Journal of Skyscape Archaeology, Vol 1, No 1 (2015)

The Pleiades and Scorpius in Barasana Cosmology

Stephen Hugh-Jones
Issued Date: 10 Jul 2015


In 1905, the German ethnographer Koch-Grünberg published a report of an Indian astronomical system from the Northwest Amazon region.1 His account, based on drawings by two Indian informants, has remained one of the most comprehensive descriptions of ethnoastronomy from lowland South America. Scattered references to star lore in the works of other writers,2 together with Koch-Grünberg’s own word lists of the many different languages spoken in the area,3 suggest that the basic elements of the system he described are probably common to all the Tukanoan speaking Indians of the Vaupés and to their Arawakan speaking neighbors to the north. In his account, Koch-Grünberg identifies some seventeen named stars and constellations and states that knowledge of astronomy is used in time reckoning, orientation, and the regulation of agricultural activities. But little information is given, either by him or by other writers, as to how this knowledge is used and how it relates to the cosmology and worldview of the Indians involved. In this paper, I shall try to answer some of these questions with reference to the Barasana.

Download Media

PDF (Price: £17.50 ) HTML (Price: £17.50 )

DOI: 10.1558/jsa.v1i1.26957


1. T. Koch-Grünberg, Anfänge der Kunst im Urwald (Netherlands: Oosterhaut N.B., 1969), pp. 58-63, figs. 55, 56.
2. J.M. Blandon. “Sobre los Piratapuyo”, Semisiones, Vol. 86 (1961), pp. 29-32; A. Giacone. Os Tukanos e Outras Tribus do Rio Uaupés Affluente do Negro-Amazonas (São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial do Estado, 1949), pp. 98, 117-18; T. Paes de Souza Brazil, Incolas Selvicolas (São Paulo: Leuzinger S. A., 1938), pp. 61-64; G. Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos. The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 71, 73-74, 117, 199; A.B.A. da Silva, A Civilização Indigena do Uaupés (São Paulo: Linográfica Editôra Ltda., 1962), pp. 258-63; P. Silverwood-Cope. “A Contribution to the Ethnography of the Colombian Maku” (Diss. University of Cambridge, 1972), p. 251; E. Stradelli “Vocabularios da Lingua Geral - Portuguez-Nheêngatú-Portuguez”, Revista do Instituto Historico e Geografico Brasileiro, vol. 158 (1929), pp. 1-768.
3. T. Koch-Grünberg, “Betóya-Sprachen Nordwest Brasiliens und der Angrenzenden Gebiete”, Anthropos, Vol. 7 (1912), pp.429-62, vol. 8 (1913), pp.944-77, vol. 9 (1914), pp. 151-95, 569-89, 812-32, vol. 10-11 (1916), pp. 114-58, 421-49; T. Koch-Grünberg, “Aruak-Sprachen Nordwest Brasiliens und der Angrenzenden Gebiete”, Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien, vol. 41 (1911), pp. 33-153, 203-82.
4. Research amongst the Barasana was carried out between September 1968 and December 1970 and between July and December 1979. The research was funded by the Social Science Research Council of London, England. This support is gratefully acknowledged.
5. In a previous work S. Hugh-Jones, The Palm and the Pleiades. Ritual and Cosmology in Northwest Amazonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 145), I incorrectly identified the adze constellation as being composed of Orion's belt together with Bellatrix ( Orionis) and Betelgeuse ( Orionis).
6. Stars and constellations were identified with the aid of a number of different informants and using a flashlight as a pointer. Identifications were matched against star maps in the field and subsequently checked against D.H. Menzel, A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964).
7. The dates of rise and set of stars and constellations are taken from tables supplied by Dr. Anthony F. Aveni (see A.F. Aveni, “Astronomical Tables Intended for Use in Astroarchaeological Studies” American Antiquity, vol. 37 (1972) 531-40) but, in order to avoid distorting ethnographic reality, I have not stated them in numerical terms.
8. Patrice Bidou, personal communication.
9. See P.C. Tastevin, “La légende de Bóyusú en Amazonie, texte tupy on ñeēngatu”, Revue d'Ethnographie et des Traditions Populaires, Vol. 6 (1925), pp. 171-206.
10. T. Koch-Grünberg, 1 p. 61.
11. See S. Hugh-Jones,5 pp. 223-24.
12. Patrice Bidou, personal communication.
13. For the details of the argument concerning the Pleiades, the wax gourd, Woman Shaman, and menstruation, see S. Hugh-Jones.5
14. See S. Hugh-Jones,5 pp. 227-33, 287-93.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email:

Privacy Policy