Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Nightly Game of Celestial Proportions: The Winter Solstice and the Chumash

My research paper for my Ancient Astronomies class was all about the Astronomy of the Chumash Indians of southern California.  I had originally planned on sharing each section of the paper in order here on the blog, but since today is the winter solstice, I thought I would skip ahead a few posts and share a bit about the Chumash in regards to the solstice a little early.  Don't worry, we will come back and revisit it later once we talk more about the Chumash, but for now, here is the excerpt from my paper, slightly edited to make it easier to understand with our current level of knowledge.

One thing that was very important for the Chumash was a nightly game played by several of the celestial beings that were very important to them. The game was called peon, and when played by the two celestial teams, it was a high-stakes game indeed, as the game was thought to affect the “future of the entire biotic world.” One team consisted of Sun and Slo’w (Golden Eagle, Venus as the Evening Star), while the other team consisted of Sky Coyote and Morning Star (Venus when it rises before the Sun), and Moon was the scorekeeper. The teams played each night, and on the night of the Winter Solstice, the scores were tallied to see who won the most. If Sky Coyote and Morning Star won, then the following year the earth would be bathed in rain by the Two Thunders (associated with Venus as the Morning Star), and there would be an abundance of food. However, if Sun and Slo’w won, then the “spoils would be human lives.”

The Winter Solstice was not a fun day for the Chumash. This was the time of year that they believed “Sun was especially angry at them.” Although it does not explicitly say in the text, it seems as if humans would have reason to fear regardless of whether Sun won or lost the peon game. If Sun won, then human lives were forfeit; if Sun lost, then he would probably be fairly unhappy, and might take out his anger upon humans. 

The Winter Solstice was also thought to be a time when the supernatural powers inherent within humans was needed “to aid in the cosmic rebirth of the universe.” The shaman-priests of the Chumash would do their best to make sure that “order and balance” was restored to the universe, and life “for all things” was maintained. Requests and pleas from both commoners and the elite, as well as public and private rituals, were employed to “'pull’ the sun back again on a northward course."

My paper was several pages longer than the maximum requirement, and I had already made the print really small, so I didn't get a chance to go into a little more detail regarding the last line above, where the Chumash would "pull the sun back again on a northward course."  My astronomy professor, John Stocke, described how the Chumash would point ceremonial poles that were perfectly straight right at the sun, so that the shadow left on the ground was a perfect circle, as small as it could be.  Then, the individuals holding the poles would "pull" as hard as they could, trying to pull the sun back up in the sky.  

Happy Winter Solstice everybody, and let us hope that the Sun does not win!

Works Cited

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Round 1: Winter Trivia Contest 2013

Welcome to Round 1 of our Trivia Contest of Winter 2013!  Below we have the questions that make up Round 1.  I discussed the rules in our last post, which you can read by clicking HERE.  Each question is worth 2 points, unless otherwise indicated.  Below the actual questions, I will include an answer sheet.  You can copy and paste the answer sheet into an email or a Word document, and email them to me at  In your email, please also include your team name and the names of your team members.  All answers for Round 1 must be received by Saturday December 28th!  Here are the questions.  Good luck!

1.  Which of the following is NOT an archosaur? 

A.     American Alligator
B.     Tyrannosaurus rex
C.     Pteranodon
D.    Komodo dragon
E.     Stegosaurus

2.  Though they are called the “Buffaloes,” what is really the mascot of the University of Colorado in Boulder?

3.  In terms of their names, name the odd one out:

A.     Dracorex
B.     Guanlong
C.     Triceratops
D.     Hippodraco

4.  What dinosaur is pictured here?  (1 point for a relatively close answer, 2 points for the correct answer.)

5.   Is Megalodon still alive today?  Should we trust Discovery Channel?

6.  Which of the following birds is made up? 

A.     Hammerkop
B.     Screwdriver-bill
C.     Helmeted Hornbill
D.     Shoe-bill
E.      Spoon-bill

7.  Which of the following species of snake is most closely related to the milk snake, Lampropeltis triangulatum?

A.     Corn Snake
B.     Anaconda
C.     Rattlesnake
D.    Kingsnake
E.     Pit Viper

8.  Which of the following is NOT a textbook case of convergent evolution:
A.     Thylacosmilus/Smilodon
B.     Musk Deer/Chinese Water Deer
C.     Mammoth/Mastodon
D.     Gray Wolf/Thylacine

9.  What in the world is THAT!  (1 point for a relatively close answer, 2 points for the correct answer.)

10.  For almost every single constellation that we recognize here on Earth, the stars that make up that constellation almost always have no physical relationship with each other, and just appear to be close together from here on Earth. Name the one major exception, known to the Japanese as “Subaru.”

