Ancient History & Civilisation

Prologue: Ancient Cosmologies: The Paleolithic and Neolithic Universe


The origins of astronomy and cosmology may have a history which extends thousands and possibly tens of thousands of years into the past. Evidence of this awareness can be found in ancient caves and underground cathedrals dating from the Paleolithic, in the orientation of Neolithic monuments, and by the design of temples from ancient India and Egypt. This article briefly reviews some of this evidence.

What impresses human’s soul the most is the night sky above him and the moral law inside him. --I. Kant

1. Introduction

Astronomy may be a very ancient science, with a history extending so far into the dim past that it origins are all but concealed. However, tantalizing clues have been left deep within the recesses of paleolithic underground cathedrals, caverns which are adorned with symbolic images of the night sky.

Unlike modern humans, where the night sky is shrouded by reflected artificial light, the stars above dominated the world view of Paleolithic humans, as the night was a tapestry of starry light, the meaning of which could only be discerned by their symbolic patterns. Our ancient ancestors, of even a few centuries ago, and certainly during the Paleolithic, lived in the “sublunary world”, encapsulated into celestial spheres illuminated by patterns of light.

How the ancients may have conceived of the celestial sphere, is unknown to us, and all we may do is speculate. However, it is clear that the ancient skies were of profound significance, for the peoples of the Paleolithic reproduced the night sky in their paintings and drawings, perhaps eve as long ago as 30,000 BP (Joseph 2010). It is this symbolic “language of sky” which is of the primary interest to us here and this language was first written by prehistoric man, who adorned his underground cathedrals with stars that were filled with life. And not just stars, but constellations, and perhaps symbolic representations of the solstice and equinox (the sign of the cross, Figure 1) and an understanding that the moon (Figure 2) underwent 13 cycles during the course of a solar year (Joseph 2010) and that this was correlated with the female menstrual cycle.


Figure 1. According to Joseph (2010), the cross, painted in bold red ochre upon the entryway to the Chauvet Cave, and dated to over 30,000 years, could be interpreted as a representation of the solstice and equinox which marks the shortest and longest days of the year (December and June) and the beginning of Autumn and Spring and thus an awareness of these solar cycles during the Paleolithic.


Figures 2 and 3 (below). There are 13 new moons in a solar year, and females have 13 menstrual cycles in a year. According to Joseph (2010), the pregnant goddess, the Venus of Laussel, holds the crescent moon in her hand, and the 13 cuts in the crescent moon represent the 13 menstrual cycles and 13 lunar cycles during a solar year, thus demonstrating an awareness of this association 20,000 years ago.


The correlations between earthly events, in particular periodic changes and astral collective movements have been noted surely very early, perhaps over 30,000 years ago, and certainly before as well as during and after the Neolithic. We shall consider here a number of instances where particular toponyms are coupled with celestial objects, mainly with the most prominent of them, the stars and Sun.

2. Megaliths Most of the Paleolithic culture has been preserved in the form of cave paintings and megalithic structures. We shall first consider the issue of extant megalithic sites, with brief case study of several cases, and then analyze some of the most prominent caves and their artistic and/or magical contents.

Whatever their original purpose was, megalithic structures are for the modern archeology considered as messages from our Paleolithic ancestors, a sort of language, just as myths are for anthropologists and (pre)historians. Two phases may be discerned with regard to the technical characteristics of these constructions: (i) Stone age period and (ii) Bronze age phase. In the first undressed stones were used and it was only their mutual positions which were used to convey their purpose and meaning. With the advent of metallurgy, and production of metal tools, Neolithic man was able to shape the megaliths and construct more elaborate structures. It was a sort of historical irony that the metallic tools enable stone as a material to become dominant element of early civilizations. Metallic tools and artifacts have in the meantime vanished, due to corrosion, except under exceptional circumstances, as illustrated by Antikythera mechanism, for instance (Freeth, 2010). We shall briefly analyze a number of the characteristic cases relevant for the astronomy.

