Different Cultures, Same Sky

Find out about the people of Patagonia, and their cultures and worldviews.

By Fundación Elkano

Fundación Elkano

The Sun, the Moon and the Stars and the Binding of the Years by Bernardino de SahagunOriginal Source: Biblioteca Laurenciana Florencia

The crew of the Magellan-Elcano expedition experienced different lands, skies, and worldviews on their journey.

It is often said that Magellan discovered the southern skies. However, such a claim is made from a western viewpoint, which forgets that that entire half of the planet was already inhabited, and that each of those cultures and civilizations had already contemplated the sky above them, and interpreted it in their own way.

100 Years Under One Sky (2020)Fundación Elkano

The 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the earth, on board the Victoria captained by Elcano (1519-1522), coincides with another anniversary: 100 years of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

It was 100 years ago that the IAU decided to divide the sky into 88 constellations, and is celebrating this centenary with the slogan, "100 years under one sky."

So, what exactly are the constellations?

Star Chart (2020)Original Source: Visual Capitalist

The Constellations

They are both maps of the sky, and worldviews.

What Are the Constellations?

The constellations are our map of the sky; clusters of stars grouped together by humans on Earth, based on our own vantage point, as a way of locating ourselves in the sky.

The field of astronomy created a map that divided the entire sky into 88 regions, or constellations. Since it would be impossible to draw these imaginary lines in the sky, in order to identify them, the brightest stars of each constellation were joined together in an imaginary drawing.

In reality, the stars in a constellation are not linked to one another, but rather are regions of the sky that have been marked out at random.

Star ListOriginal Source: Museo Vorderasiatisches

Throughout history, every civilization has created its own maps of the sky and its own constellations, giving them their own meanings.

The origins of most of the constellations, as adopted by the International Astronomical Union, are Mesopotamian (those that refer to animals) or from classical culture (those that refer to their gods).

The constellations that are visible from the southern hemisphere, meanwhile, are named after navigational instruments or the parts of a ship.

Indígenous Yaghan people in Cabo de Hornos, Chile (1883)Original Source: Archivo General de la Nación Argentina

Worldviews of the Indigenous Patagonians

Find out the different ways in which the same sky has been interpreted.

Argo Navis (1690) by Johanes HeveliusFundación Elkano

One of the expedition's great achievements was the discovery of the strait that was named after the captain of the ship, Magellan.

With an ethnocentric view rooted in European culture, some people claim that it was Magellan who discovered the southern skies, the Southern Cross, and the two irregular galaxies visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere.

However, these celestial bodies had already been interpreted by other cultures: specifically, the inhabitants of the southernmost region of Patagonia.

The Cantino Planisphere (1502)Original Source: Biblioteca Estense Universitaria

Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese navigator and explorer, was the first person to sail around the southernmost tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic in early 1488. This means that other European navigators had already seen the skies of the southern hemisphere, before Magellan embarked on his voyage, completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano.

The Constellation Crux (1661) by Johann BayerFundación Elkano

The Ancient Greeks were familiar with the Southern Cross (Crux) constellation. In fact, it has even been estimated that in around 5000 BCE, toward the end of the last ice age, it was visible from central Europe on the horizon, at around midnight during the spring. Due to precessional movement, the constellation ceased to be visible from those latitudes.

Crux is currently visible from the south at latitude 25° north, and is circumpolar in the south at latitude 35º south.

Group of Patagonian Indians (1838)Original Source: Biblioteca Nacional de Chile

The Sky of the Tehuelche People

The Tehuelche people, or Aónikenk, were familiar with the Southern Cross constellation. For them, however, it represented the footprint of a rhea (a flightless bird, native to South America), while what is now called the Centaur's Foot was known to the Tehuelche people as the Bolas (a tool for hunting rheas). The constellation now called Orion was Chéljelen (a butterfly) to the Tehuelches.

The Milky Way was the dust stirred up by migrating guanacos, while what is now called the Magellanic Clouds were the hollows in which those guanacos stopped to rest.

The Milky Way (2020)Fundación Elkano

La Vía Láctea era el polvo que levantan los guanacos en sus migraciones y lo que hoy llamamos las Nubes de Magallanes eran los revolcaderos donde descansaban estos guanacos.

The Selk'nam (1930)Fundación Elkano

According to their beliefs, their legendary ancestors had turned into stars and they, together with their families, had become the constellations.

Temaukel, for example, the creator of the first humans, became the star Aldebaran; Cenuke turned into Venus, and Chaskel into the star Canopus.

For the Selk'nam people, the Sun and the Moon were a married couple called Kran and Kra.
They believed there had been a time when women, commanded by Kra, ruled over men by pretending to be spirits.

Lunar Eclipse (2020) by Kerry BarbourFundación Elkano

It is said that when Kran discovered the truth, following a battle that ended in the slaughter of almost all the women, Kra was cast out to the sky, where he still pursues her today.

The Selk'nam people were fearful of the Moon, believing that when it glowed red—possibly referring to lunar eclipses—it meant that Kra had devoured a man.

They also believed that Kra ate children, which meant they could only look at the Moon when it was full, which was when Kra was satiated.

The Moon and the Tides (2020)Fundación Elkano

The Sky of the Yaghan People

In common with the Selk'nams, the Yaghan people believed that their legendary ancestors had turned into stars.

They also had a similar myth about the Sun, which they called Lem, and the Moon, which they called Hanuxa. Their overarching belief about the Moon, however, was that it was associated with the tides.

Fuegians in a Canoe (1839)Fundación Elkano

The myth describes how Hanuxa threw himself into the sea, provoking a flood that wiped out almost all living creatures. However, he took pity on a group of survivors who had gathered on a small islet to await their deaths, and returned to the sky, causing the sea level to fall.

The Kawésqar (1882)Fundación Elkano

The Sky of the Kawésqar People

This culture believed that the Sun and the Moon were sisters. The Moon woman ascended to the sky after accidentally piercing her eye, and they believed that the Milky Way was the blood that flowed from her injured eye.

The Cancer Constellation (1661) by Johann BayerOriginal Source: Biblioteca del Observatorio Naval de los Estados Unidos

Once in the sky, she discovered a place full of seafood, which she threw down to her relatives on Earth. Later, she asked her sister the Sun to ascend to the sky, from where she lit up the Earth with her rays.

Americae Sive Quartae Orbis Partis Nova Et Exactissima Descriptio (1562) by Diego GutiérrezOriginal Source: Library of Congress

These four worldviews were shared by many other cultures in Patagonia and the Tierra del Fuego, and show the wide range of ways in which those cultures have viewed and interpreted the sky since ancient times.

The 500th anniversary of the first global circumnavigation, and the 100th anniversary of the IAU's constellation map, provide an opportunity to learn more about the sky, with a particular emphasis on the visions and worldviews of non-Europeans. Those interpretations differed greatly from the classical Greek and Roman beliefs that informed the crew members on that expedition.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator:

Virginia Garcia
Aranzadi Science Society

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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