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UCI Course to Explore Indians' Heavenly Lore : New Field of Archeoastronomy Studies Native Californians' Awareness of Celestial Phenomena

November 05, 1986|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

A Stonehenge in Southern California?

Not quite. But research into archeological ruins left behind by native California Indians suggests that they were every bit the astronomers their ancient counterparts were in the Old World.

One afternoon toward the end of December, the sun will creep along a ridge in the San Rafael Mountains and pierce a single window in a rock wall.

The ray of light will shoot like an arrow through a sun symbol etched on the ceiling and wall of the small, womblike Indian shelter.

It is further evidence that the first Californians monitored the sun, moon and stars and built shrines in line with astronomical events, much like the builders of better-known astronomical shrines such as Stonehenge.

Orange County residents will have a chance to learn about the coming field of New World archeoastronomy in a course being given by the noted author and lecturer Edwin C. Krupp, the director of the Griffith Observatory.

Titled "Ancient Astronomy of California Indians," the two-day seminar is being offered for the first time at UC Irvine this weekend.

Through lectures about anthropological findings and slides of archeological remains, the course will explore the possibility that the people who roamed the Southland long ago developed a rich lore about the heavens centuries before European settlers.

"The area was inhabited by native peoples for thousands of years," explained Krupp, "and we know from several sources that their lives were intriguing and complex and included the use of the sky."

Native Californians' awareness of celestial phenomena has surprised even anthropologists and astronomers, who up until the early 1970s believed that hunters and gatherers did not keep track of astronomical events. Only farmers were thought to have sufficient need and sophistication to align their traditions with the heavens.

New interpretations of turn-of-the-century research done by pioneer ethnographers, who were not trained in astronomy, give ample evidence that the first Californians did indeed keep track of the heavenly bodies, maintained calendars and even based rituals on astronomical phenomena.

Now, Krupp believes, local examples of astronomically aligned shrines may even shed light on their better known prehistoric counterparts.

"Because some of the Indians' traditions were preserved until ethnographers could catalogue them around the turn of the century, there fortunately still were some people who could provide us with some, albeit incomplete, information (about how those traditions relate to the shrines)," he said.

By contrast, no written explanations exist for the 5,000-year-old Stonehenge. "All you have is the architecture and whatever you find in the dirt," Krupp said. "There is no owner's manual."

Painted Rock, the shrine on the Sierra Madre Ridge in the San Rafael Mountains, may provide some clues, however.

From an interview with a living member of the Chumash Indians, early 20th-Century ethnographer John P. Harrington learned that the Southern California tribe believed that the winter solstice represented a period of crisis.

The Chumash thought that the shortest day of the year was the climax of a sort of celestial gambling game, with the sun--a powerful male force--pitted against "Sky Coyote," or the north pole of the heavens, which appeared to be the sky's single stable point because celestial bodies seemed to revolve around it.

"If the sun were to win, the season's game would take its toll in human lives," Krupp said. "If Sky Coyote won, he would take his winnings in terms of the Earth's bounty, which he would push through a hole in the sky."

Later, when contemporary anthropologists found the Chumash structure, they put two and two together.

"If (the effect) was genuinely incorporated into the shrine by a shaman, it probably reflects the concern for the winter solstice as a period of crisis," Krupp said.

The San Rafael site is by no means unique. Rock art with astronomical references has been found in about two dozen locations statewide, Krupp said, with the bulk in undeveloped spots such as the desert or, in one case, a heavily guarded rocket-testing facility near Chatsworth.

But even urban areas containremnants of the past. For instance, Krupp said Indian rock art can be found in a populated section of Riverside County, but he declined to reveal the location. "It's already got graffiti all over it," he said.

There is other evidence that California Indians were astronomers.

Ritualistic Implements

Cave etchings, twig bundles, notched sticks and knotted cords may have been used by various tribes as calendars, archeoastronomers have concluded.

Such ritualistic implements as "sunsticks," simple twigs whose shadows apparently were used to "pull" the sun toward the Earth when it seemed most likely to slip below the horizon during the winter solstice, point to ceremonial practices based on astronomical events.

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