The first presence of natural light pollution on Earth proved to be essential to its creation. Endless volcanic activity--a mixture of lava, ash, and gas that escapes from a magma chamber deep below the surface--has been shaping the planet from the very beginning. This phenomenon continues in Hawai’i, Earth’s most volcanically active spot, where new land is created on a daily basis.
For billions of years, lightning was the brightest light in the night sky. Each flash lasted only a millisecond, providing brief but blinding illuminations, as seen here at the Grand Canyon, where thunderbolts often strike near the edges of the rim in spectacular fashion.
Two other rare, but nonetheless present forms of natural light pollution, were meteors burning in the earth’s atmosphere, as well as Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
The night skies prior to artificial light pollution were so pristine, during the darkest nights, in the new moon portion of the lunar cycle, when there was minimal or non-existent reflection of sunlight into the night sky atmosphere, the Milky Way would get so bright it would cast shadows and illuminate the landscape.
For humans, unlike other animal life, night became a fertile source of both fascination and dread of the unknown. Night sky, the source of endless unsolved mysteries, became the inspiration for some of the oldest known stories and myths.
For many centuries, indigenous tribes such as the Blackfeet could witness pure dark skies each night from their homes, developing rich mythologies that stemmed from their observations of the heavens. Stories told and songs performed around campfires gave forms to the sights above.
One day, seven little girls were playing away from their village. Suddenly, large black bears chased after them. Knowing they couldn’t escape, the girls jumped on a low rock and began to pray: Rock take pity on us, please save us! The rock began to grow upwards, pushing the girls higher and higher. The bears jumped to reach the girls, but only scratched the rock, broke their claws, and fell on the ground. The rock rose higher and higher, all the way to the sky, and the girls became the constellation Pleiades, The Seven Sisters.
- Kiowa Legend of what is today known as Devil’s Tower
The gold and silver mines of California were the last stops on the long journey west. The Gold Rush created the permanent entrenchment of white settlers
in the American West, and new technologies that made it easier to travel to and live in those harsh, mountainous climates began to arise.
Electricity, followed by electric light, arrived in California in the late-1880s, along with steam engine train technologies, and soon thereafter the growth of the oil industry and automobiles.
Just a few hundred years after Native American archaeoastronomy sites covered the land, Manifest Destiny had led to the near-destruction of many Native American cultures. All that remains now are Americana throwbacks
to ancient European archaeoastronomy sites such as Carhenge in Nebraska.
The age of dark skies, with us from the very beginning of humanity, has come to an abrupt end.