The semantics of constellation line figures

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We answer the question whether, when forming constellations in the night sky, people in astronomical cultures around the world consistently imagine and assign the same symbolism to the same (type of) star cluster. Evidence of semantic universality has so far been anecdotal. We use two complementary definitions for a star cluster: (1) a star group in a particular sky region (regardless of its exact shape), and (2) a star group with a particular shape and brightness (regardless of its location in the sky). Over a dataset of 1903 constellations from 75 astronomical cultures, we find semantic parallels which are likely culturally induced: body parts in the sky region delineated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as Ori, fish in Cru and Sco, geometric symbols in Cru, groups in UMa, mammals in UMa, and reptiles in Sco. Surprisingly, we find many more significant semantic parallels which can only be naturally induced by the shape and composition of the star pattern underlying a constellation (or, are endogenous to the sky rather than culture-dependent): arthropods in IAU Sco, body parts in Tau, geometric and group symbols in star clusters (regardless of sky region) with a small number of bright stars comparable in magnitude, humanoids and mammals naturalistically drawn in star clusters with large spatial diameter and many stars, landscapes in IAU Eri, man-made objects of various types in many IAU regions, and reptiles consistently drawn in star clusters with low aspect ratio or low branching in the minimum spanning tree drawn over the stars. These naturally induced semantics show that there are universal (rather than only cultural) thought patterns behind forming and naming constellations.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2023


  • physics.soc-ph


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