Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Cradle of Constellations

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Cradle of Constellations

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Origin of the Greek Constellations" by Bradley E. Schaefer, in Scientific American, Nov. 2006.

WHOEVER LOOKED UP AT THE seven moderately bright stars scattered across the ancient sky in the shape of a dipper and named them the Great Bear may have been the world's first great communicator. Whoever it was certainly lived a long time ago. Even though the seven stars look nothing like a bear, writes Bradley E. Schaefer, a Louisiana State University physicist and astronomer, that's what they were called by long-ago people as dispersed as the Greeks and the Zuni, the Basques and the Hebrews, the Cherokee and the Siberians. All knew versions of the myth of the Great Bear, that the four stars in the bowl of the dipper represent the bear, perpetually being chased by the three stars in the handle, representing hunters. It is virtually impossible that cultures in so many parts of the world would have thought up the story independently, Schaefer says. That means the Great Bear was named at least 14,000 years ago, when there was a land bridge across the Bering Strait that allowed some ancient group to carry the idea to the Americas.

Constellations are among humankind's earliest creations and can be more revealing in some ways than the pottery and tools unearthed by archaeologists, offering a glimpse of what ancient people considered important enough to inscribe in the heavens. …

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