The sky has been an important indicator of what is happening and what will happen on earth for ancient peoples all over the world for as long as man has possessed the curiosity to look up. The movement of the sun across the horizon and back throughout the year, has been especially important as an indicator and predictor of the seasons. On December 21st, 2014 the sun travelled as far south as it would go, rose for three days in the same place and then started its journey north again. That day marked the “Winter Solstice” (“Solstice” means “sun standstill”), the day with the longest night and shortest day of the year. The cultures of the Americas observed this very special day in many different ways, but for all, it was time of great portents. For what if the sun decided to continue its journey south?
After observing the phenomenon over may years, the different cultures devised unique and clever ways of predicting the Winter Solstice. How they used this knowledge is fascinating. Predicting by using astronomical events in ancient times impacted their lives in profound ways by enabling them to plan for planting, hunting, migrating, and thereby survive. Here are some examples of the many unique ways the ancients predicted and interacted with the Winter Solstice.
Most cultures devised a “sightline” method for predicting the solstice–watching where the sun rose or set in relation to a point as observed from a specific spot. A great example can be found at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, near St. Louis, Missouri, the site of an ancient indigenous city from 600-1400 AD. The site contained over one hundred earthwork mounds built over an area of roughly six square miles and is the largest archaeological site left by the Mississippian culture. This great culture had complex and advanced societies all across the Midwest and eastern North America. At the sight, they built what has come to be known as Woodhenge, or a circle of posts used to make astronomical sightings. Archaeologists believe that the placement of the posts marked both the solstices and equinoxes. The observer would stand in the center of the circle of Posts, and watch the sunrise. They knew when it was the winter solstice when the sun aligned with the post for the winter solstice. [refer to the article: “The Lost City of Cahokia”, 2013]
The Chumash of Southern California practiced one of the most elaborate ceremonies surrounding the Winter Solstice. The Chumash began very early preparing for the event for they feared that without their intervention, the sun would not turn around to bring them spring and summer again. It is just one example of the ancient’s attempt to control their environment and preserve the ways of nature. Part of the ritual involved driving a spike into the earth to tether the sun to. Refer to the February, 2013 series “How the Chumash Turned the Sun Around“.
Another fascinating example of an observation point is “The Great Serpent Mound” in Peebles, Ohio, possibly the best-known serpent effigy in North America, stretching out nearly a quarter of a mile in the unmistakable form of a uncoiling serpent. The serpent’s head is aligned to the sunset during the summer solstice, the coils and tail are believed to point to the sunrise on the days of the winter solstice and the equinoxes.
At Chaco Canyon Historical National Park in New Mexico, there many alignments used to determine solstices and equinoxes. For instance, in the great kiva, Casa Rinconada, the sun shines through a window just after sunrise and illuminates a cache built into the opposing wall.
But, the most fascinating, I believed, is a structure atop Fajada Butte in the center of the canyon. Three large stones lean up against a wall and the daggers of light that shines through the cracks illuminate a large spiral and mark the important events of the year including the winter solstice. Watch videos on the “Sun Daggers”. Also, [refer to article: “Fajada Butte — Sun Daggers”]
Although, you would think that that agricultural societies would stand to gain the most from astronomical calendars, the nomadic tribes also built elaborate calendars, as well. The plains Indians build great concentric circles with spoke-like rays using stones. Alignments at these sights, called today “Medicine Wheels” could also predict seasonal events including the winter solstice. Refer to “Medicine Wheels of the Plains Indians.
The ancients found that the sky and its many stars could be used much as we use the internet today as a reference library to predict and detect important events on earth.
And, in the southern hemisphere, this day (Summer Solstice for them) is observed from a stone marker at Machu Picchu called the Intihuatana’s obelisk.
This is only a partial list of sites where ancients observed the summer solstice, but I think it underlines the importance of the event to all Native Americans.