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Stone Age Stellarium

Recently I co-authored a paper with Martin Sweatman from the School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, titled: Decoding European Palaeolithic art: Extremely ancient knowledge of precession of the equinoxes. It is currently under peer-review but can be downloaded here: and here: Its current preform is without humanities padding.

As a physicist, my colleague is more concerned with measurement than interpretation. However, this has provided a high correlation between the radiocarbon dates of animals in Palaeolithic artworks against an astronomical (solstice/equinox) interpretation. The artworks are sourced from specific “shrine” contexts and encode dates. As such, they form a zodiac. The existence of this zodiac does not imply cultural continuity from Ice Age Europe to the Neolithic Near East, it rather identifies a technology amid ancient human groups that utilised the same method of calibrating time and the use of animal forms as the components of that calendrical cosmos. By cognitively subtracting animal forms from constellations at solstice and equinox stations they used the environmental sources available to them. I do not personally follow my colleague on the Altamira and Chauvet examples. Nevertheless, archaeology has generally neglected the sky as a cultural resource.

The term ‘zodiac’ (from Greek, zodiakos meaning ‘animals’) does not here reference the twelve, or more, roughly symmetrical star signs of Mesopotamian and classical antiquity but a more archaic coordinate system with fewer stations used for tracking the sun’s course over a year. Similarly, an acknowledgement of the precession of the equinoxes does not imply that earlier starwatchers would necessarily be aware of the larger, approximately 26,000-year cycle involved. The gradual change produced by this phenomenon where solstices and equinoxes tracked by sticks, trees, megaliths or cave entrances would appear to move through the stars, would be noticeable over vastly shorter periods of time if they were being monitored.

autumn solstice sunset Karahunj, Armenia (picture, author)

In addition to planning socially cohesive ritual practices of foragers (for a later Andean example of solstices marking important events, see, it is proposed that solstice and equinoxes were symbolized in a proto-writing or “script” used for writing dates.

Interpretations of Palaeolithic cave art form a loop, there is no unitary paradigm which interprets its statement. The readings of different theoretical schools reflect trends of their own age and developing understandings. The first reading of cave art goes back to its first discovery in the 1860s. Then, researchers deciphered rock art as the expression of primitive hunting magic whereby hunters drew a picture of the animal they wished to kill and then went out and killed it. Cave art was magical; what was depicted was expected to happen in reality by means of a rite.


Imagined hunting magic ceremony by Abbé Breuil (after E. Hadingham, Secrets of the Ice Age)

Some saw it as fertility magic while others made comparisons with the art of children (Sandars,1995). In the 1960s, the French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan devised a more abstract theory that suggested the imagery in cave sites followed an organisational structure which divided the Ice Age world into binary opposites such as light or dark, closed or open, male or female (Leroi-Gourhan, 1982). Followingly, many of the geometric signs seen in caves which accompany more realistic animal depictions, became “male fertility symbols” or “female fertility symbols” depending on their linear (“phallic”) or triangular (“vulva”) appearance. Leroi-Gourhan’s theory remained popular for some time but eventually fell into disfavour. More recently, others have seen animal footprints in these symbols which they believe might have served as a database of game animals, indexical signs that would have been taught to younger members of the tribe (Mithen, 1998).

A substantial departure from the above sees cave art as the production of shamanic or altered states of consciousness. Here, the bestiary depicted in caves are spirit-animals and the natural walls of a cave’s interior are “membranes” between the living and the dead. The painted spirit-animals, and human-animal hybrids are shown extruding from the ancestral realm behind the wall. In this approach the geometric shapes and symbols distributed in caves are entopic forms, which are shapes neurologically produced in the eye while in trance visions rather than figurative representations of real things (Lewis-Williams, 2012). Yet another view suggests that cave art was placed acoustically in cave spaces and that drawings represent the sounds that people generated in those spots. This emerging perspective sees cave art as a convergence of sound and drawing which allowed early humans to convey symbolic thinking in visual terms. As graphic communication, cave art might then represent an early form of proto-writing.

Falling horse ‘vortex’ characteristic of astronomical representations. Lascaux (picture, author)

From the 1970s an alternative direction was created by the work of the American science writer Alexander Marshack. Sceptical about methodologies that relied on the theories of anthropological schools which divided the products of cultures into speculative cognitive contexts, Marshack believed that prehistoric man explained the workings of the world by story, image and symbol, and that these artistic expressions were an early form of science (Marshack, 1972). By analysing a large catalogue of Upper Palaeolithic plaques and figurines, Marshack proposed that notches and lines incised into them were notation systems that recorded time, lunar phases, and seasonally relevant information within their symbolic design. Marshack had opened the door to astronomical interpretations which saw cave art as a symbolic storage system of information. From this perspective, the beasts and symbols painted in caves correspond with figures from a mythology in which astronomical observation and mythical thought likely mixed. His approach created a lasting influence which has strengthened alongside a reappraisal of the intellectual capacities of Upper Palaeolithic people over the past 50 years.

A summer bison and winter bison interlocked and appearing to burst from the wall at the termination of the Nave, Lascaux. Time tellers/divinities (picture, author)

The famous cave paintings of Lascaux have been subject to the range of rock art interpretation since the discovery of this cave complex in 1940. Early excavators of the cave such as Breuil had entertained the possibility that cave art might represent constellations. From the 1990s there was a surge of scholarly interest in charting Lascaux’s star maps. In 1992 the Spanish prehistorian Luz Antequera Congregado published her doctoral dissertation on the cultural evolution of the constellations which included an analysis of seven dots (two dots are merged) above the shoulder of an aurochs painting in Lascaux’s ‘Hall of the Bulls’ which strongly appears to mimic the position of the Pleiades cluster in the Taurus constellation. She also examined other figures from other caves (A. Congregado, 1991). In 1997 an American mathematician named Frank Edge saw the Hall of the Bulls entrance to the cave as a depiction of the summer sky (Edge, 1995) largely due to the representation of Taurus-Pleiades which is an especially compelling example of how Ice Age artists imaged this constellation.

The French archaeologist, Chantal Jeguès-Wolkiewiez suggested the Hall of the Bulls was a prehistoric zodiac, she argued the star Antares (of the Scorpius constellation) was shown amid an aurochs painting facing directly opposite the depiction of Taurus-Pleiades. This example is evasive but elsewhere her research has demonstrated that many Ice Age cave sites, including Lascaux, were purposefully chosen because the sun shone into their entrances at astronomically significant times of the year (Jegues-Wolkiewiez, 2000). Indeed, out of 130 Palaeolithic caves she visited, she found that 122 were aligned to the solstices or equinoxes, an extremely strong result (Jegues-Wolkiewiez, 2007).

Constellations and solstice alignments in the Hall of the Bulls, after Jeguès-Wolkiewiez

In light of the above alongside the likely existence of calendar experts in Upper Palaeolithic groups who would schedule feasting, ritual and ceremony by carefully monitoring solstices (Hayden and Villenueve, 2011), it is entirely feasible that the celestial movement of precession was detected in the prehistoric era. It is irrelevant if these earlier calendar keepers were unaware of what caused it and of the extent of its larger cycle. The recording of events in art on fixed spaces and objects would enable groups to orientate themselves in time beyond the measure of a year. This would be a cognitive necessity and one well within their reach. The figures encoding dates were likely also cast in a mythological framework.