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Mursi
The Mursi. Photo by CharlesFred.

I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while. I need it online as a reference note because it tackles a common problem I have when talking to some people about ancient astronomy. Sometimes the reason I disagree with an astronomical interpretation of a site, like Fiskerton, is that there’s an unchallenged assumption that ancient people were on a quest for accuracy and prediction like modern scientists. It seems a reasonable assumption for some societies. Mayan calendars were more accurate than those of Europe in the same period. Sometimes though you find something which blows all your preconceptions out of the water. Astronomy, as practiced by the Mursi, is one example.

The Mursi live in southwestern Ethiopia by the banks of the River Omo. They live on sorghum, which is planted to coincide with either the flooding of the Omo or the rains, and from their livestock. Agriculture in Ethiopia can precarious at the best of times, so these people really need to know what they’re doing. Miss the rains or the floods and your sorghum crop is lost. Similarly you want to make sure you’re up in the mountains when the pasture is there for the cows. This would suggest they have a useful calendar and they do. But it’s very odd.

Initially it doesn’t look odd. They count lunations. They use the word bergu, which is goat, to count the moon. Each lunation the bergu ages by one step. They then plan their calendar around this, so when the bergu is one the floods are at their highest. When the bergu is two they prepare plots to plant sorghum and when the bergu is three they plant it. Bergu 4 is spent weeding and in Bergu 5 the sorghum flowers which means that in Bergu 6 they can harvest the crop. In Bergu 7 the women move from the river to the land for the rain watered crop of sorghum and they tend this in a similar fashion till Bergu 12 when they thresh the rain-fed crop and then begin the cycle over again. Like us then, the Mursi have twelve months.

Unlike us though their twelve months are lunar. There are twelve and a half lunar months in year, so they must surely insert extra months every couple of years to keep in step with the seasons.

No.

In fact they find the idea odd. The Bergu goes from one to twelve and that’s that. There’s never a thirteenth stage for the Bergu. Yet they insist the calendar always stays in step with the seasons. This puzzled David Turton, who was the anthropologists out there. Eventually he found out that, if you asked the right question, there was a thirteenth period gamwe. Gamwe was the period between Bergu 12 and Bergu 1, a period when there wasn’t a bergu. So problem solved. When you get a bit out of step with the sun you insert gamwe. Actually, no. The Mursi insisted there was always gamwe too. This left a problem now there were thirteen months in the year, so it was half a lunar month too long. Baffling.

Turton asked one of his informants what the current age of the bergu was. “How should I know?” was the reply. “I don’t have anything to do with the bergu me. You want to Jeff in the next village. He knows about the bergu.” So off David Turton went to talk to someone who probably wasn’t called Jeff, but I can’t remember the names.

He asked Jeff how old the bergu was. “How should I know? I’ll tell you who does know, Wayne on the other side of the territory. Wayne’s a real expert on the bergu.”

Off the anthropologist went across thirty kilometres of Mursi territory to see Wayne. He arrived at Wayne’s hut and ask the man outside how old the bergu was. “How should I know?”

“Jeff said you were an expert on the bergu.”

“I’m no expert, you’re thinking of dad, I’m his son Melvin.”

“Sorry, my mistake. Can I ask your dad how hold the bergu is?”

“Well you could ask him, but I don’t know if it’ll do much good. We buried him two weeks ago.”

It turned out all experts on the bergu were either on the other side of the territory, dead or both. So David Turton observed a discussion by the tribe who were deciding what to do for the next month. Someone must surely know how old the bergu was.

Without writing, how would you know if it was June or January? It’s fairly obvious there are various signs you can look for like the presence of birds or snowdrifts. It’s obvious roughly what time of year it is. But how would you decide if it’s June or July? The differences are more subtle.

This is the same problem the Mursi had. Some might argue that it was bergu 4 and others bergu 5. The proponents of bergu 5 would point to the arrival of African swallows carrying migrating coconuts*. The people in favour of bergu 4 would say that the coconuts were arriving early this year. This is the problem with seasonal indicators. For instance snow stops in February in the UK, yet we had late snows in April. Seasonal indicators are not accurate but – because agriculture is a seasonal activity rather than a clockwork activity – it doesn’t matter much. No-one pays too much attention to what what decided before to shifts in opinion aren’t noted. This allows the Mursi calendar to perform its function despite being (or rather because it is) a year-round argument. In fact the astronomy is there simple as a platform to argue from. People can argue whether the New Moon really has been seen setting in the west, or even what month it is because the calendar is accurate enough and doesn’t need to be any more accurate.

Or does it? More to follow.

You can read more about the Mursi calendar in the chapter “The Haphazard Astronomy of the Mursi” by Turton and Ruggles in Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World.

If you have access to JSTOR you can also read “Agreeing to Disagree: The Measurement of Duration in a Southwestern Ethiopian Community” Current Anthropology, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 1978) , pp. 585-600 by the same authors.

*They grip them by the husk. In reality these people are going to have an intensive knowledge of their landscape and are probably going to argue about all sorts of meterological and ecological indicators.