Paleo-Astronomy

In the previous post we discussed the “cultural explosion” of the Upper Paleolithic which brought the beginnings of art, religion, and magic, as well as technological advances. Along with these innovations came the earliest forms of observational astronomy, the calendar and astro-ceremonialism–mythology, religious beliefs and rituals associated with the heavenly bodies.

The Hall of the Bulls Lascaux caves, France photo: http://www.lascaux culture.fr
The Hall of the Bulls
Lascaux caves, France
photo: http://www.lascaux culture.fr

French paleo-astronomer Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez insists there was a long cultural tradition of skywatching among the people of the Cro-Magnon Age of Europe (30,000-10,000 BCE). She proposes that the famous cave paintings of Lascaux in France record the constellations of a prehistoric version of the zodiac which included solstice points and major stars. Her theory is based on the discovery of numerous dots and tracings superimposed on the paintings of bulls, aurochs and horses on the walls of Lascaux. She claims these correspond to the patterns of constellations–most notably the constellations of Taurus and Pleiades and the stars Aldeberan and Antares. She proposes most of the constellations are represented by paintings of animals, accurately depicting their coloring and coats during the corresponding seasons of the year.  Jegues-Wolkiewiez visited 130 cave sites in France over a period of seven years, identifying solar alignments throughout the seasons, and found that 122 of the sites had optimal orientations to the setting of the sun during the solstices. She concludes that these sites were mainly selected because their interiors were illuminated by the setting sun on the day of the winter solstice. She also determined through computer modeling that the sun’s setting rays during the summer solstice illuminated the painting of the Red Bull on the back wall of the Hall of Bulls in Lascaux 17,000 years ago.

Bull painting from Lascaux with dots possibly indicating stars of Taurus, Orion and Pleiades
Bull painting from Lascaux with dots possibly indicating stars of Taurus, Orion and Pleiades

German researcher Dr. Michael Rappenglueck has arrived at similar conclusions, pointing to the markings juxtaposed on the painting of a bull at Lascaux, which he claims delineate the constellation Taurus. The Pleiades constellation is also accurately represented in its relative position in the sky over the bull’s shoulder. The Pleiades have been used as seasonal markers in ancient cultures worldwide and were possibly used to mark the autumn and spring equinoxes at the time the artwork of Lascaux was created.

Constellations of Orion, Taurus and Pleiades juxtaposed on bull painting
Constellations of Orion, Taurus and Pleiades juxtaposed on bull painting
Painting from Shaft of the Dead Man--Lascaux
Painting from Shaft of the Dead Man–Lascaux

Rappenglueck believes the paintings of Lascaux not only represent the constellations, but also the cosmology of Paleolithic shamans. He points to the area of the caves known as the “Shaft of the Dead Man” where the enigmatic painting of a prone man, a bull, and bird perched on a staff can be found. It has been interpreted as a shaman lying in trance next to a sacrificed bull, watched over by his bird helping spirit.

Summer Triangle superimposed on painting from Shaft of the Dead Man.
Summer Triangle superimposed on painting from Shaft of the Dead Man.

According to Rappenglueck these figures form a map of the sky with the eyes of the bull, man, and bird representing the three prominent stars of Vega, Deneb and Altair. These three bright stars form the “Summer Triangle” which can be seen overhead during the summer months in the northern hemisphere. Around 17,000 years ago they would have never set in the sky and would have been prominent during the early spring, in fact Deneb was close to the Pole Star at the time.  Rappenglueck notes: “It is a map of the prehistoric cosmos…It was their sky, full of animals and spirit guides.”

Orion carving with calendar on reverse BBC-Science/Nature
Orion carving with calendar on reverse
BBC-Science/Nature

The earliest known depiction of the constellation Orion, according to Rappenglueck was carved on a piece of mammoth tusk. This 32,000 year old artifact of the Aurignacian people of the Upper Paleolithic represents a male figure with arms and legs outstretched in the same pose as the constellation. The tablet also has 86 markings on its sides and back. Rappenglueck notes these are the number of days which when subtracted from a year equal the average number of days of human gestation. That number also matches the days that one of Orion’s brightest stars–Betelgeuse–is visible yearly, suggesting early skywatchers may have connected women’s pregnancy with the cycles of the  celestial gods.

Paleolithic lunar calendar sservi.nasa.gov
Paleolithic lunar calendar sservi.nasa.gov

Another researcher, Alexander Marshack, found what appears to be the worlds oldest calendars— small bone plates dated around 30,000- 32,000 years old— which are engraved or painted with dots or lines. After extensive analysis he concluded these correspond to lunar or solar motions. One tablet from Dordogne, France apparently represents the waxing and waning lunar positions in serpentine form.

These discoveries suggest that Upper Paleolithic peoples were sophisticated observers of the sky who tracked the motions of the sun, moon, and stars—and recorded their observations in cave paintings and calendars. Undoubtedly this knowledge would have enhanced their chances of survival, allowing them to predict seasonal animal migrations and weather changes. The research also sheds light on their religious beliefs and practices as well. The spectacular paintings of bulls in Lascaux, embellished with the markings of the constellations, imply these people may have possessed their own celestial myths, and even performed religious ceremonies associated with the solstices and changing of the seasons in the caves.

Egyptian sky-goddess Nut as cow. E.A. Wallis Budge 1904
Egyptian sky-goddess Nut as cow.
E.A. Wallis Budge 1904

These findings raise the intriguing possibility that Paleolithic sky-lore may have been passed down to the early historical civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Neolithic Europe. Is it any coincidence that in some Egyptian myths the heavens were imagined as a star-spangled cow, or the Sumerians called the constellation Taurus “the bull of heaven”? The Greeks  borrowed the constellation from the Babylonians, and as a bull it has  remained since first painted on cave walls 17,000 years ago.

“Orion & Taurus”
John Flamsteed
Atlas Celeste 1776
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