Thebe Medupe grew up in a poor South African village near Mafikeng, about four hours north-west of Johannesburg. He went on to gain a doctorate in astrophysics at the University of Cape Town.
In 1998 he was approached by film makers from Cape Town who wanted to make a documentary on traditional African knowledge of the night sky.
What made him choose the Bushmen and the Dogon?
“The aim was to film living societies that still depend on stars in their daily lives. The Dogon were especially good for this because their culture has changed little in the past few hundred years. The same with the Bushmen, who are Africa’s oldest people.”
What did they tell him?
“The Bushmen have many stories. For example, they believe the Milky Way was made by a Bushman girl who wished for a little light and threw wood ashes into the sky. She created different coloured stars by throwing different coloured burning roots into the air.
There’s another one about two of the stars of the Southern Cross, Alpha and Gamma Crucis. It goes like this. The creator had two sons called Khanka and Khoma. One day the two boys went hunting with a family of lions, but the treacherous lions ate the boys. In his anger and despair, the creator made fire and hid it in a meteor disguised as an eland’s horn. The creator called down the meteor and it hit the lion and killed it. His heart was calmed and there was fire for everyone. Khanka and Khoma are Alpha Crucis and Gamma Crucis.”
The Bushmen have many other stories. For example, that seven daughters of the sky god (Pleiades) were married to a hunter. One evening the hunter went hunting the zebras (the three stars of Orion’s Belt). He was such a bad hunter that his arrow missed, and because he was afraid of the nearby lion (Betelgeuse) he left the arrow where it lay (now known as Orion’s sword). The unlucky hunter was too embarrassed to go back home to his wives because he did not have meat to bring to them, so he stays out there in the cold as the star called Aldebaran.