The Incan View of the Night Sky: Stars, Constellations, and Dark Clouds


People from around the world and throughout time have looked up at the night sky and tried to find meaning in what they saw. In the Northern hemisphere people saw bright stars, planets, and constellations which they incorporated into their legends. In the Southern Hemisphere, where the sky is completely different than it is North of the Equator, people gazed not only at visible objects but also at the spaces between them, finding not only star to star constellations but "dark cloud" constellations as well. Although discrepancies in naming stars and constellations often make it difficult to determine how an ancient culture viewed the sky, the problem is complicated in the Andes where a lack of information combined with a "general disinclination to point to anything considered sacred; among other things, this includes mountains, stars and rainbows," (Urton, At the Crossroads... 95) make it extraordinarily difficult to obtain accurate sky tales. However, despite these difficulties, it is known that the Incas saw a variety of animals and earthly creatures in the dark constellations of the Southern sky. According to anthropologist Gary Urton, who "collected an unusually complete set of dark cloud animal constellations from the rural highland people of in the vicinity of Cuzco," (Krupp, 264) "Symbolically, dark cloud constellations represent a transitional, intermediate category of celestial phenomena. That is they are androgynous or asexual, and even though they are located in the sky, they are classified as pachatierra (or pachatira ), a word which combines the Quechua and the Spanish terms for 'earth.'" (Urton, At the Crossroads... 109). The seasonal motion of these constellations, such as Yutu (the Sky Tinamou - a partridge-like bird), the celestial toad, and the Sky Llama, were used by the Incas to track the passage of the seasons and to mark sacred events. For example, "In ancient Peru, sacrifices of black and multicolored llamas were scheduled for April and October, when the 'eyes of the llama' [alpha and beta Centauri] are opposite the sun" (Krupp, 264).

Urton's findings regarding stars, constellations, and dark and light cloud constellations in ancient Peru can be found at these links and in his book, At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky, on pages 96-105, 108, and 110.

From Josh Marcy's, Topher Wilkins' and Adam Tarnoff's ID1 paper.