Although the founding of modern astronomy is often attributed to the great Greek scholars, Plato and Aristotle, European researchers now believe that humans that lived thousands of years earlier than they did already have a nuanced understanding of the stars.
The researchers studied cave drawings spanning Spain, France, Turkey, and Germany, and realized that what they were looking at was more than just mere depictions of nearby wildlife. It turns out that the bulls, rams, leopards, scorpions, and fish that they saw in the drawings are actually representations of constellations in the night sky.
Martin Sweatman and Alistair Coombs, from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent respectively, published their findings in the Athens Journal of History last month. They undertook a chemical analysis of the paint used in the cave drawings and managed to date all of them back to between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Furthermore, the researchers also used advanced software to calculate where the stars were positioned during the time that the cave drawings were drawn. To their astonishment, the researchers found that the cave drawings actually marked the dates of significant comet sightings, and were also correlated with star constellations visible at the time they were painted.
The world-famous Lascaux Shaft Scene, which was studied by the researchers, was found to depict a comet strike that occurred circa 15,200 BC. It’s hypothesized that the rhinoceros imagery contained in the painting signifies the constellation of Taurus, whereas the horse symbolizes the stars in the constellation of Leo.
Another finding that the researchers made was that a pillar in Gobeki Tepe, Turkey’s ancient archeological site, depicts a catastrophic comet strike that took place circa 11,000 BC. It features etched designs of a scorpion, bear, and bird, and the researchers were able to determine that the carvings represented the constellations that were in view at the time they were carved. More specifically, the carvings represented the Scorpius, Virgo and Pisces constellations.
As a result of all of the above, archeologists now believe that humans were keeping track of time via the stars up to 40,000 years ago. It’s also evident that ancient peoples had an understanding of the equinoxes, which occur due to the gradual shift of Earth’s rotational axis as it orbits the sun.
This notion disputes the fact that astronomer Hipparchus discovered equinoxes in 129 BC. "Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age. Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today," Sweatman said in a press release.
Many pieces of prehistoric art were cited in the study, not least the painting in Lascaux, France, but it also suggested that certain ancient relics were also used for recording time. For instance, The Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, the oldest known sculpture, dates back to 38,000 BCE. It is now believed to symbolize the star constellation Leo.