They produced a clearly recognizable version of Otchi chornye. Many of the singers apparently thought the song traditional (Sagan, 1979, pages 94-96).
What about the Dogon themselves? Has such contamination occurred with them in relation to matters other than Sirius? Yes, it has. Van Beek has referred to many instances in which foreign elements (including Christian and Muslim traditions) were adopted and in a single generation became 'traditional' . [The Dogon] see no particular reason for any fundamental distinction between things learned from their Dogon forefathers and from newcomers (van Beek, 1991, pages 152-153).
Contamination: Relevant dates
The Dogon people were questioned Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen between 1931 and 1950.
Thus, the issue of potential contamination of the information by Western sources of astronomical knowledge have focused on possible contamination prior to 1931.
However, it should not be assumed that all the relevant information was obtained in 1931. Some of the information may only have been obtained much later. Indeed, Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen themselves stated that the main investigation was carried out among the Dogon between 1946 and 1950 (Griaule and Dieterlen, 1950, at Temple, 1976, page 35; Temple, 1998, pages 476-477).
More fundamental is the issue of whether there is any evidence that the knowledge attributed to the Dogon had been held by them prior to its communication to Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen between 1931 and 1950. Some of the proponents of the Sirius Mystery claim there is such evidence. For example, in response to criticisms of his theory by Carl Sagan, Robert Temple has suggested that the Dogon have had the relevant knowledge for hundreds of years, referring hundreds or thousands of objects, symbols, woven blankets, carved statues, etc., etc., which exist in those cultures relating to the 'Sirius Mystery' and stated that he is baffled by how these hundreds or thousands of objects are meant to have been expertly fabricated fakes purporting to be centuries old, fooling all dating experts (Temple, 1981).
However, few details of such hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence have been supplied by Robert Temple or anyone else.
Obvious questions about the hundreds or thousands pieces of evidence mentioned by Robert Temple are:
(1) What specific objects are relied upon?
(2) How do those specific objects prove that the alleged knowledge of the Dogon is centuries old?
If such objects and symbols did indeed exist, then the alternative explanation put forward by sceptics (i.e. contamination with Western knowledge) would be completely undermined.
Temple has written a lengthy book on the Sirius Mystery. He also substantially added to that book, after two decades of attacks by skeptics largely based upon the theory that the relevant knowledge is the result of recent contamination. So, why hasn't Temple answered the two basic questions posed above about the hundreds or thousands of objects and symbols?
The obvious inference is that he is unable to providecompelling answers to these questions.
Contamination - Possible Routes
How could astronomical knowledge from the West have beencommunicated to the Dogon people prior to them beingquestioned by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen between1931 and 1950?
What possible routes of contamination existed?
Well, there are quite a few.
It is important to realise at the outset that the Dogon were not extremely isolated. Supporters of the mystery have sometimes implied that this is the case. For example, Temple has referred to the implausibility of supposing a group of Western amateur astronomers had rushed out to the desolate hinterland of Mali to implant this knowledge in the presumably pliant minds of the Dogon priests (Temple, 1981).
However, the truth is somewhat different.
In fact, the Dogon were not isolated (Oberg, 1982, page 124). Ian Ridpath has pointed out that the Dogon live near an overland trade route, as well as close to the southern banks of the Niger river, which is another channel of trade (Ridpath, 1978a, page 199). More details has been provided by E C Krupp: The Dogon have, in fact, long been a relatively cosmopolitan, adaptive people. They live in the general vicinity of Timbuctu, which for centuries has been a major market city and a center for schools and scholars in west Africa. The Dogon have enjoyed regular communication with other cultures because they live so near a major trade route linking North Africa and Egypt with the sub-Sahara. In fact, French schools existed in the Dogon territory as early as 1907 and well before the 1920s, when there was considerable European interest in Sirius and research on its companion (Krupp, 1981, page 292)
Carl Sagan summarised the position by stating Perhaps the Western contact came from a European visitor to Africa, or from the local French schools, or perhaps from contacts in Europe by West Africans inducted to fight for the French in World War I (Sagan, 1979, page 90).
When looked at in detail, it is clear that there were several possible routes of contamination. I outline some of the evidence in relation to such routes below.Routes of contamination - White Fathers MissionariesOne of the various specific routes of contamination been suggested by various sceptics relates to missionaries (e.g. by Sagan and Ridpath). James Oberg has suggested that many missionaries are avid astronomers (Oberg, 1982, page 124).
