Archaeoastronomy and The Role of Celestial Events in Shaping Ancient Native American Societies

Archaeoastronomy is concerned with “how people of the past understood the stars and the sky” (Winston 2012). From the earliest hominids to modern stargazers, there has always been a fascination with the night sky. This fascination has led to the integration of stars and celestial events into ancient religions, stories, architecture, agriculture, and even societal values (Winston 2012). 

Specifically in Native American cultures, ancient myths have been noted to be quite similar among different tribes under the same sky. Many creation stories follow the form of doubles. For example, in Cahokia culture, there is the important duality of the Morning Star and the Evening Star. Many other Native American cultures had a version of this duality, including male vs female, upper world vs lower world, light vs dark, and civility vs chaos (Figure 1). There are references to this theme of twins in Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, and even North Carolina, suggesting that though these tribes were geographically distant from each other, they all arrived at similar conclusions under the unifying blanket of the night sky (Pauketat 2010, 94-95). 

Figure 1. Lodge boy and Thrown Away: representation of twins in Hidatsa culture

Specific celestial events such as the 1054 A.D. supernova provide even greater insight into the importance of astronomy on ancient civilizations. This supernova was visible for close to two years and marked a turning point for several Native societies. It was “visible both night and day around the world” (Pauketat 2010, 20) and was “four times brighter than Venus” (Pauketat 2010, 20). In Cahokia culture, this marked a turning point from Old Cahokia to New Cahokia, termed a “big bang moment” by archaeologists who studied the Mississippian site. Small farm villages were razed to the ground to make room for a new city filled with plazas and mounds with religious and political structures on top. The radiocarbon dating of New Cahokia puts the formation of the city within four years of the supernova, indicating its contribution to the incredible changes (Pauketat 2010, 23). In New Mexico, another Native society, the Anasazi, represented the supernova in cave drawings, indicating it was a major moment in their history worth documenting it.  The Hopi connected astronomical events with their belief in multiple worlds. They believed that the transition from one world to another was indicated by the appearance of a blue star. This could have been the 1054 supernova, as the crab nebula (Figure 2) that developed was characterized by a blue color (Winston 2012). 

Figure 2. Crab Nebula that formed from 1054 A.D. supernova

Archaeoastronomy provides a way of looking into the past through the lens of constellations and celestial events. This interconnected relationship between the stars and humans has resulted in many momentous changes in societies across America. This field of study provides insight into different culture’s religions and values in ways that other methods fall short. 


Pauketat, Timothy

  2010  In Cahokia Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, edited by Colin Calloway, pp. 20-95. Penguin Group, London 

Winston, Grady

  2012  Astronomy and Mythology in Native American Culture.

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Environmental Sequences: Revealing How Neanderthals Adapted to and Evolved to Survive a Chilling Environment

Relative dating is a crucial tool in roughly ordering artifacts or sites into sequences. Archaeologists utilize many different sequencing techniques, depending on the site or the questions they want answered. These include stratigraphy, typological sequences, and environmental sequences.

Environmental sequences can include deep-sea cores, ice cores, and pollen dating. Deep-sea cores are used to mark climatic change most accurately for the last 2,000-3,000 years (Renfrew 2007, 115). When dealing with time periods farther back, pollen dating is most useful. Pollen grains are incredibly durable, lasting for millions of years, and aid in our comprehension of ancient environments.

Northern Europe, specifically Neumark-Nord near Halle, Germany (Aridi 2021), and Western and Central Asia (Figure 1) were home to Neanderthals (Monnier 2012). Neanderthals lived “from about 400,000 to 30,000 years ago” (Renfrew 2007, 135 ). During that time period, those regions saw some of the coldest conditions ever experienced, evidenced by the shorter limbs and broader chests of Neanderthals (Figure 2) specifically adapted to withstand colder temperatures (Monnier 2012). Neanderthals survived several ice ages, and their effects on Neanderthals can be studied using relative dating.   

Figure 1. Range of Neanderthal populations

Figure 2. Model of what Neanderthals were thought to look like

A research team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology conducted a study on how shifting environmental conditions affected human presence, focusing on a former lakeshore in Lichtenburg, Northern Germany (Max Planck Society 2022). The team used several archaeological methods, including pollen dating to uncover the aforementioned relationship. Stone tools were discovered at the campsite and their evolution was aligned with changing environmental conditions. The study resulted in accurate dating of an interglacial period (Brörup Interstadial), and connecting a cooling period to climate change in the Greenland ice and North Atlantic, a relationship that had previously only been speculated. 

The Neanderthals of Northern Europe not only evolved and adapted their tools to suit their surrounding environment, but directly altered their environment. In Lichtenberg, research aiming to answer if Neanderthals were well adapted to colder temperatures, showed that the Neanderthals repeatedly visited Northern Central Europe, even during the last Ice Age. This region developed from a heavily forested area, to sparser forests, to cold tundra (Max Planck Society 2022). A different team, led by archaeologist Wil Roebroeks, sought to explain how the region changed from forest to a relatively open space. The study involved pollen dating and charcoal sampling to piece together how fire was utilized, with the wood and seeds found. This connection allowed researchers to speculate that the phenomenon of humans clearing land for fields occurred much earlier than once thought. This revolutionary discovery shows the oldest known evidence of “hominids reshaping their environment” (Aridi 2021).

Environmental sequences have provided a way of looking into the past when radiocarbon dating fails. Although it is not as accurate or widely used as radiocarbon, it is crucial in our understanding of early time periods.


Aridi, Rasha

  12/17/21  Scientists Find the Oldest Evidence of Neanderthals Altering the Natural Landscape.            

Max Planck Society

  4/26/22  Neanderthals of the North reveal tolerance of humans to changing environmental conditions.                            

Monnier, Gilliane

  2012  Neanderthal Behavior.

Renfrew, Colin

  2018  When? Dating Methods and Chronology. In Archaeology Essentials: Theories/Methods/Practice. 4th edition. pp. 115-135. Thames & Hudson, London, England 

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