As we lie on our couches and flick our TV remotes, we tend to think we are far more advanced than our distant ancestors, who mostly just struggled to stay alive. But every so often we run across something that reminds us that lack of technology does not equal stupidity.

An example recently turned up in the Nabta Playa region of southern Egypt, where an expedition led by Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University and J. McKim Malville of the University of Colorado uncovered slabs of sandstone aligned in a way that indicates a sophisticated understanding of astronomical phenomena.

Large stones erected by ancient cultures are called “megaliths,” from the Greek “mega” (large) and “lithos” (stone). Thousands have been discovered, especially in Europe. Most date from between 4000 and 1000 B.C.; these new Egyptian megaliths, dated to 4400 B.C., are among the oldest known.

That makes their precise alignment even more impressive. There are nine large quartzitic sandstone slabs set upright about 100 metres apart; about 325 metres further north, a series of small sandstone slabs and four pairs of larger stones, each separated by a narrow gap, form a circle about four metres in diameter. Two of the larger pairs are aligned north-south and the other two are aligned with the summer solstice sunrise.

The summer solstice was of particular importance to the people of the Nabta Playa, because that was when the monsoon rains started–and only the monsoons made it possible to live there, creating a large temporary lake, or “playa,” each year. When the monsoons quit coming, 4,800 years ago, the region became desert. While the monsoons lasted, however, a complex culture blossomed. It’s thought that widely separated groups gathered periodically at the site of the megaliths to conduct ceremonies.

The Nabta Playa megaliths represent the oldest known expression of astronomical knowledge; but many other, only slightly more recent, megaliths from around the world reflect similar understanding.

There are four principle types of megaliths: isolated standing stones, or menhirs; stone circles; row alignments, and burial chambers. Menhirs are found all over western and northern Europe, especially in Britain and Brittany. The largest are prehistoric, although many of the smaller ones are probably just scratching posts for cows. Prehistoric menhirs often have one flat face that points to a prominent notch or slope on a distant skyline, marking the extreme northerly or southerly rising or setting of the sun or moon. The direction and date of these occurrences can be used to calculate the risings and setting of the moon and predict lunar eclipses.

The best-known stone circle is Stonhenge. It was probably built over many centuries, beginning about 2000 B.C. Its massive stones were hauled over vast distances, indicating a complex society at work, but today, nobody can say for sure why it was built. Computer studies indicate, however, that it could have been used to predict the solstices and equinoxes, solar and lunar eclipses, and other astronomical occurrences. Other stone rings are aligned similarly; occasionally, stone rings are combined with menhirs, so that a line drawn from the center of the stone ring to an outlying menhir indicates the place where the sun rises on the summer solstice, or something similar.

Row alignments can range from simple pairs of stones to, as at Carnac in Brittany, multiple parallel rows of hundreds of stones extending over several kilometres. Some row alignments point to one of the extreme risings of the sun or the moon, others indicate the rising or setting point of a bright star. (Some seem to be nothing more than parade routes!) In Britain some row alignments point to the sunrises on the equinoxes and on a series of dates between the equinox and the solstice, dividing the year into 16 months, each of 22, 23, or 24 days.

Finally, there are tombs. Many ancient tombs built out of megaliths were originally covered by mounds of dirt; most were used to bury many people over centuries.

Why did megalith building spread all over the world? It passed from culture to culture–even in the absence of TV. For whatever reason, the people of that time thought megaliths were way cool, and the precise way they aligned them to chronicle astronomical events are proof that “primitive” cultures are anything but.

It may also be proof that, thousands of years ago, friendly giants roamed the Earth–because obviously, our ancestors, like ourselves, knew to “Look up–look way up!”

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