Chapter 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy

2.2 Ancient Astronomy Around the World

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe early examples of astronomy around the world

Let us now look briefly back into history. Much of modern Western civilization is derived in one way or another from the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who got most of their ideas from the ancient Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptians.   This is true in astronomy as well. However, most other ancient cultures also developed sophisticated systems for observing and interpreting the sky

Astronomy around the World

Here is a link to an interactive site called “Figures in the Stars” that shows constellations from 28 different cultures.

Archaeoastronomy is a fascinating field of study.   A nice summary can be found at


The Chinese  had a working calendar; they determined the length of the year about 3000 years ago, about the same time as the Egyptians. The Chinese also recorded comets, bright meteors, and dark spots on the Sun. (Many types of astronomical objects were introduced in the chapter Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour. If you are not familiar with terms like comets and meteors, you may want to review that chapter.) Later, Chinese astronomers kept careful records of “guest stars”—those that are normally too faint to see but suddenly flare up to become visible to the unaided eye for a few weeks or months. We still use some of these records in studying stars that exploded a long time ago.   They used a lunar-solar calendar.  The Calgary, Alberta, Canada section of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada have produced a bilingual English-Chinese handout detailing Chinese New Year and its astronomical connections. (


This is a picture of the Dunhuang Scroll, the oldest complete preserved star chart in the world.

Figure 2.9. This scroll is currently in the British Library, London, United Kingdom. This paper scroll is the oldest complete preserved star atlas from any civilization. It was made in China in around AD 700, centuries before the invention of the telescope, and shows more than 1300 stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. At that time, it was believed that the movement of the stars directly reflected the actions of the Chinese emperor and the court.

Mexico and Central America

Mayan culture in Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar based on the planet Venus, and they made astronomical observations from sites dedicated to this purpose a thousand years ago.

This link is for an overview of Mayan astronomy.

The Mayan had an interest in Venus.   The Dresden Codex dates from about 1300 AD and is the oldest book  we have from the Americas.

Figure 2.10 Venus was important to the Mayans as detailed in the Dresden Codex shown here. This is the oldest surviving book from the Americas. It was made about 1300 AD. This image is from Wikipedia láminas 8 y 9 del Códice de Dresden, dibujado por Lacambalam.


The Polynesians learned to navigate by the stars over hundreds of kilometers of open ocean—a skill that enabled them to colonize new islands far away from where they began.  Here is a link to an article about how they used the stars.

Figure 2.11 A photograph of a recreation of the star compass of Mau Piailug depicted with shells on sand, with Satawalese (See Trukic languages) text labels, as described and translated by the Polynesian Voyaging Society.[14] Shown here north-up



In Britain, before the widespread use of writing, ancient people used stones to keep track of the motions of the Sun and Moon. We still find some of the great stone circles they built for this purpose, dating from as far back as 2800 BCE. The best known of these is Stonehenge, which is discussed in Earth, Moon, and Sky.

Figure 2.12 Stonehenge in 2007 This photo was taken in 2007 by Gareth Wiscombe. Posted on Flickr with a CC-BY 2.0 license.


Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian

Ancient Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian astronomers knew the approximate length of the year. The Egyptians of 3000 years ago, for example, adopted a calendar based on a 365-day year. They kept careful track of the rising time of the bright star Sirius in the predawn sky, which has a yearly cycle that corresponded with the flooding of the Nile River.

Figure 2.13 A Babylonian tablet recording Halley’s comet in 164 BC.


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