In an apparent attempt to rebut this criticism of the Dogon mystery, in a revised edition of his book published in 1998, Robert Temple has stated that the White Fathers, a group of missionaries, confirmed to him in correspondence that none of their missionaries visited the Dogon until after 1931 (Temple, 1998, page 97). On his website, Mr Temple gives the following additional details: I wrote to the Father Superior of the White Fathers Mission in Mali and asked when the first missionaries were sent to the Dogon areas. He replied that the earliest missionaries arrived in 1949. By that time anthropologists had already obtained theDogon Sirius information. See:
Ignoring for the moment the fact that Temple's assertion only relates to missionaries related to the White Fathers' organisation (i.e. not all sources of potential missionaries to the Dogon), it is noteworthy that apparently conflicting statements have been made by various researchers on this point. Science journalist Ian Ridpath has written that I confirmed with the London headquarters of the White Fathers, a Catholic group who have been very active in this part of Africa, that missionaries from their sect had made contact with the Dogon in the 1920s. (Ridpath, 1978a, page 200).
So, Robert Temple claims the White Fathers have confirmed their first visit to the Dogon areas was in 1949 (and this claim is repeated on several websites), while Ian Ridpath claims to have been told by the White Fathers that first contact had been made in the 1920s.
Neither researcher mentions the apparent conflict of evidence on this point.As part of the process of drafting this article, during October 2007, I sent various queries to the White Fathers after obtaining contact details from the UK website of the White Fathers and from the international website of the White Fathers.
My queries were forwarded to Father Ivan Page, the Archivist for the White Fathers. He kindly took the time to respond on 29 October 2007 (Page, 2007). While he modestly stated that unfortunately he could not help very much, stating that a quick look in published sources does not answer my question.
Father Page was, however, able to provide some information on relevant ecclesiastical administration. He stated that the Dogon country originally came under the Apostolic Prefecture of Gao, a post founded in 1945. The name, and the residence of the superior, were changed to Mopti - now a diocese - when that post was founded in 1953. The three missions in the Dogon country proper were founded:
Pel in 1953,
Bandiagara in 1954,
and Barapirelli in 1947 (Page, 2007).
Father Page ventured the opinion that almost certainly there would have been some contact between our missionaries and the Dogons long before that.
However, to find traces of this contact would involve spending of much time trawling through unpublished sources, namely the correspondance of missionaries in what was originally called 'le Soudan français' before being narrowed down to Mali, and the reports of regional superiors and Vicars Apostolic (Page, 2007).
Perfectly understandably, Father Page did not have time to do this for me, nor did I ask him to do so - I am sure that the White Fathers have higher priorities than resolving apparent conflicts of evidence on such points. (I note that the relevant archive is in Rome if any other researcher has a desire to follow this point up).
Fortunately, during further research I think I found the answer in a book published during 1961. Mud and Mosaics by Father Gerard Rathe gives details of a journey across parts of Africa from 1957. In Chapter 7 of that book, Father Rathe gives detailed information about contact between the White Fathers and the Dogon people. The information below appears in that chapter 7 and is attributed by Father Rathe to a Monsignor Landru during discussions at Mopti:
The first news the White Fathers had about the Dogon people came to them at Bamako, two hundred miles away, when, in 1927, a French Administrator at Bandiagara wrote to the Bishop telling him that he had discovered a people, pagan and fetishist, who seemed a promising field for the sowing of the Gospel. Nothing could be done at that time from Bamako, and it was not until 1945 that the first direct contact was made with the Dogons.
Prima facie, this account is credible and consistent with the limited information supplied to me by the White Fathers. The level of detail in the account is impressive and difficult to reconcile with mere misunderstanding. It also possibly explains a considerable amount of the apparent conflict between the dates given by Ian Ridpath and Robert Temple respectively, with there being reference to the Dogon in records of the White Fathers from the 1920s but with no direct contact until the 1940s.
I raised the conflict in evidence with Ian Ridpath, who helpfully replied with several comments. He indicated that he could not throw any light on the first contact between the White Fathers and the Dogon, commenting that I simply reported what I was told (Ridpath, 2007). He further commented: As you point out, first contact would occur long before the setting up of any official missions in the area so the dates quoted by Robert Temple and myself could both be right, in their own way (Ridpath, 2007).
While the above information may seem to cast considerable doubt on suggestions that information about Sirius B was obtained from missionaries prior to the visits of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, it is vital to note that:
(a) Missionaries are merely one category of Westeners that may have been the source of contamination;
(b) The White Fathers are merely one group of missionaries.
