Nabta Playa: The World’s First Astronomical Site Was Built in Africa and Is Older Than Stonehenge

Nabta Playa: The World’s First Astronomical Site Was Built in Africa and Is Older Than Stonehenge

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Nabta Playa: The World’s First Astronomical Site Was Built in Africa and Is Older Than Stonehenge

Huge stone circles were erected by ancient civilizations all over the world for thousands of years, aligning them with the sun and stars to mark the seasons.

The coming of spring, summer, fall and winter is foretold by these early calendars, allowing civilizations to track when to plant and harvest crops. Both for celebration and sacrifice, they also acted as ceremonial sites.

In our modern period, these megaliths, large ancient structures made of stone, can seem enigmatic as many individuals lack a connection with the stars or even a view of them.

Some even hold them up as supernatural or divined by aliens. But many ancient societies kept time by tracking which constellations rose at sunset, like reading a giant, celestial clock.

The stone circle of Nabta Playa marks the summer solstice, a time that coincided with the arrival of monsoon rains in the Sahara Desert thousands of years ago.

And others pinpointed the sun’s location in the sky on the summer and winter solstice, the longest and shortest days of the year, or the spring and fall equinox.

Europe alone holds some 35,000 megaliths, including many astronomically-aligned stone circles, as well as tombs (or cromlechs) and other standing stones.

These structures were mostly built between 6,500 and 4,500 years ago, largely along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

The most famous of these sites is Stonehenge, a monument in England that’s thought to be around 5,000 years old. Though still old, at that age, Stonehenge may have been one of the youngest such stone structures to be built in Europe.

The chronology and extreme similarities between these widespread European sites leads some researchers to think the regional tradition of constructing megaliths first emerged along the coast of France.

It was then passed across the region, eventually reaching Great Britain.

But even these primitive sites are at least centuries younger than the world’s oldest known stone circle: Nabta Playa.

Located in Africa, Nabta Playa stands some 700 miles south of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

It was built more than 7,000 years ago, making Nabta Playa the oldest stone circle in the world — and possibly Earth’s oldest astronomical observatory.

It was constructed by a cattle worshipping cult of nomadic people to mark the summer solstice and the arrival of the monsoons.

“Here is human beings’ first attempt to make some serious connection with the heavens,” says J. McKim Malville, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and archaeoastronomy expert.

“This was the dawn of observational astronomy,” he adds. “What in the world did they think about it? Did they imagine these stars were gods? And what kinds of connections did they have with the stars and the stones?”

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

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