“Culture is coded wisdom.” — Nobel Prize Winner Wangari Maathai
When the Washington Interdependence Council unveiled its prototype monument to Benjamin Banneker on February 15th, 2008 that was a significant enough event in and of itself. Then came the evening’s moderator, Actorvist Clayton Lebouef. He connected Banneker to the Dogon and their celebration of a star invisible to the naked eye. LeBouef encouraged his listeners to “do some research on the Dogon.” “The Dogon”, he said “are a tribe in Mali who found a star called Po Tolo.” “This star was celebrated by this particular group of people for centuries”, he continued, “and you can not see it with the naked eye.”
LeBouef first encountered the Dogon of Mali, West Africa through Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack to the documentary film “The Secret Life of Plants.” After studying the album, he viewed the film at the Library of Congress in the late 1980s. One segment of the film describes the Dogon as peasant warriors living on the southwestern edge of the Sahara Desert, about 185 miles southwest of Timbuktoo. Although they guard their way of life from intrusions by outsiders, their settlements and fields are widely spread over a region of sandstone cliffs. Dogon cultural concepts define the origins of humanity, nature and the universe in a complex cosmology of deities, ceremonies, symbols and legends held closely by their elders.
The movie shows preparations for the Sigi (or Sigui) festival beginning with the hougan. It is he who embodies the memory of sacred knowledge. Under his direction, an artist creates a map of the universe on the ceiling of the men’s meeting place known as the togu na. The togu na is a low-ceilinged building constructed with eight elaborately carved and painted beams supporting the roof. The hougan’s words take physical form as the planets of the solar system and their orbits around the sun are drawn. The most fascinating part of this depiction of the universe is when those parts which can not be seen with the naked eye are represented in detail.
Anthropologist Marcel Griaule wrote of the Dogon’s intricate system of deep knowledge in his books (Paid link) Conversations with Ogotemmêli and (paid link) The Pale Fox written with Germaine Dieterlen. They report how the Dogon have knowledge of “dark stars”, invisible to the naked eye. The Sigi festival, celebrated every sixty years over a span of five years, is of utmost spiritual importance to them. The last Sigi festival began in 1968 and ended in 1973. Sigi tolo, Sirius A to astronomers, known as the brightest star in the night sky, comes from the constellation Canus Major. Smaller companion Po tolo, also known as Sirius B, is considered one of the heaviest celestial bodies. Sirius A was first observed to be a binary star on January 31, 1862 by Alvan Clarke. However, in “The Pale Fox” the Dogon include a third star, Emme Ya Tolo. It is the movement of Sigi Tolo, Po Tolo and Emme Ya Tolo, the would be Sirius C, which are mimicked in the Sigi festival dance forming a junction of myth and science rarely encountered.
So exactly how did the Dogon acquire knowledge of stars invisible to the naked eye? That is where the mystery deepens and controversy begins. It was Robert K.G. Temple’s speculations in his book (Paid link) “The Sirius Mystery” which garnered attention to Dogon traditions in 1976. Temple concluded that the Dogon Sigi festival indicated evidence of extraterrestrial visitors five thousand years ago. Unsurprisingly, he was criticized for his hypothesis. Nevertheless, Temple “predicted that the existence of a red dwarf star would be verified in the Sirius system.” The 1995 publication of Daniel Benest and J.L. Duvent’s article, “Is Sirius a Triple Star?” in the journal “Astronomy and Astrophysics” seems to have confirmed what the Dogon knew all along. The article concludes the “6-year perturbation in the orbit of Sirius A-B is due to the presence of a third body in the system” or Emme Ya Tolo.
There are disputes as to the accuracy of Griaule and Dieterlen’s findings. Walter Van Beek’s 2001 book (Paid link) “Dogon: Africa’s People of the Cliffs” suggests Griaule himself told the Dogon of Sirius B. Van Beek took a team of anthropologists to Mali in 1991 but was not able to verify Griaules’ work. According to Van Beek, “the Dogon have no creation myth, no deep story relating how the world came into being.” He also was not initiated into the Dogon secret society as Griaule claimed to have been. That may exclude Van Beek from access to Dogon deep knowledge. Van Beek also does not address the existence of Emme Ya Tolo, or Sirius C.
It is a known fact Andrew Ellicott included Benjamin Banneker in the survey team laying out the boundaries of the District of Columbia in 1791. This was because Banneker had the “deep knowledge” necessary to operate the complex astronomical equipment involved. Banneker biographer Silvio Bedini informs us in his book (Paid link) The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science, only “recently did conclusive evidence of his (Banneker’s) participation in the project come to light.”
Will more conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial contact come to light for the Dogon? Will all the questions surrounding the origins of myths related to Sigi Tolo, Po Tolo and Emme Ya Tolo be put to rest in time for the beginning of the 2026 Sigi Festival? One thing seems certain: The Dogon will continue to be a source of potent culture renewing the transmission of coded wisdom every sixty years…in the Sigui festival.