Routes of contamination - Other missionariesMost discussions of the Sirius Mystery refer to missionaries in passing (if at all), with few specificsbeing given. Robert Temple and Ian Ridpath are exceptions, since they have discussed missionaries belonging to theWhite Fathers in some detail. However, even these two researchers have not referred to any other specific group of missionaries that was, or may have been, active in the area.Various websites paraphrase Robert Temple's information about the White Fathers in ways which imply (or expressly state) that the Dogon had no contact with any missionaries at all until the 1940s.
However, the White Fathers did not have a monopoly on sending missionaries to Africa prior to the 1940s.The White Fathers are a Catholic group of missionaries - what about other Catholic group, or groups representingother denominations?Given that the burden of proof lies upon Robert Temple and his supporters to provide evidence to support their claims, the failure to provide any information about the dates upon which other missionary groups became active in the area in itself is a significant failure. In my view, sceptics areentitled to point to the mere possibility that other missionary groups may have been active in the region.
However, there is actually evidence on this point which supports the contamination theory.In an article written in 1991 by van Beek (considered in more detail below), there is mention in passing of the fact that one individual (named Ambara) had frequented the Protestant mission (Sudan Evangelical Mission, predominantly Baptist) since his early youth (van Beek, 1991, page 157).
The article does not give details of the Sudan Evangelical Mission that Ambara allegedly frequented, e.g. the article does not expressly state where the mission was located or when it opened. However, the contents of the article strongly imply that the mission was frequented by members of the Dogon (or at least one member, Ambara) prior to the visits of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen.
How is this date implied?Well, according to van Beek, Ambara was first recruited to work with Griaule in 1931 (van Beek, 1991, page 155 citing page 209 of Griaule's Le Renard Pale) and in the period 1950-1955 Ambara was established as a mature Dogon elder (van Beek, 1991, page 155).
Thus, it appears that not only did at least one of the Dogon have contact with a mission prior to the visits of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen but further that individual subsequently had direct contact with Marcel Griaule.Routes of contamination - French schoolsMissionaries are not the only route by which information from Western scientists may have reached the Dogon. All the talk about missionaries risks reinforcing the few of the Dogon as some remote jungle tribe, only visited by the occasional brace white man on a mission from God.
In fact, there were French schools in the area prior to the visits of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen.
Peter and Roland Pesch of the Warner and Swasey Observatory have referred to the existence of French schools in the Dogon area since 1907 - see Pesch and Pesch , page 27 - citing M P Marti's book Les Dogon (1957) at page 92). Pesch and Pesch also mention Islamic schools in the area (Pesch and Pesch, page 27 - again citing M P Marti's book Les Dogon (1957) at page 92).
Temple has clearly read the article by Peter and Roland Pesch. He has discussed it in an article on his website entitled Distorted Evidence From E C Krupp (1977). Somewhat disingenuously, Temple points to one (irrelevant) error in a footnote to the Pesch article to supposedly demonstrate the superficial nature of their familiarity with the subject. He completely fails to acknowledge, or attempt to address, the substantive points made by Pesch and Pesch and the sources they cite. In particular, Temple has ignored the evidence of existence of French schools in the Dogon area since 1907.
Thus, Temple's discussion about the alleged lack of White Father missionaries in the area until the 1940s must be viewed, at the very least, as rather disingenuous and potentially misleading.
But is there any evidence that those interviewed by MarcelGriaule and Germaine Dieterlen had been to one of the French (or Islamic) schools in the region? Two points arise:
(1) The question is strictly irrelevant. The information may have been communicated to other members of the Dogon, and then been passed on to Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen.
(2) In fact, there is evidence that at least one of those interviewed by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen had been to a French school. The details of the relevant individual provide yet further indication of the contact between the Dogon and the Western world prior to the visits of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen. The relevant individual is, once again, Ambara (referred to above in the context of the presence of other missionaries in the region). The article written by van Beek in 1991 refers to Ambara having spent considerable time outside Dogon country and to Ambara's French education - his study abroad as well as his schooling in Sanga (van Beek, 1991, page 156).
Routes of contamination - World War I
One of the specific means by which it has been suggested by sceptics that the relevant astronomical knowledge may have been obtained was from contacts in Europe by West Africans inducted to fight for the French in World War I (by Carl Sagan in his Broca's Brain (1979) at page 90 (in Chapter 6) of the Coronet paperback edition). Various other sceptics have referred to the participation of Dogon tribesmen in World War I, particularly in the French army. For example, James Oberg has stated that many [Dogon] served in the French army in World War I (Oberg, 1982, page 124).
