The sky to our prehistoric ancestors must have been a huge, magnificent movie theater, featuring a grand never-ending show.

The only ambient light on a clear night was the hearth fires and the sky. The man-made fires were probably extinguished pretty quickly once the cooking and eating of the evening meal was complete.

I can imagine the entire clan, the children, adolescents and adults, lying on their backs ready to relax and enjoy the nightly picture show.

The evening show was likely narrated by an elder of the clan who had been schooled from an early age in the intricate details of the sky.

He was the clan’s astronomical authority.

Once in a while he might introduce one of his students who would present a special astronomical subject he had been assigned.

The most common plot lines occurred on the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the plane of the Solar System. As viewed from earth, the ecliptic is the band of sky, east to west, through which the Sun ranges during the course of one year.

Almost all the daily news and variety shows occurred on the ecliptic. As you know, the Moon moves across the sky close to the ecliptic. Also, all the planets make their appearance (when on the same side of the sun as earth) along the ecliptic.

The naked-eye planets — which we now call Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — would have been clearly visible as rather erratic wanderers among the orderly moving stars.

I can almost hear, on those perfectly black nights, once that tyrant Sun had left the stage, the stories and tales about all the amorous and clandestine interactions going on between the Moon, planets and occasional comet or meteorite.

The ecliptic band in the sky was so important to our ancient ancestors that they developed a coordinate system to keep track of where they were in the yearly sky show.

The sky, along the ecliptic, was divided into 12 segments, each marked and named by a star constellation. Each of these segments roughly corresponded to one cycle of full moon to full moon (about 28 days).

But the movement through all 12 almost exactly matched the yearly cycle from vernal equinox (start of spring) to vernal equinox. We now call the 12 segments the Zodiac.

One can guess what would happen on the night after the birth of a new member to the clan. The elder astronomer would note, for all the clan to hear, the precise location and phase of the moon, the position of the planets and the background constellation (one of the 12). The newborn would simultaneously take its place in the clan and in the universe.

Throughout that newborn’s life, any repeat of that original alignment of the celestial bodies must have been a very special time indeed.

Joe Concienne of Galveston, a chemical engineer who spent much of his career in Texas City, writes an occasional column on the basic concepts of science. He can be reached at concien@aol.com.

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