11. What shape is wombat poop? 

12.  True or False: On average, hyenas scavenge more than lions.

13.  Some people think that the discovery of fossilized Protoceratops bones in the Gobi Desert was the inspiration behind what mythical creature?

A.     Dragon
B.     Griffin
C.     Mermaid
D.     Cyclops
E.      Centaur

14.  What’s wrong with this story: “As the giant man used his pocketknife to help him circumnavigate the great jungles of the Amazon Basin, he was startled by the abundant diversity of life.  He saw everything from piranha, macaws, and anaconda, and even saw a black leopard attack a javelina!”

15.  Dermal armor is a feature seen by all of the following except:

A.     Giant ground sloths
B.     Armadillos
C.     Pangolins
D.    Glyptodonts
E.     Ankylosaurs
F.     Clouded leopard

16.  All of the following dinosaurs have been discovered in the Morrison Formation, which has outcrops in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and several other states.  All, that is, except for which one? 

A.     Utahraptor
B.     Apatosaurus
C.     Stegosaurus
D.    Camptosaurus
E.     Allosaurus
F.     Gargoyleosaurus

17.  What is pictured here?
A.     Mosasaur
B.     Dinosaur
C.     Pterosaur
D.    Ichthyosaur
E.     Plesiosaur
F.     Dolphin

18.  What strange feature seen in the young hoatzin sets it apart from any other living birds, and forges a resemblance with its extinct ancestors like Archaeopteryx?

A.     Tentacles
B.     Claws on wings
C.     Teeth in mouth
D.     Marshmallows
E.      Flightlessness

19.  How many species of penguin live and breed in the Northern Hemisphere, above the Equator?

A.     Two, the African and Gal├ípagos Penguin
B.     None, everyone knows penguins live at the South Pole
C.     None, everyone knows penguins live at the North Pole
D.    One, the African Penguin
E.     None, everyone knows penguins live in Antarctica
F.     One, the Gal├ípagos Penguin
G.    None, penguins don’t exist

20.  What Triassic animal is pictured here, courtesy of Sam Lippincott?  (1 point for a relatively close answer, 2 points for the correct answer.)

Photo Credit: Sam Lippincott

21.  Why is it ironic when people kill bull snakes, mistaking them for rattlesnakes?

A.     Because bull snakes ARE rattlesnakes
B.     Because bull snakes kill and eat rattlesnakes
C.     Because bull snakes are more venomous than rattlesnakes
D.     Because rattlesnakes and bull snakes live on different continents
E.     Because bull snakes don’t exist

22.  A blast from the past: having been around for hundreds of millions of years, what is the name of this “living fossil?”  (1 point for a relatively close answer, 2 points for the correct answer.)

23.  Which of the following is a habitat that you would NOT expect to find a kangaroo in?

A.     The Australian Outback
B.     In the forest canopy of New Guinea rainforests, 60 feet above the ground
C.     Swimming in the shallows of the Great Barrier Reef, consuming kelp and other             oceanic plants
D.    The Australia Zoo
E.    Oh, kangaroos definitely exist, I would just expect to find them in all of these                   locations.  After all, they ARE kangaroos.

24.  Which of the following is NOT a term used in reference to a past mass extinction? 

A.     K/T Event
B.     Cambrian Explosion
C.     The Great Dying
D.     Deccan Traps

25.  Scientific names too hard to remember?  That’s not the case for this “river horse.”

Now, here is the answer sheet.  It really is not that complicated, just copy and paste this into an email and send it my way at!  

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