However, Robert Temple states on his website that: I do not believe it is true that any Dogon tribesmen fought in any trenches in Europe in the First World War.
In an attempt to resolve this issue, I attempted to find an embassy of the Republic of Mali in England. Unfortunately, it does not have one here. I therefore contacted the Washington embassy of the Republic of Mali. I also contacted a university in the Republic of Mali. Unfortunately, I did not receive any response from the embassy or from that university.
Routes of contamination - Griaule himself
It appears that certain aspects of the Dogon culture render it particularly susceptible to cultural contamination.
It further appears that Griaule's personality and techniques were particularly prone to obtaining results that had been contaminated by his own knowledge and views.
Taking the Dogon culture first, Van Beek has reported that Dogon culture is oriented towards overt harmony and are very slow to correct each other, more senior individuals are the ones who know and consequently should not be contradicted (van Beek, 1991, page 152).Similar comments are made in a passage provided by Father Page of the White Fathers. Father Page helpfully provided an extract from the book Le Mali by his confrere [fellow-member], Joseph Roger de Benoist. That book is in French (see Endnote 1 for relevant original text), but the gist of the passage is that:
(1) the Dogon did not say no to Europeans, which they viewed as sent by God.
(2) If it was felt that the European came with an obsession and that the European wanted to find something, one helped the European to find what he came to seek. One invents ananswer, one improvises a legend.Turning next to Griaule's personality and techniques, it can be seen (in the light of knowledge of the Dogon culture) that the risks of obtained contaminated data were particularly high.
Van Beek reports that Griaule confronted his informants with items, be they artifacts, plants, animals, or stars, and expected them to provide adequate information immediately. Van Beek quotes one of Griaule's informants as saying Griaule thought each keke (cricket) had its own Dogon name, and he did not stop (van Beek, 1991, page 154).
Van Beek pokes fun of Griaule's belief that the Dogon had names for 24 different species of dung beetles, including a beetle wallowing only in the dung of grey horses, referring to an inability to take no for an answer and an unwillingness on the part of the informants to disappoint the researcher. Van Beek suggests the Dogon engaged in harmless games in which information was produced that did not exist beforehand, all the while clearly conforming to the white man's wishes.
Van Beek suggests many Dogon see Griaule even now as a forceful personality, in a situation of undisputed power, with a clearly expressed preference for specific information and his own ways of getting at it (van Beek, 1991, page 153). The Dogon reportedly viewed Griaule as the white man, endowed with power and prestige, ranked high in Dogon eyes, and Griaule allegedly capitalized on it. Van Beek has suggested that Griaule asked leading questions and that Dogon that worked with him (or should one say 'for' him?) still comment on his impatience.
When considering the Sirius Mystery it is significant to note that Van Beek specifically states that Griaule had studied astronomy in Paris and that Griaule deployed star maps to investigate Dogon knowledge about astronomy (van Beek, 1991, page 154). While these specific allegations appear as statements of fact on several websites on the Internet, they are in fact somewhat controversial. Griaule's daughter, GeneviPve Calame-Griaule, has responded to some of these allegations.
She has further denied that her father studied astronomy, writing that "As for his alleged training in astronomy, I can report that his training was in literature; he had no notion at all of astronomy." (Calame-Griaule, 1991, page 577). Unfortunately, van Beek failed to provide any supporting reference for his allegation that Griaule studied astronomy, so it is not easy to resolve this dispute. I note, however, that Calame-Griaule may have had in mind only his latter education. In the 1920s, Griaule had studied a languages degree. However, prior to World War I (in which Griaule served as a pilot), Griaule had been preparing to become an engineer. I wonder whether van Beek's reference to Griaule studying astronomy relates to that earlier period of his education.
Indeed, GeneviPve Calame-Griaule has written that Griaule was completely ignorant of existence of the satellite of Sirius until the Dogon told him of a companion (Calame-Griaule, 1991, page 577).
In relation to the use of star-maps, however, there is no outright denial. She has merely written that If he later displayed charts of the heavens, it was for his own use and not to instruct the Dogon (Calame-Griaule, 1991, page 577). The purpose of displaying star-charts is irrelevant - the concern relates to the effects of his alleged display of star-charts.