Astronomy, Archaeology And The Atacama Desert

October 1, 2014

by Drew Zieff
Astronomy, Archaeology And The Atacama Desert

Modern science has built a stairway to heaven. Even though Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had nothing to do with it. 

In the remote Atacama Desert, where thin, clear air and high altitude make for some of the best stargazing on the planet, stands history’s biggest on-the-ground astronomical workstation: ALMA. 

A super accurate telescope with a price tag of over a billion dollars, ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array) is an international effort to explore all things intergalactic. This is not your grandfather’s telescope. By amalgamating the radio waves captured by an arsenal of sixty-six dishes and antennae, ALMA is capable of pinpointing celestial bodies light years beyond that of past probing technology

Backed by North American, European, South American, and Asian governments, this intercontinental effort is taking steps to photograph and understand the furthest, previously unfathomable nooks and crannies of the heavens.

Professional astronomers aren’t the only ones to flock to the high plains of the Atacama Desert. Recreational stargazers enjoy this wild Andean landscape, too; foregoing expensive observatories to lay back on the desert sand and point out the now-brilliant constellations. 

A History Of Heavenly Exploration:

Astronomic observations are nothing new to the Atacama. Yet you don’t need a billion-dollar telescope to ascertain that — an archaeological brush will do. Incan civilization, as gleaned by experts from well-preserved ruins, placed emphasis on the skies both in religion and science. Incan calendars followed the movements of the cosmos and important buildings were constructed along the axis of the rising of the sun. 

Perhaps more fascinating than their impressive scientific discoveries was the Incan “cosmovision,” their understanding of the flux between the natural and supernatural. According to astrophysics professor and longtime student of Incan cosmology Dr. J. Mckim Malville, the Incas didn’t demarcate the realm of the living from that of the dying. In fact, staircases were a recurrent symbol in Incan art and architecture, representing the connectivity between the underworld, the earth and the heavens. During rituals, Incan shamans would ascend and descend these allegorical stairways, shifting between realms to gain knowledge and cure sickness. This idea is not unique to the Incas — religions from Africa to Asia reflect this concept of an “axis mundi” — a “cosmic axis” that connects past, present and future.

Indigenous Incan traditions and futuristic tech converge rather than clash in the Atacama. Locals have taken to offering tours that combine contemporary astronomy with Incan cosmology. At the Ahlarkapin Observatory, which means “Brilliant Star,” indigenous guides school stargazers, using newfangled telescopes and ancestral narratives to unravel both the heavens and the history of this lionized locale.

Astronomers Or Active Junkies?

We’re gear heads, not astrophysicists or archaeologists. But billion-dollar observatories and ancient belief systems aside, we feel most at home underneath a canopy of stars. Those beaming pinpricks in the night sky entertain us when we’re tired and guide us when we’re lost. In the Atacama Desert, stargazing can be as spiritual or scientific as you please, though for us, glimmering starlight always goes hand-in-hand with mountain biking, hiking and adventure.

The Atacama is a wild place, one full of wonder and adventure for those who seek it. The mystical landscape alone — one that is often compared to the Moon and Mars — is enough to begin to understand the birth of Incan cosmology and humanity’s contemporary fascination with life beyond the stratosphere. 

If there was a literal stairway to heaven, it would be in the Atacama. One we'd be the first to climb.


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