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The Dogon, an African tribe, were said to have astronomical knowledge that should have been beyond them, specifically relating to the star Sirius. The Dogon were reported to have carried that information with them down through their long history, which is remarkable in itself - but the claims of ancient contact with aliens who may have been the Dogon's ancestors are what really pushed this story into the limelight.
The Dogon are an ethnic group located mainly in the Bandiagara and Douentza districts of Mali, West Africa. They live mainly along a 125-mile stretch of escarpment called the Cliffs of Bandiagara which runs from south-west to north-east, roughly parallel to the river Niger. The Dogon typically live in villages of less than 500 people, which used to be built very close to the cliffs but, with time and the decreasing fertility of the nearby land, they have started to move away. The Dogon are an ancient people - one account describing their origins says that they lived originally in what became Egypt, but migrated away to Libya and then to Mauritania before settling in Mali. It is difficult to be sure of this because the Dogon still have a oral tradition of record-keeping and the story varies from clan to clan and area to area.
If you want to find Sirius1, look at the night sky and locate the constellation Orion. Then look south and east from the line of Orion's belt. The brightest star in that part of the sky is Sirius. It's twice as large as our Sun and 23 times as luminous - so despite it being over 8.6 light years2 away it still seems very bright. Bright enough, in fact, to completely obscure its neighbour star. Sirius B is a smaller, denser star known as a white dwarf. The two orbit each other, elliptically, about once every 50 years. Dwarf stars are made of incredibly dense material, with Sirius B weighing in at about a metric ton per cubic centimetre3. Sirius B wasn't discovered until 1926.
In 1931, two French anthropologists called Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen contacted the Dogon and began a thirty-year relationship with them. This resulted in a detailed study undertaken between 1946 and 1950, a study which included an examination of Dogon religious beliefs4.
It was claimed that, during this study, the two anthropologists had access to the Dogon people's innermost religious secrets, much of this being naturally of an obscure and complex nature. Some of those secrets were rather startlingly less obscure than the two had been expecting. It appeared that the Dogon - a people without much in the way of telescopes - knew a great deal about Sirius and, more surprisingly still, claimed it had a companion star.
This information remained relatively obscure until 1976, which saw the publication of The Sirius Mystery by Robert Temple. Temple had seized upon a number of Dogon religious beliefs and realised that here, in the tribe's history and traditions, might lie evidence of contact with ancient extraterrestrials.
Firstly, Temple argued, it was impossible for the Dogon to have any knowledge of the companion star; it's too small to be seen with the naked eye. The Dogon also identified Sirius B as being very heavy, which is true - but again is something they couldn't know without observing the star or understanding its action on Sirius A. Additionally, this Dogon knowledge predated the Western discovery of Sirius B by centuries, possibly millennia. The clincher for Temple was a Dogon myth which told of their contact with the Nommo.
According to the Dogon, an 'ark' descended from the sky amid a great wind. This brought the Nommo to Earth. The Nommo, who supposedly came to Earth to set up a civilisation, were a group of amphibious beings. The Nommo were apparently from Sirius, or at least a planet orbiting Sirius, and passed on much information to the Dogon.
Robert Temple was also eager to connect the Dogon to the peoples of the Mediterranean, particularly Egypt, who he contended also had special reverence for Sirius.
Since the publication of the book there have been those eager to follow Robert Temple's reasoning and there have been those who have wanted to debunk it.
In his book, Temple offered a prediction. He said:
What if this is proven by our detecting on our radio telescopes actual traces of local radio communications?In April 1977, Paul Feldman and Robert S Dixon (of the Algonquin radio observatory and Ohio State University respectively) were asked to listen to Sirius. They didn't find anything unusual. There were no signs of artificial radio sources.
There are some good reasons for this. Stellar evolutionary theory says that the brighter and larger a star is, the faster it burns out. At some time in the distant past, Sirius B was brighter and more massive than Sirius A. What happened to it? Firstly, Sirius B became a Red Giant; it increased its size dramatically and also increased its output of energy as the nuclear reactions that power a star ran out of control. This increase in heat and radiation output would have baked and scoured worlds anywhere near Sirius B. As Sirius B burned its fuel source out, it became smaller again. At this time, it is believed that it may have shared some of its mass with Sirius A in the form of a gale of solar material lasting up to one hundred thousand years. Sirius A and Sirius B also moved apart slightly, leading to the destablisiation of the orbits of any nearby worlds. And finally, around 30 million years ago, Sirius B became a White Dwarf star and began emitting soft X-Rays, bathing the local area in very unfriendly radiation. This is why astronomers don't feel that Sirius is a good candidate as a potential life-supporting planet.
Then we come to Robert Temple himself.
In 1965, Robert Temple was handed the Griaule and Dieterlen study by his mentor, Arthur M Young. A year later, Temple became the Secretary of Young's Foundation for the Study Of Consciousness. A year after that, Temple began work on the thesis that would become The Sirius Mystery - a thesis he would have to submit to Young for evaluation. This doesn't sound like much of an issue until you know a little more about Arthur M Young.
Arthur Young was a believer in a group of channelled entities5 called 'The Council of Nine'. These entities claim to be the nine creator gods of ancient Egypt, something that Young was well aware of having been present at the first 'meeting' of the council, an event made possible by Andrija Puharich6.
Tellingly, 'The Nine' also claimed to be extraterrestrial entities from the star Sirius.
Temple's close association with Young has lead some researchers7 to suggest that The Sirius Mystery contained conclusions that would please Young. Critics have contended that much of the book is based on deliberate misrepresentations of Egyptian mythology and occasional errors made in understanding source material.
In Temple's defence, although his conclusions may have been spurious or ill-founded, at the core of them lay The Pale Fox, an original work by Griaule and Dieterlen. The strongest challenge to that study did not come until 1991, when Walter Van Beek led a team of anthropologists to Mali8. He declared that, in the decade he spent with the Dogon, he found no trace of detailed knowledge about Sirius. Griaule claimed that 15% of the tribe possessed such knowledge. Van Beek was fortunate enough to speak to some of the same Dogon as Griaule, but he reports:
'though they do speak about sigu tolo9 they disagree completely with each other as to which star is meant; for some it is an invisible star that should rise to announce the sigu [festival], for another it is Venus that, through a different position, appears as sigu tolo. All agree, however, that they learned about the star from Griaule'
This takes us a step closer to the heart of the mystery, and we discover that although he was an anthropologist, Griaule was an amateur astronomer. He studied the subject in Paris and apparently took star maps with him on his trips to prompt the locals to talk about stars10. If this is the case, is it possible that the Dogon merely answered Griaule's questions in a way that they believed he would like? Were the Dogon treating Griaule the same way Temple treated Young, telling them what they wanted to hear?
If this is true, the mystery of the Dogon link with Sirius does stem from contact with aliens, not the amphibious Nommo, but the very terrestrial French anthropologists who sought to study them.