Symbols from the Sky

Reporter / by Holly Capelo /

Heavenly messages from the depths of prehistory may be encoded on the walls of caves throughout Europe.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Prof_saxx

Shortly after the autumnal equinox in the year 15,300 BC, deer hunters standing at the mouth of a cave in Lascaux, France, before dusk would have seen the constellation of the Bull, Taurus, climb the sky over the western hilltops. The Hyades cluster would have appeared as the star-speckled face of the animal, its blazing red eye the star Aldebaran, while the brilliant six stars of the Pleiades glittered above its great back. The rising Sun would then have shone through the cave’s entrance, assisting lamps made from animal fat to briefly illuminate the calcite walls. It would not be until the late 19th century that this grotto was found, its walls covered in charcoal outlines of horses, bovine oxen, and deer, colored in with hematite-red and goethite-yellow paint.

The artwork originates from a period known as the Upper Paleolithic, more precisely the Magdalenian epoch, which marks an explosive quantity of symbolic artifacts created by anatomically and behaviorally modern Homo sapiens, a.k.a. Cro-Magnon peoples. Evolutionary psychologists, neurobiologists, and archaeologists have all contributed to the current understanding of how upright apes progressed from the earliest manufacture of tools some 2.5 million years ago to the acquisition of symbolic reasoning, language, and literacy. Yet neither DNA nor the fossil record clearly reflect how early human cognitive abilities translated into behavior. Rather, the cultural indicators that typically remain over the millennia are carved bones, manipulated stones and, perhaps in the case of Lascaux, stars.

For several decades, paleoanthropologists have discussed whether the chief cognitive trait distinguishing Homo sapiens from Neanderthals could be the capacity for symbolic reasoning and representation, as evidenced by the unique material productions from these different cultures. The recent revelation that these two species interbred represents an opportunity to look more closely at the role cognitive creativity played in Homo sapiens’ out-competing their hominid forebears and contemporaries. Paleolithic cave art is an important artifactual database for this kind of study, even if appearing tens of thousands of years later in the record than the reported interbreeding episode.

The initial interpretations of the art at Lascaux and in other related grottos were couched in suggestions that the paintings and engravings were decorative, or just art for art’s sake. Further analysis at the tail-end of the 20th century suggested that the cave art had deep links to prehistoric rituals promoting fertility and successful hunting. Recent studies have found a systematic sequencing in the renditions of horses, aurochs (an extinct ancestor of domestic cattle), and stags, corresponding to seasonal characteristics of each species representing spring, summer, and autumn respectively.  Art historians working for the French Ministry of Culture and Communication have called this process and symbolism a “metaphoric evocation that, in this setting, links biological and cosmic time… with its central theme, the creation of the world.”

Soon after art historians accepted these seasonal and temporal connections within the cave art, archaeoastronomer Michael A. Rappenglück of The Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Gilching, Germany, began addressing the possible astronomical significance of the cave imagery. He noticed a group of six spots painted above the back of one of the aurochs in a part of the cave known as the Hall of the Bulls. Charcoal freckles surround the creature’s eye, which Rappenglück thought could represent the eye of the Taurus constellation embedded in the Hyades cluster. Astronomical calculations of when the Hyades cluster would have been visible to Northern Hemisphere observers during the season depicted in the image match well with the date range given by carbon-14 dating of the charcoal traces. He added a fresh layer of interpretation to the images with his conclusion that the cyclical appearance and disappearance of the Pleiades provided a celestial clock, used alongside carved-bone lunar calendars by hunters of the Magdalenian period or just before.

In a thematic essay written for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Laura Anne Tedesco claims regarding the Lascaux Grotto, “Through these early achievements in representation and abstraction, we see a newfound mastery of the environment and a revolutionary accomplishment in the intellectual development of humankind.”  Her point deserves more emphasis if the viewer adds lunar and stellar calendars to the symbolism.

Neurophysiologists such as William Calvin have suggested that the human ability to target a moving animal with a thrown rock developed into or coincided with the cognitive capacity for long-term planning. If the Lascaux cave-painters really had a precise time-keeping system, then these people actually scheduled their hunting—thus employing foresight well beyond where their rough-hewn weapons would strike an animal of prey—much as their descendants eventually planned their agrarian affairs according to celestial cycles. The in-heat, rutting season of the Magdalenian aurochs may have coincided with a celestial cue, allowing ancient peoples to track the gestation of these animals as the bovine with six bright spots rose high in the spring sky.

