Were the Ceremonial Astronomical Observations of the Hohokam People “Scientific?”
Scientific thought is a relatively new thought and concept; but how new? Did the Greeks practice science? What about the Romans? Did the Native Americans have any concept of science? All these questions are interesting and rely upon the definition of science that one is using. In modern society science is defined as a systematic and mathematical study of the physical world we humans inhabit.
By this definition most cultures throughout history fully engaged in what we consider scientific endeavors. However if one uses a slightly different definition, that is the use of observation to understand the world we live in, which is only slightly different than the modern definition, one can apply the word scientific thought to several cultures.
In our exploration of this slightly altered definition of “science” it should be understood that for many cultures trying to understand the will of the gods, and trying to understand the world is in fact the same thing.
Throughout history stories of trying to understand the gods are very common. Trying to sacrifice people or objects to the volcano may not sound very scientific but with limited knowledge of the world if can be the only action to take. The culture being discussed in this paper didn’t sacrifice anything to volcanoes as far as I can find, instead to understand the gods will and the world around them they looked to the stars.
As evidence that the Hohokam culture did indeed practice some form of astronomical science we must look at the few remnants of their civilization we have.
The first evidence that the Hohokam were concerned with the sky is the way they built the villages they lived in. Many of the potentially important structures were oriented either north-south or east-west. The significance of this is that it isn’t only an isolated village but rather many of the villages that had these structures in this orientation. This shows either that they understood magnetic compasses or the way the sun moved across the sky. Not only did these ancestral Native peoples have some form of city planning they built something called the “Big House” which gives more clues to the astronomical understanding they might have had. In side this amazing 4 story structure one must look to the 3 floor for anything of real interest. It is on this floor that one can find several holes in the walls that appear to have astronomical significance. Several of these of the holes seem to interact with the sun and moon during specific times of year. One floor up is found an impressive evidence to astronomical study. In 1973 John Molloy and company observed that 2 days before the spring equinox the sun passes through a certain portal on the east wall to sine on the west wall. This ray of light then moves through the room to pass through a hole in the west wall. The pattern was observed again 2 days after the fall equinox. This same group being rather thorough studied lunar interaction with the building as well. They found that the way in which the moon interacted with the building suggested a knowledge of the 18.6 year lunar cycle. Another potential evidence is the Shaw Butte Hilltop site. This site is a circular construction on with some room like sections and a wall enclosing everything. From this compound the sky and all horizons are visible. This leads to some interesting interactions with a central rock. During both the summer and winter solstice this rock, which is decorated rather heavily, a human figure lines up with the rising sun. As a side note there are some oral traditions that indicate an early understanding of the patterns of Venus, which they called Elder Brother.
All of these evidences point more to a religious attempt to understand the will of the gods. But the understanding required to build such structures does indict some kind of study and recording of the celestial bodies. While this is not our understanding of the word science, I would argue that it does fall under a category of pre-science. Without the ability to observe the world around us, record those observations and do something with those observations we cannot have science. While the Hohokam didn’t leave any records for us to read, they did leave structures showing a knowledge of the celestial patterns. This would imply observation and a desire to understand either the world around them or the will of the gods, either desire leading to a study of the sky.
The idea that science is not a gradual process but rather changes as a result of a particular genius is a little odd to me. Throughout history we have many records that would in-fact support the idea that humans tend to wait for a genius to lead us to the future. However I would argue that this is in fact mostly an illusion. Starting with prehistoric civilizations we can track the gradual accumulation of knowledge. We don’t have records of the genius behind stopping living as family groups and starting to live as tribal units. We don’t have records of the genius that began to forge weapons out of rock, copper, bronze or iron. We don’t have records of the first person to make a structure for safety from the elements. As far I know we don’t have records indicating the discoverer of irrigation or cement working or a multitude of other inventions. These men or women must have existed but we cannot give them the credit they deserve. It is my opinion that rather than certain men leading us to new understanding and new innovation completely changing everything it is rather a cumulative understanding that allows certain men to make new discoveries. This would, of course, imply a combination of a gradual accumulation of knowledge and paradigm shifts.
In the ancient world of the Greeks the knowledge of city building, farming, metal working, mathematics and language were not all discovered by specific people and shared. Instead it was the accumulation of the knowledge of the ancients into a single culture. This allowed for certain individuals to specialize in certain areas of knowledge, it is this specialization that creates the illusion that specific people lead the way into the future. Starting with the basics from humans whose names are lost to time the Greeks improved those inventions. The only difference from Euclid improving regular basic math into Geometry and Galileo improving the telescope is that one is hated on for it. In reality though it is this type of improvement that allows mankind to improve as a whole.
Not only did the Greeks improve on previous knowledge the Romans did it too. The Romans used the improvements from the Greeks and used their own ingenuity to improve those improvements (lots of improvements). The Romans used this to both understand and create things like aqueducts, heated bath chambers, better weapons and better government. All of these things while maybe not the current definition of science should be considered a form of experimental pre-science. By allowing the workmen of Rome to continuously try and impress people, they were able to increase mankind’s understanding of construction materials and the math involved. This would be passed on to future generations again allowing them to improve on the knowledge given them. Without this gradual accumulation of knowledge through everyday work, experimentation, and the occasional happy accident the genius would not have the knowledge to make the paradigm shifting leap of thought.
The man we most attribute the current scientific paradigm shift with would be Albert Einstein. While is undeniable that Einstein himself was an incredibly intelligent man, it is also undeniable that without his education he couldn’t have thought his famous thoughts. Without the ancients like Euclid, al-Khwarizmi, and Newton the math wouldn’t have been around to realize general relativity. Without the ancient monarchs of Europe that created borders and encouraged improvement mankind would still in a rather chaotic state. Without the infrastructure from these nations farming would not have advanced as far as it has, nor would humankind be able to feed as many children as we do. This farming infrastructure is what allowed the children to grow and create a new world. Without all these things we can reasonable assume that in 1905 Einstein would not have the knowledge needed to make his discoveries, it is even possible that without the infrastructure advances the humans wouldn’t have a large enough population to produce an Einstein.
Without the gradual accumulation of knowledge throughout history, the paradigms would never be able to shift. The men and women that are intelligent enough to make this leap in thought, need to understand the basics of our world before they can question them. As Picasso is credited as saying “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” This concept also applies to scientific thought. Without knowing the rules mankind would never have known to look for what might be breaking them. Without looking for what might break the rules we know, we could never have found many of the ideas that rule our modern civilization.
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