stellar maps, and mankala board-games (overview)
An archaeoastronomical and Africanist excursion into Palaeolithic world-views
Wim van Binsbergen
with the astronomical collaboration of Jean-Pierre Lacroix
Note. From early 1999 on, this website featured an book-length web article on the archaeoastronomical analysis of Palaeolithical cupmarks. This article has now been completed revised into a 300 pp. book manuscript. The following web article summarises the books argument and background
totally revised version, 28 March, 2000
© 2000 Wim van Binsbergen
Introduction and summary of the books argument
This book started as a by-product of my earlier study on the history, distribution, and theory of board-games, which in its turn was a by-product of my historical and distributional study of geomantic divination throughout the Old World (and parts of the New World) in the course of the last five millennia. References to these studies are to be found in the footnotes of the present book. Given the massive professionalisation of scholarship in the course of the twentieth century CE, it is surprising that an established researcher should, in the second half of his career, turn to a discipline (palaeoanthropology) and to a topic (the emergence of science and visual representation in the later Palaeolithic) in which he was not specifically trained and in which he has neither credentials to show in the form of field expertise or specialist publications. Lest my readers be puzzled by the place of this book within my oeuvre, and by the seriousness I attach to it or they should attach to it, let me begin by explaining how my main-stream anthropological research on urban culture in Francistown, Botswana, as from 1988, led me to write, in 1999-2000, a book on Palaeolithic cupmarks and their possible archaeoastronomical interpretation.
[ click on the titles below to access the sections of this summary ]
In the best case I may claim to have advanced, somewhat, our understanding of Palaeolithic cupmarks, and thus to have cast a little light on one of the constituent elements of mankala as a formal system. In the process, an unintended, modest and non-specialist contribution was made to the analysis of Palaeolithic symbolism and its historical dynamics. Most importantly, I have stated the case for Neandertals proto-scientific stance, as demonstrated by their ability to create stellar maps which have stood the test of time and of present-day astronomy. The astronomical and palaeoanthropological merits of my case now have to be critically assessed by the specialists. If confirmed, there are massive implications for our view of human history, evolution, the Human Revolution, and the intercontinental demographic and cultural exchanges that produced the Upper Palaeolithic and hence human society and culture as we know it today.
I am indebted to the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS), Wassenaar, where the foundations for the present paper were laid during my stay as a member of the Working Group on Religion and Magic in the Ancient Near East, 1994-95; and to the African Studies Centre, Leiden, whose theme group on globalisation financially and morally supported my research trips to the Musée National de la Préhistorie in September 1999 and April 2000. In this connection I also wish to register my indebtedness to the staff of this institution, particularly to the Assistant Keeper Mrs Angot-Westin and to the Photographer Mr Philippe Jugie, who went out of their way to provide such access to the collection, library, and photographs as enabled me to correct major errors and to confirm this arguments central thesis in what I take to be a more convincing manner.
The equatorial co-ordinates, altitudes of culmination and magnitudes of selected fixed stars at specific dates in the past, as used in this books argument, were calculated with the aid of the programme Equatorial co-ordinates by Jean-Pierre Lacroix (http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Launchpad/4633/equatAN.html#LINKvbs). Mr Lacroixs work on prehistoric stellar maps and astronomically significant sacred places inspired me to add Approach II to my initial Approach I in my archaeoastronomical analysis of the Aurignacien engraved block La Ferrassie XVI; moreover, once I had in earlier versions of the present argument worked out Approaches I and II with regard to the Serso cupomarked stone and block La Ferrassie XVI, Mr Lacroix suggested Approach III as the most probable interpretation of the latter blocks cupmark pattern, and he supplied het necessary additional astronomical details. This enabled me to apply, subsequently, all three approaches to the cupmarked pattern on the Moustérien engraved block from burial VI, La Ferrassie, and thus to demonstrate Neandertal capability of making precise and detailed stellar maps. I wish to express my sincere thanks to Mr Lacroix; I trust that his appearance as an astronomical collaborator to the present argument does justice to his essential contributions. Some of the celestial maps in this article are based on output from the programme Expert Astronomer™ for Macintosh; some are taken from the Skyglobe astronomical programme; while others I have personally produced as Excel 4.0 graphs based on numerical data produced with the above Equatorial co-ordinates programme.
I am writing as a non-specialist who reviews the available corpus of data and the attending specialist literature in the light of a very specific question concerning the origin and spread of formal systems as exemplified by mankala board-games. As amply set out in my introductory chapter, this question was formulated by research concerns outside the palaeoanthropological discipline; and that discipline is now raided for insights and data, without the slightest ambition to make, through the present book, specific original contributions to that discipline. With the same and related questions in mind I have in recent years, and book projects, worked my way through Assyriology, Egyptology, the Black Athena debate, the early history of writing systems in the eastern Mediterranean basin, a social-historical theory of Ancient Mesopotamian magic, and the study of the Islamic secret sciences. As a professional in my own field (Africanist anthropology), and as an self-taught academic philosopher, I am profoundly aware of the dangers of amateurism that beset such a research strategy. So far my attempts to enlist the critical support of professional palaeoanthropologists and archaeoastronomers have been largely in vain; I hope the present manuscript will sufficiently interest them that they will be tempted to point out my many errors before publication. Meanwhile I have relied for the present argument, no doubt too heavily, on a small number of scholarly publications to which I here wish to register my indebtedness explicitly: those by Brigitte Delluc & Gilles Delluc, Anati, and Shreeve. The impression of helpless dependence, also bibliographically, which this reliance implies, is simply correct. But of course I remain solely responsible for whatever errors of fact and interpretation the present argument contains.
 The next few pages are based on a selection from my 1999 Rotterdam inaugural lecture: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, Culturen bestaan niet: Het onderzoek van interculturaliteit als een openbreken van vanzelfsprekendheden, inaugural lecture, chair of intercultural philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam: Rotterdamse Filosofische Studies
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