The Mysteries of Multiple Cosmologies

The Mysteries of Multiple Cosmologies

Winter Curiosity Box Book

In modern science, cosmology is the study of the universe through astronomy and physics, and it’s incredibly intriguing because it helps us to understand the universe we inhabit and our role in it. Humans have wondered about that throughout time and space, and around the world, every culture has developed a cosmology; a way to interpret the structure of the universe based on their own observations and beliefs about how it works. Anthropologists have spent quite a bit of time studying these, and the Human Relations Area files contain information on the cosmologies of hundreds of societies.  

For example, to the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, our world is parallel to an unseen world, and things that exist in one world take on a different appearance in the other. What looks like a tree to us is a house in the unseen world; and vice-versa: our houses appear as trees and large ponds in the unseen world. Humans appear as animals there – generally, men appear as boars, and women as cassowaries. The two worlds exist side-by-side just like in some ideas of parallel worlds and additional dimensions in modern theoretical physics. One difference is that in most multiversal theories, the worlds are completely separate, but the Kaluli worlds can affect each other: if a boar or cassowary is hurt or dies in the unseen world, the human is hurt in our world as well.

The Cassowary, native to the tropical forests of New Guinea.


One interesting thing to note is that the Kaluli unseen world is not, in an anthropological sense, supernatural – because to them, it is completely natural; they don’t regard it with awe, or as a sacred space; it is simply a different part of the universe, the way we’d regard another planet. That’s part of what a cosmology does; it defines what a society considers the normal, natural world. 

The San of southern Africa are one of the most studied hunter-gatherer groups on the planet. San cosmology includes both an ordinary world and a spirit world, and the two connect at certain places and times: bodies of water, unusual rocks or parts of the landscape, and during events like dancing – and death. Because going from one world to the other is dangerous, the people entrusted to do it are the tribal shamans, those skilled in traveling to strange places and understanding impossible things. While we’re not suggesting a direct link, modern scientific cosmology also considers travel between worlds dangerous, if possible at all, and relies on the work of astronomers and theoretical physicists – people who are often adept at understanding seemingly impossible things. 

San hunter.


The Inca also had multiple worlds that connected at certain places. Their universe was divided into the hanaq pacha (upper world – the stars, planets, and home of some gods), the kay pacha (middle world – realm of humans, plants, and animals), and the ukha pacha (world below, home of both the dead and of new life about to be born). In Inca cosmology, lightning, rainbows, and rain connected the upper to the middle world, while springs, which rose from underground to bring water to the surface, were a bridge between the lower and middle world. Here’s the thing: springs really do connect the underground world to the surface. Lightning and rain actually go between the sky and the ground; these are beliefs rooted in an observation and understanding of the natural world.    

Machu-Picchu, home to the Intimachay solstice observatory.


The Inca show that a spiritual cosmology and knowledge of real-world astronomy and natural phenomena were not exclusive: the Inca fit their incredible knowledge of astronomy into their understanding of the universe as divided into separate worlds. They were masters of horizon astronomy, and carefully marked the passage of sunsets, sunrises, and seasons. The Inca aligned buildings and temples to accurately mark equinoxes, solstices, and as the solar zenith and nadir; they marked out dozens of constellations based on bright stars, and at least eleven more based on clouds of stellar gas and dust that stood out against the Milky Way. All of this knowledge was the basis of their cosmology, informing their understanding of the relationships between humans, the world, and the gods.

Books like The End of Everything help us comprehend how the universe works; modern cosmology helps to tell us where we came from (the Big Bang) and where we might end up (all the things Mack writes about!). Like our understanding of the universe, the cosmologies of traditional peoples are constructed from observations about the world and how it fits together. It also serves the same purpose: to help answer the fundamental questions of human existence, and to keep people curious about the universe and our place in it. 

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