The arrangements of stars in relation to one another are immutable links between peoples isolated by time and geography, but bound together beneath a single sky; for practical purposes, stars don’t move, we do: the constellations travel across the night sky because the Earth is spinning; we seem to voyage through the Zodiac during the year because Earth circles the Sun, revealing a different piece of the surrounding universe throughout the ride. By tracing where genes flowed across human populations over many generations, geneticists can infer the evolutionary forces of natural selection, genetic drift, and migration. Analogously, archaeoastronomy concerns itself with how a population’s physical location on the globe, and therefore its view of the sky, affected its cosmology and in turn how astronomical knowledge coincided with advancements in domestication, ritual, and navigation. It is conceivable that Cro-Magnon migratory patterns were governed not just by seasonal signals on the Earth, but in the sky as well.

Between cultural settlements and from one era to the next, the sky changes little, but the narratives attached to the constellations are often unique. In cases where star groupings have the same interpretation by two civilizations, there may be a cultural connection, as in the way the Babylonians bequeathed the Zodiac to Greek astronomers at the dawn of Western astronomy, or as in how the constellation Ursa Major is interpreted as a bear in both Old and New World astronomical traditions. It may be that this interpretation was brought to the Americas via a human migration over the Bering Strait land mass.

Over tens of millennia, stars do move fractions of degrees on the celestial globe, slowly distorting our mythical emblems. Rewinding the stars’ movements backwards over seventeen thousand years shows that the Bull’s eye, Aldebaran, would have been embedded more deeply into the Hyades cluster, closely resembling the auroch face depicted on the wall of the Lascaux grotto. So it is possible that Taurus the Bull is an incarnation of an earlier auroch mythology, recorded on the walls of the caves in Southern France and Northern Spain.

It’s hard to prove or disprove Rappenglück’s theory when the archaeological record lacks a record of language or tools to suggest how prehistoric people would have made celestial observations and why they might have cared to. Just as the British archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes said, “every generation gets the Stonehenge it deserves—and desires,” we hold a mirror to our own values and outstanding philosophical questions when we interpret obscure cultural artifacts. By giving a cosmological interpretation to cave-art symbolism, art historians could be projecting a ‘modern’ fascination with the nature of time and with human origins onto a proto-historic artistic tradition. The astral time signals in the Hall of the Bulls could be more akin to the calendar of the Blackfoot Natives of North America, who associated the star phases of the Pleiades with the changes of color and texture in the coats of buffalo calves.

It is a strong claim that black dots in a 17,300 year-old painting represent constellations. Hand-rendered markings may just arise from the painter’s subjective experience or reference some other symbolic coding. Human beings are especially prone to pattern recognition, which is why archaeologists must be cautious that claims regarding the possible astronomical content of the cave paintings don’t come from the same innate connection-drawing tendency that spurs people to concoct conspiracy theories, to discover a pieta on their breakfast toast, or to adore Dan Brown novels. However, the very adeptness of Homo sapiens for pattern recognition makes it plausible that early peoples noticed and remembered the regular motions of the Sun, Moon, and close-lying constellations of the Zodiac.

No one has proved Rappenglück wrong, but his theory has not yet been assimilated into the standard interpretation of the artwork. He has studied the six-dot auroch symbolism in other localities, such as the cave of the Tete du Lion in the same region. This fall, Rappenglück will chair a conference of the European Society for Astronomy in Culture, where archaeoastronomers will meet to discuss how prehistoric societies derived power structures based upon astronomical phenomena.

In the age of high-precision cosmology, we realize how very short is the time frame of human civilization in relation to the history of the universe. Within that frame, geneticists are providing us with ever-better maps of early human migration and settlement patterns while art originating from well before Babylon indicates what some of those migratory cultures’ cosmologies might have been like. The symbol-laden anthropological record of the Paleolithic suggests the fruition of a theretofore-nascent neurological potential for artistic and technological expression. The astronomical theories associated with Magdalenian cave art may take a long time (and substantially more evidence) in order to gel, but just considering a celestial dimension to the paintings allows our generation to look with new eyes at one of our oldest shared artistic treasures.

Originally published July 13, 2010

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