3.1. Stonehenge. This complex structure has attracted great interest from the side of astronomers, anthropologists, historians etc. And yet, with accumulation of data and even more of interpretations, our knowledge can hardly be considered advancing. The consensus as to the original (or otherwise) purpose of this imposing structure has been changed from generation to generation, at least as our historical records show. The most popular interpretations appear: (i) religious site, a prehistoric temple; (ii) astronomical observatory, of still unknown complexity. (ii) medical healing centre, something like Hypocration on Kos. But before we go on, it must be stressed that one has to distinguish between the purpose (of constructing) and usage of a ready construction. We are pretty sure today that religious ceremonies like those ascribed to Druids, had nothing to do with the primary purpose of the structure, in particular with the Aubrey’s holes. Similarly, if the site was used for curing, as the name of Heel stone (which might well be written as Healstone) might suggest, it could well be a derived usage, profiting from already high reputation of the site.

For our purpose it is worth noticing that the present-day extant (and modeled) structure had undergone several phases of construction, which belonged to generations well separated in time by periods measured by centuries (Brown, 1976). The question arises: if these consecutive additions had different purpose with regards to their astronomical use, why they were fixed to the unique, present-day geographical position? What is so special with the place where Stonehenge was erected? According to our modern inference into astronomical phenomena, if there is something special about this location, it must refer to the geographical altitude. We know that at Stonehenge altitude and only at this one, sighting lines of largest southerly monthly swing of Moon and midsummer sunrise or sunset appear at right angle (Hoyle, 1977). This altitude singularity is somehow connected with the uniqueness of Stonehenge among known Neolithic sites. It raises, on the other hand, the question of completeness of our insight into the prehistory, according to the material remains. Stonehenge appears as unique among other megalith structures as the abovementioned Antikythera mechanism is an extraordinary relict of the ancient civilization and technology. Does it mean that both constructions were unique at their time or they just happened to be persevered up to our time, unlike others from their class? With single pieces of evidence it would be risky to estimate probability single item to be preserved by chance, of course.

3.2. Romania. Uniqueness of a prehistoric object leaves us with much uncertainty as regards its purpose. Otherwise, one might be able to infer from the rest of environment some features hidden from the direct inspection (contextual information). Fortunately for Stonehenge there is another prehistoric monument, at Sarmizegetusa, in southwest Romania, with similar structure.


Figure 5. Sarmizegeusa.


Figure 6. Sarmizegeusa.

There the axis of the horseshoe points towards midwinter sunrise, as compared with the same axis at Stonehenge, which points in the midsummer sunrise direction. No direct connection between Stonehenge and Sarmizegeusa constructions has been established.

3.3. India. Neolithic structures can be found all around India and Pakistan. In Figure 7 we show the megalithic stone circles at Brahmagiri from South India, dated to 900 BC (Rao, 1999; Kak 2010).


Figure 7. Megalithic stone circles at Brahmagiri (from Kak, 2010).

3.4. Australia In Figure 8 we show Wurdi Youang pre-European stone circle, built by the Wathaurung people, with the major axis pointing East-West. It has been estimated that looking from three prominent waist-high stones some outlying stones indicate the setting positions of the Sun at the equinoxes and solstices (Norris and Hamacher 2009).


Figure 8. Wurd Youang stone circle.

3.5. Armenia At the Zorats Karer is situated a prehistoric site in Syunic Region. A stone circle, dated from the second millennium BC, see Figure 5, was probably used for the astronomical observations. The largest of the boulders weigh more than 50 tons.


3.4. Australia In Figure 8 we show Wurdi Youang pre-European stone circle, built by the Wathaurung people, with the major axis pointing East-West. It has been estimated that looking from three prominent waist-high stones some outlying stones indicate the setting positions of the Sun at the equinoxes and solstices (Norris and Hamacher 2009).



4. The Cosmology of Caves

Caves are linked with night sky for obvious reason – they appear filled with darkness. If heavenly objects are to be reproduced, caves turn out to be the best places to choose. Their role was at least twofold: (i) as the canvas for paintings and (ii) as container which can “catch the sun-beam” at particular yearly instances, like equinoxes or solstices. Usually both instances used to be combined, so that “chosen cave” was decorated with figures, which we may interpret with astronomical or other meaning.

The earliest connections of the prehistoric man with night sky date from the Upper Paleolithic. At that time, the painted walls caves flourished in several localities, including the North-West Europe. The principal caves are found at south-east of France, in Vezere and Dordogne Valleys, as well as in the Cantabria, Spain. Some of them seem to be occupied by man from -35 000 years. (- sign means before present - BP.)

