As a cultural astronomer and expert on African skylore, Jarita C. Holbrook, a mother and an Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Arizona, has her feet firmly on the ground as she explores the world and engages in studies some of us only dream about. This sista scholar is doing some important work, including co-organizing the 2006 Total Solar Eclipse: Astronomy & Culture Conference in Cape Coast, Ghana, (March 27 - 31), so let's support her. She is currently seeking additional funding to assist African scholars as they travel from throughout the continent to attend this stellar conference. You can learn more about Jarita and her work and contact her for additional info here. And to learn more about African skylore and astronomy, check out this wonderful documentary, Cosmic Africa by Thebe Medupe.
Stars in Her Eyes
Jarita C. Holbrook navigates the skies and cultures
by Ana Luisa Terrazas
Jay Rochlin photo
"The night sky continues to facinate people all over the world."
— Jarita C. Holbrook, assistant research scientist at the UA Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology
Jarita C. Holbrook sees the world through many different sets of eyes.
And that’s a good thing, too, considering the amount of time she spends staring at the sky, usually as part of her research on African astronomy and culture.
But that’s not all. As an assistant research scientist at the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, Holbrook’s research interests also include indigenous knowledge systems — especially astronomy, technology transfer, and lay astronomy practices — African Americans and science, and African history of science, technology, and medicine.
Holbrook’s current projects include celestial navigation in three cultures: Fiji, Tunisia, and the United States, celestial navigation in East Africa, and celestial aspects of African art.
It should come as no surprise then that Holbrook likes to point out that “the night sky continues to fascinate people all over the world. How people think about the sky, use the sky, and depict the sky is immensely varied.
“I use sky lore and sky knowledge as a way to probe cultures other than my own.”
“Assuming that these variations reflect social and environmental differences, I use sky lore and sky knowledge as a way to probe cultures other than my own. Oftentimes, I decipher the science behind the myths. For example, moon goddess myths often speak of the goddess growing larger and then shrinking and growing larger again. This reflects the observed waxing and waning of the moon that occurs over 29.5 days.
“Women throughout Africa have been reported to observe the moon to keep track of their menses and regulate their fertility. Most women have a 28-day menstruation cycle. These two cycles are close enough in length for the moon to serve as an obvious timekeeping device for women. Also, this may be the reason that the moon is so often regarded as female or associated with women in many cultures,” she says.
The anthropology of astronomy
The study of the astronomical practices, celestial lore, religions, mythologies, and world views of all ancient cultures is called archaeoastronomy, which is the anthropology of astronomy as opposed to the history of astronomy.
Holbrook learns much about the development of science and cosmological thought by studying both the ancient astronomies and surviving indigenous traditions. These active interdisciplinary fields — with roots in the Stone-henge discoveries of the 1960s — provide new perspectives for the history of our species’ interaction with the cosmos.
Holbrook recently completed a study of celestial navigation in three cultures. Simione Paki, a Moce Islander, sailed an exceptionally long distance, from Moce to Suva, using traditional methods. Navigation depends on an intimate knowledge of wind and current patterns and the locations of reefs and islands, both inhabited and uninhabited. Celestial bodies are used to mark east and west upon rising and setting and serve as a rough compass.
Holbrook is writing a manuscript on her recently completed study of celestial navigation in three cultures. The communities were located on Moce Island in Fiji, on the Kerkennah Islands in Tunisia, and at the United States Naval Academy. All these communities continue to navigate at night on the ocean using the stars.
“The way they use the stars and which stars they use reflect their physical location on Earth, as well as their navigational needs,” Holbrook says. “The next phase of this project will study present-day navigation on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean focusing on East Africa.” Typical of African studies projects, she uses a variety of research methods, including archival research, oral history, ethnography, participant observation, and theoretical tools from several disciplines including the sociology of science, Black studies, philosophy, cultural studies, and science studies.
No pain and blood
Holbrook always knew she wanted to be either an astronomer or a geologist and took summer classes in both at California State University at Los Angeles when she was 13. After high school, she was accepted into the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Cal Tech was a good fit for Holbrook. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the school in 1987.
Education was a priority in Holbrook’s family — her father had a degree in science education and investigated cases of discrimination for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her mother also had a science degree and was an emergency room nurse. Her aunt, grandfather, and step grandmother all were college professors.
Perhaps that explains why Holbrook went on to get a master’s of science degree in astronomy from San Diego State University. She didn’t stop there. Holbrook became the first African American to receive a doctor of philosophy in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“My career — to be a doctor — was chosen before I turned 13, but I knew I didn’t want to be a medical doctor,” she says, citing sick people, pain, and blood as definite obstacles.
“When I was an undergraduate, a professor said, ‘You might want to study African astronomy one day.’ I went to Africa for the first time in 1992, after my master’s degree, but it wasn’t until the last year I was a graduate student, in ’96 and ’97, that I decided I did not want to be a normal astrophysicist. This (African astronomy) was so much more interesting.
“Once I made my decision to study African astronomy, I got in touch with everyone involved in some aspect and said I wanted to do this and how did I get funding. Everyone said it was nearly impossible to get funding.”
The Tyiwara dance ceremony involves two masked dancers, one with a male antelope mask that symbolizes the sun and the other wearing a female antelope mask that symbolizes the Earth. The ceremony traditionally is danced in the fields by those considered to be the best farmers, though today the ceremony takes place next to the villages. Members of the Tyiwara agricultural society observed the location of certain constellations and understood their relationship to the rainy and dry seasons.
The dance is said to reconnect the dancers to the cosmos. The masks and the dance are used to convey information to the audience about the relationship between the sun, the Earth, and the seasons.
A frustrated Holbrook talked to Joyce Justice, her mentor at UC Santa Cruz, who suggested she look up Sharon Traweek at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“In the fall of 1997, three months after I received my doctorate, I went to work and study with Sharon, who was my faculty mentor and my postdoc mentor. She knows the ins and outs of everything. Within a year, I had two fellowships and I’ve been funded solidly ever since.”
Holbrook credits Traweek with showing her how to be a member of the different cultures Holbrook had to move between. “She taught me how to become a professor — she taught me the things I needed to know, like how to dress, how to walk, how to go back and forth between science, the history of science, and anthropology.
“Everything she taught me, I teach to my students. I don’t want them to be taken unawares,” she says.
Today, Holbrook feels little pressure to prove herself.
“My expertise is almost exclusive. I am the only person who works full time in indigenous African astronomy,” she says.
It’s a challenge to get Holbrook to zero in on specifics as far as African astronomy is concerned. “There are so many things that are interesting! I study weather lore, navigation, links between astronomy and social standing,” she says.
Social standing? Some Africans secure their social standing by claiming intimate knowledge of the sky. Others claim to actually be from the sky. And there are ways of maintaining one’s status, too.
“Special clothes, special scars, special initiations — these are all ways of maintaining social standing,” Holbrook says.
“There seems to be a robustness of tradition,” Holbrook notes. Tradition is learned through a variety of means, depending on the culture. “It depends on what they’re learning, too. Some learn through apprenticeships, some learn by watching other people, and some learn by being told.”
What about traditional schooling? “Not that I’ve found so far.”
No doubt her schooling — both formal and informal — has been rewarding, despite the challenges of her own cultural navigation. “I love my work. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to find something you’re completely suited for,” says this shining star.