History of the constellations

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The current list of 88 constellations recognised by the International Astronomical Union[1] since 1922[2] is based on 48 listed by Ptolemy in the Almagest.[3] Another 40 were later added by other astronomers, many in the southern hemisphere in areas below the horizon as seen from ancient Greece. Chinese astronomers had their own traditional star groupings, as did the Maya[4] and many other cultures.

Greek astronomy was built on Mesopotamian foundations. They defined the Zodiac and at least another 18 constellations taken over or adapted by the Greeks:

The earliest direct evidence for the constellations comes from inscribed stones and clay writing tablets dug up in Mesopotamia (within modern Iraq) dating back to 3000 B.C.E.[5]

It appears that the bulk of the Mesopotamian constellations were created within a relatively short interval from around 1300 to 1000 B.C [...]

The Mesopotamian groupings turn up in many of the classical Greek constellations. The stars of the Greek Capricorn and Gemini, for example, were known to the Assyrians by similar names - the Goat-Fish and the Great Twins. A total of 20 constellations are straight copies. Another 10 have the same stars but different names. The Assyrian Hired Man and the Swallow, for instance, were renamed Aries and Pisces.[6]

The Sumerian constellations were inherited by Babylonian astronomy. There are various Babylonian star catalogues or lists of stars, notably the MUL.APIN, a text dating to the Late Bronze Age, ca. 14th to 12th century BC.

In more recent times, Ptolemy's list has been added to in order to fill gaps between Ptolemy's patterns. Most of the northern sky was filled in by Petrus Plancius and Johannes Hevelius.

The constellations around the South Pole were not observable by the Greeks. Twelve were observed by Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman in the end of sixteenth century and depicted by Johann Bayer in his star atlas Uranometria of 1603.[7] Several more were created by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in his star catalogue, published in 1756.

Other proposed constellations didn't make the cut, most notably Quadrans (now part of between Boötes and Draco) for which the Quadrantid meteors are named. Also the ancient constellation Argo Navis was so big that it was broken up into several different constellations, for the convenience of stellar cartographers.


  1. ^ International Astronomical Union. "The Constellations". 
  2. ^ Ian Ridpath. "Constellation names, abbreviations and sizes". 
  3. ^ Star Tales – The Almagest
  4. ^ http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_astronomy.htm
  5. ^ Origins of the ancient constellations: I. The Mesopotamian traditions, by J. H. Rogers. Journal of the British Astronomical Association, vol.108, no.1, p.9-28 1998. URL: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1998JBAA..108....9R
  6. ^ The Origin of the Greek Constellations, by Bradley E. Schaefer. Scientific American, November 2006.
  7. ^ Johann Bayer's Southern Star Chart

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