The Dogon Ancestors

 

Appendix I

from

Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot

by

Charles A. Cerami (pp.217–219)

John Wiley & Sons, 2002

 

The Dogon people are thought to have fled from the headwaters of the Niger between the tenth and thirteenth centuries to escape from pressure to convert to Islam, and there refuge of a great escarpment that is part of the Bandiagara cliffs has kept them intact and rather isolated*.  They live today, as they have for centuries, mainly by raising grain, especially millet, and they trade their products with another Mali community, the Fulani people, who specialize in dairy products.

 

Several things make Banneker’s relationship to the Dogon especially significant.  They have a complicated theology and cosmology that is based on an elaborate numerical formula.  Even before most other advanced peoples, they saw the structure of the world as being related to the human body.  The hand, for example, made the number 8 central to this, apparently based on the number of fingers without the thumbs.  So 8 and its multiples were basic, just as 10 and the decimal system were basic for the Romans.  They believe that the old Nummo spirit, architect of the world, laid out eight covenant stones that outlined the human soul.  He also provided eight ancestors as progenitors of the eight Dogon clans that would make up human society.  Very elderly Dogon say that when men began trading, they counted in eights; and even when the French came as colonists and talked of “hundreds” (or centaines), the Dogon considered that to mean 80.

 

Serious researchers speak of an “indigenous literacy” among the Dogon, a system of writing that predated the coming of Europeans.  They have also found that Dogon technology has long covered mining, metal processing, cotton planting and textiles, food storage, architecture, erosion control, and irrigation.

 

There are indications that the Dogon people knew long before the Europeans that Earth orbits around the sum.  Some experts in African studies are convinced that they also knew about other planets and even worlds beyond the solar system.  Those who insist this is so have tried to explain it by showing that the Dogon may come upon the Egyptians’ way of using crystals to shape lenses that could serve as simple telescopes.  There are doubters who say that even if this were so, there is no such lens arrangement that gives enough magnification to account for the disputed belief that Dogons were centuries ahead in knowing that the “Dog Star” has a unique twinkle because it is actually a double star (called Sirius A and Sirius B).  They supposedly even knew that the interplay of their two orbits took either fifty or sixty years to be completed.

 

The disbelievers would appear to be the more credible—until it is realized that in the late 1700s, Benjamin Banneker reportedly said Sirius was both his favorite star and his lucky star, called it a double star many years before professional scientists of the advanced world confirmed that fact.  Some have used this to assert that he mystically inherited this knowledge, as if it had been transmitted through the DNA.  But the simpler explanation would appear to be that Grandfather Banneka** had talked of certain ancient wisdom to Molly, who passed it along to Benjamin when he was a boy.  Banneker may later have adapted it to fit his own updated astronomical thoughts.

 

This finding has the multiple function of pinpointing the location of Banneker’s hitherto-unknown African roots, for no African people other than the Dogon are known to have had any special interest in the star called Sirius.  It does not, of course, reveal the identity of the ancient Dogon who had the original insight about the dual nature of Sirius.  Since it is provable that the difference between these A and B stars is invisible without magnification many times greater that any African people are known to have had, the only explanation would have to be that a great early Dogon thinker, having noted wobbly twinkle different from any other, simply had the astonishing insight that two stars locked in a strange dance might be producing such an effect.  It was, after all, just such a capacity for pure reason that made Benjamin Banneker a finer astronomer that many who had much superior equipment.

 

A less exact but very telling personal trait ties Banneker to the Dogon.  Europeans who have lived among the Dogon describe them in the very same terms that were so often applied to Banneker by contemporaries.  Antonin Potovski, a French photographer who has worked and taught in Mali for some years, has written, “Dogon teenagers rarely mess around.  From a very early age, they are exposed to the hare work crucial for survival in a semi-arid environment.  Since the villagers’ well-being depends on them and their involvement in a host of daily chores, the classic problems encountered by urban teenagers are not felt here.”  He calls the Dogon “one of the world’s most extraordinary cultures.”  Today, as in antiquity, they are known as particularly dignified and orderly people.  Even through the vicissitudes of colonialism, this remained a constant.  And other groups in Mali, including those who have had commercial disputes with the Dogon, still speak of them that way today.  Further, they are known to dislike all forms of disagreement, always opting to stress compromise over confrontation, tending to gain respect by the moderation of their arguments.  That is exactly what Banneker’s acquaintances always said about him.  But just as the ancient Dogon people had a breaking point that made them leave the Niger headwaters and move to the rocky escarpment of the Bandiagara to protect their own beliefs, Banneker was finally prompted to turn away from quiet living within an unjust system and to confront its leaders with a historic protest.

 

 

*Editor/compiler’s note:  Their region of Mali is far from all trade routes and is a difficult journey from any urban center in the region.  When the slave raiders came, the Dogon pelted them with rocks from their cliffs and drove them away.  (Robert Palmen; from the liner notes on the Julius Hemphill 1977 album, Dogon A.D.)

 

**Banneka” is what he called himself.  He was the eldest son of a king, “Captured in an enemy raid and sold to slave traders.  (Some scholars believe that his given name was Banne and that Ka was a family name.)”  See Cerami page 5.

 

 

 

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