Star Lore

Shaft Scene at Lascaux By I, Peter80, CC BY-SA 3.0

So how far back has mankind been using the stars to represent direction or time?  It seems that we can ‘document’ the knowledge of the constellations up to 40,000 years ago.  So, while we generally consider it amazing that the ancient Greeks, and before them the Mesopotamians, were mapping the skies and had knowledge of things such as precession (see star lore blog 3) this might have been old news even then.  The evidence? Well it’s been in front of our eyes for a long time, but it has taken the work of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent to realise that various pieces of art from cave paintings to sculpture have in fact not just been art.  The Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic people of the time used animal symbols to map the constellations, the same ones we use in the West today and amazingly even some of the animal symbols are still with us.  But that’s not all, it is now believed that some of the art not only depicts constellations but also records dates and events.

So, what exactly has been found and how?  Well, researchers realised that certain animals seemed to be associated in recurring groups in many of the different locations and this turned out to be a key observation leading to the decoding of the art.  It was a site in Turkey called Gobekli Tepe that held the key.  Gobekli Tepe is a temple that includes 43 T-shaped pillars that is dated to 10,000BC.  Some of these pillars display extraordinary artwork in the form of elaborately carved animal images.  One of the pillars, called the Vulture Stone, has several animal symbols surrounding a scorpion.  It seems that if the scorpion is taken to be the constellation Scorpius then they appear to be in almost exactly the correct positions around Scorpius to match the relative positions of the constellations in the sky.  This has been backed up by statistical analysis which suggests that the chances of these positionings being pure chance is 1 in 140 million.

The symbols associated with constellations at Gobekli Tepe are:

  • Ram = Aries
  • Large feline (Lion/Leopard) = Cancer
  • Bear = Virgo
  • Aurochs (bovid) = Capricornus
  • Scorpion = Scorpius
  • Dog/wolf = Lupus
  • Bending bird = Pisces
  • Duck/Goose = Libra
  • Eagle/Vulture = Sagittarius
  • Bending bird with fish = Ophiuchus
  • Fox = Aquarius
  • Pair of lion/leopard or charging ibex/gazelle = Gemini

In addition the symbols at Lascaux suggest that:

  • Rhinoceros = Taurus
  • Horse = Leo

Now that the constellations had been identified at Gobekli Tepe, the Vulture Stone also played a crucial role in finding out how dates were identified.  The method for recording dates is based on the precession of the equinoxes – in which due to procession the position of zodiacal constellations at the equinoxes (and solstices) change over time.  The appearance of zodiacal constellations in the sky at the equinoxes and solstices were used as a marker of the time of events and the people of the period represented these constellations with the images of animals.  This was verified by radiocarbon dating.  For example, the Vulture Stone at Gobekli Tepe has a representation of a dying man and four animals – a vulture/eagle, bear, ibex/gazelle, and tall bending bird, and these match the position of their associated constellations with the four solstices and equinoxes in 10,950BC.   This date is important because it also corresponds with the time of the Younger Dryas event.  The radiocarbon dating carried out on the site dates it to 9530BC +/- 200 years.  The depiction of a dying man with the date corresponding to the Younger Dryas event is important because it was a period of rapid cooling in our climate which took less than 100 years to develop and lasted for 1,300 years.  It led to near glacial conditions throughout Europe and North America.  There is additional evidence that other pillars at Gobekli Tepe may represent a comet strike linked to the Taurid meteor stream, but evidence of the Younger Dryas period being initiated by a comet strike has yet to be proven.

Shaft Scene at Lascaux By I, Peter80, CC BY-SA 3.0
Shaft Scene at Lascaux By I, Peter80, CC BY-SA 3.0

The same approach was also used to interpret images in the Shaft Scene in the famous Lascaux cave system.  Like Gobekli Tepe, the Shaft Scene display a dead or dying man surrounded by four animals.  In this case a bison/aurochs, duck/goose, a rhinoceros and a horse.  The bison/aurochs also seems to be dying, speared with its entrails spilling out.  Using the decoded symbols from Gobekli Tepe, the bison/aurochs corresponds with Capricornus which was the constellation associated with the summer solstice between 15,350 and 13,000 BC.  While the duck/goose corresponds with Libra (spring equinox between 15,700 and 14,100BC).  So, the scene might scene might represent a date anywhere between 15,350 and 14,100BC.  Unfortunately, neither of these symbols had previously been decoded and to narrow the date range down they would be needed.  But given the date range it seemed likely that the rhinoceros represents Taurus (autumn equinox 15,350 to 14950 BC) and the horse represents Leo (winter solstice 15,350 to 14,800 BC).  This then suggests the Shaft Scene represents the date 15,150 ± 200 BC which amazingly is a good fit with the proposed dates for the Lascaux cave paintings.

Very interestingly, there is also a fairly strong but short-lived climatic cooling fluctuation recorded in 15,300BC by a Greenland ice core.  So, both of these particular sites seem to be recording cooling events in a dramatic way and I can only imagine what the impact of such as rapid cooling of the atmosphere would have been for the ecosystem and people of that time.

The researchers also used this method to investigate Palaeolithic art from sites in France, Spain, and Germany.  These sites included:

  • Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, southern Germany circa 38,000 BC
  • Chauvet, northern Spain circa 33,000 BC
  • Lascaux, southern France circa 15,000 BC
  • Altamira, northern Spain circa 15,000 BC

It was found that all used similar date keeping methods even though the art was separated in time by tens of thousands of years.  For each known constellation they worked out the appropriate solstice or equinox corresponding to that animal and found that the zodiacal date corresponded with the radiocarbon date.

So, this fantastic research has shown us that the ancients used the same zodiacal constellations that we currently use in the West.  Some of them such as Aries, Scorpius and Lupus still use the same symbols.  The fact that up to 40,000 years later, we used the same patterns of stars with some of them being the same animal symbols I find absolutely mind blowing.

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, we find that the animal symbols represent the date that the sun set in that zodiacal constellation on one of the equinoxes or solstices.  All this shows to me that the people were very intelligent and had an understanding of complex maths as well as astronomy.  Further conformation that they definitely were not the archetypal caveman they have been represented as in the past.

Sweatman, M.B., & Coombs, A. (2019)  Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes. Athens Journal of History – Volume 5, Issue 1 – Pages 1-30.

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