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There's a tangent at the beginning of this video on the Epic of Gilgamesh briefly talking about an oddity where most ancient cultures have stories about the Pleiades star cluster, often describing them as sisters, and an aspect all the stories share is that there are originally seven, but one has somehow gone away. This is extremely strange, the video explains, because although there are seven stars in the cluster bright enough to be seen by eye, two of them are too close together to be resolved as separate unaided, so whoever originally came up with the story would be more likely to talk about "six sisters." The explanation proposed is that the story is so old that the stars' proper motion has hidden an originally more distinguishable seventh star.

Now, the video is sourcing information from a Phys.org article by the author of a paper about this idea, and the paper's abstract neatly sums up why it strains credulity - for the proper motion to be large enough, it needs to be so old that "these stories may predate the departure of most modern humans out of Africa around 100,000 BC." Part of the explanation offered is that it was preserved through the largely undisturbed Aboriginal Australian cultures, but that's still an unfathomably long time.

There is a preprint of the paper linked in the article and while the argument sounds sensible to me, I have no specialist knowledge and would like to hear a second opinion. Has anyone knowledgeable criticized or otherwise seriously responded to this idea? Is it plausible, or is there something wrong with the data that shoots it down?

Or for that matter, is my incredulity just a personal bias coming from being a Brit who's culture gets smashed to pieces and rebuilt half a dozen times before breakfast by comparison?

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    $\begingroup$ I have the same skepticism about the Pleiades. There are more than 7 stars in the Pleiades cluster, of which six are easily visible to the unaided human eye, and Pleione is hard to tell apart from Atlas. But claiming we know of the "seventh sister" because it was more visible 100k years ago seems like a big leap, and not really necessary. Celaeno is dim but still well within human capability, given dark skies and good eyes. "There's a seventh one but it's so dim you can barely see it" seems like a more likely explanation than a story that lasted unchanged for all of human history. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2023 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ Some aboriginal peoples in Australia have oral histories of the lands that are now underwater because of the sea level rising after the last ice age. So that is about half way back to your 100,000 year mark. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 20, 2023 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ @JonCuster IIRC the sea was at its lowest point 18,000 years ago, which is a lot, but not nearly halfway to 100,000. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2023 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Some people with very good eyesight can and do see more than six or even seven stars in the Pleiades—I think some have reported 13, and these accounts seem reliable. Also, our ancestors had pure black skies, which we now lack. So, I would lean more towards an explanation along the lines of some people could see more than seven stars, thanks to eyesight and sky darkness, and they started a story from there. It doesn’t have to go back to before OOA2; just to long enough ago that humans were still mostly in Eurasiafrica… $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2023 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ If you're interested in the topic of cultural memory, there is a (tiny) discipline called "geomythology". A good book about it is The Edge of Memory, by Patrick Nunn. It contains several oral stories related to geological events thousands of years old (like the eruption of Mount Mazama for example), but nothing this old. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2023 at 15:45

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Variable Star

While some mythology and folklore can be reasonably traced back tens of thousands of years - mainly things that we can link to sea level rise, volcanism, etc. - I don't think the simplest explanation here is a 100,000 year old myth.

Pleione is a variable star, whose apparent magnitude varies between 4.77 and 5.50 over a long, complex cycle. That's roughly doubling in brightness.

It seems that Pleione has multiple shells of matter surrounding it, is spinning nearly fast enough to tear itself apart, and has binary companion - all of which causes its brightness to vary in unpredictable ways. Appearantly, the most recent minimum brightness was in the early 1970s, and the star brightened slowly for the next 30+ years.

It's pretty easy to imagine that when the faintest star visible (for most people) in a major constellation faded from view, people might come up with a story around it. Family arguments are probably universal. Thus Occam's razor says these myths are less than 100,000 years old.

Many Myths Are Related

The Japanese / Shinto dawn goddess Ame-no-Uzume is borrowed from the Vedic Ushas who in turn came from the Proto-Indo-European h₂éwsōs. The Greek Eos and Roman Aurora can be traced back to the same PIE dawn goddess.

So it may be that fairly few independent inventions are required to make this story of the Seven Sisters feel universal.

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An assumption is made here, that we are the first advanced civilization that was on this planet in its 4.5+ billion year history. This assumption is a hypothesis, which, like any hypothesis, can become a theory only after it is proven in a lab with an experiment that is reproducible by third parties.

As an example, Zecharia Sitchin showed an ancient Sumerian tablet, VA/243, showing the planets of our solar system including Uranus and Neptune, which are only visible by telescope, and have been "discovered" in the last 300 years.

So yes, legends and "myths" can be very ancient.

Sumerian tablet VA/243

Image credit: Zecharia Sitchin

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    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:16

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