Researchers demonstrate that ancient stargazers had sophisticated knowledge of astronomy
Historians generally agree that astrology’s ancient roots
date back at least 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, but
accumulating evidence suggests that mankind’s fascination with the night sky
goes back much farther than that.
A new study described in the EarthSky.org news magazine
reports that 40,000 years ago cave-dwellers in what are now Turkey, Spain,
France and Germany all used a method of date keeping based on the stars. Some of their cave paintings aren’t just
depictions of wild animals but instead represent constellations in the night
sky, according to researchers Martin Sweatman and Alistair Coombs from the
Universities of Edinburg and Kent, respectively.
Some of the world’s oldest cave paintings reveal that
ancient people had surprisingly advanced knowledge of astronomy. According to the authors, the animal symbols
drawn on cave walls represent star constellations in the night sky and were
used to represent dates and to mark events, such as comet strikes. The research specifically checked out Earth’s
catastrophic encounters with the Tourid meteor stream and the cave art created
to memorialize known catastrophes.
The researchers studied and compared details of Paleolithic
and Neolithic cave art featuring animal symbols and found all the sites used
the same method of date-keeping based on sophisticated astronomy, even though
the cave art samples compared were separated in time by thousands of years. The
team confirmed their findings by comparing the age of cave art examples (determined
by radiocarbon dating of the paints used) with the positions of stars in
ancient times. A sophisticated computer
software programs positioned stars and planets in their respective time periods.
In an article published in the in the November 2018 issue of
the Athens Journal of History, the researchers
the cave paintings show that as far back as 40,000 years ago humans kept track
of time using sophisticated astronomical knowledge regarding how the positions
of stars slowly change over thousands of years. Remarkably, they found that ancient
people understood the phenomenon known as precession of the equinoxes, an
astronomical effect created by the gradual wobble of the Earth as it rotates on
its axis like a spinning top.
The equinoxes inch through space in a westerly direction along
the ecliptic or plane of the Earth’s orbit. advancing one degree every 72 years. At this pace it takes 25,772 years to complete
a full cycle through the 12 signs of the astrological zodiac.
“This knowledge, it seems, enabled ancient people to record
dates using animal symbols to represent star constellations, in terms of
precession of the equinoxes. Conventionally,
Hipparchus of ancient Greece is credited with discovering this astronomical
phenomenon. But we show that this level
of astronomical sophistication was known already within the last ice age, and
very likely by the time Homo sapiens entered western Europe around 40,000 years
ago,” Sweatman said.
He says his team’s measurements for precession of the
equinoxes were made using Stellarium software to accurately predict the
positions of stars and their constellations in earlier epochs. These measurements were compared with the calibrated
radiocarbon measurements that dated the age of the European cave art in the
Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, which spanned thousands of years.
comparison of predicted and measured dates we were able to verify our
scientific hypothesis to an extraordinary level of statistical confidence, far
surpassing the usual demands for publication of scientific results. 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.
“The evidence used to verify our hypothesis was accumulated
from many of the most famous Paleolithic cave art sites across Europe. Essentially, our statistical result is so
strong that, unless a significant flaw is found, it would be irrational to
doubt our hypothesis. It follows that
any proposition that is inconsistent with our hypothesis can automatically be
rejected. It is almost certainly wrong
because our hypothesis is almost certainly correct,” he said.
What isn’t so clear is how this information ultimately fits
with modern preconceptions about the way our ancient ancestors imagined and
embraced reality. The tendency has been for
moderns to write off ancient stargazers and their modern counterparts as a
fearful, superstitious lot that threatens intellectual stability. Conceivably, this head buried in sand
approach to human history will be modestly shaken by Professor Sweatman’s
Sweatman and Coombs article, Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes can be found here.