But before discussing the cave paintings, let us mention an artifact dating also from the Stone Age, the -32 500 old mammoth ivory tablet found 1979 in a cave in Ach Valley in Germany. The carving of a human figure on the tablet, with legs apart, a sword between legs, and arms raised, would correspond to the stars of Orion (Rappenglueck, 2001). The proportion of the human figure would correspond to the pattern of stars of the Orion constellation, representing a part of the prehistoric Cosmos. (Orion was a hunter in Greek mythology).

4.1. Lascaux Cave: This is actually a complex of caves near the village of Montignac, in Dordogne. The wall paintings, estimated -17 000 years old (belonging to the Magdalenien period), consist mainly of realistic images of large animals, mainly horses, bulls (aurochs) and deers. It is important to notice that there are no images of reindeers, the principal source of food for contemporary hunters. Hence the images do not represent hunted animals.

Several wall paintings were related to the night sky by some prehistory researchers. In the Hall of Bulls there are four black bulls or aurochs (a species of an extinct large wild cattle). The largest one is over 5 m long. According to the Spanish researcher Luz Antequera Congregado (doctoral thesis, 1992) the set of painted dots above the shoulder of the bull depicts the Pleiades cluster and the set of dots on the bull face represents the Hyades constellation. Similar interpretations, including the correlations with the constellation of Taurus, are due to Rappenglueck and the American astronomer Frank Edge, as well as to some other researchers. Rappenglueck (1997) has also identified a star map from another painting, in the Shaft of the Dead Man. The eyes of the lying birdman, the bull and the bird represented on this image would correspond to the three stars which were prominent in the spring 17 000 years ago. These are Vega, Deneb and Altair, known as the Summer Triangle, nowadays seen in the middle of the northern summer. Another idea of Rappenglueck is that some of the animal paintings are symbolic representations of the phases of the Moon. The old lunar calendar would consist of groups of dots and squares painted alongside images of bulls, horses and antelopes, depicting the 29-day cycle of the Moon.


Figure 12. The prehistoric sky-map from Lascaux cave.

Lascaux paintings appear another proof that the beginning of the astronomical science dates before Babylonians (about 5000 BP). French ethno-astronomer, Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewiez noticed that the architectural structure of the Hall of Bulls makes an observer feels encapsulated, as if one watches the night sky motion from a hill. Looking at the various animals painted on the walls she claims one can recognize the zodiacal constellation of the Paleolithic sky (see Figure 10). Making use of computer programs to reconstitute the map of the Magdalenian sky Jègues-Wolkiewiez carried out orientation measurements of the sets of dots and lines represented the painted animals, comparing the archeological and the astronomical data (Jègues-Wolkiewiez, 2005). According to her one can recognize on the cave walls the stars forming the Capricorn, the Scorpio and the Taurus constellations. In the last case, the image of a bull was completed with the stars clusters Pleiades and Hyades. Jègues-Wolkiewiez. finds that the orientation of the cave was of primary importance. The plan and the section of the Lascaux cave entrance show that before the landslide blocked the access to the rotunda, at the time of summer solstice the rays of the setting sun would enter the cave and shine on the walls of the Great Hall of Bulls and on the axial diverticulum.

During the summer solstice 1999 Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewiez, and the Lascaux curator Jean-Michel Geneste, confirmed the above hypothesis: the setting sun illuminated completely the interior of the rotunda at the time of the creation of the images. This permitted painting under light during about one hour for several days in the beginning of the summer. Further, Jègues-Wolkiewiez verified that the similar phenomena occurred in other caves beside Lascaux. Actually, she found that the sunlight played the same role in 137 other painted caves as in Lascaux (Jègues-Wolkiewiez, 2007). These caves were aligned with the sunrise or sunset on key days of the year - solstices or equinoxes. The Paleolithic man could keep track of changing seasons by observing the sun sliding along the horizon as the months went by. This was important in connection with the migrations of the large mammal herds that they hunted. The accumulated astronomical knowledge passed from generation to generation without writing, in the “mythological” language of the Paleolithic art. Not only astronomy, but also the mythology and legends of later periods, in Sumeria, Babylonia, Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations and Egypt were most likely derived from the Paleolithic proto-types represented in Lascaux paintings (Brown, 1976).

5. Monuments

That the cave orientation choice was not accidental corroborate other extant structures. We mention here a few of the most famous in that respect.

5.1. Newgrange. This prehistoric building in Ireland, estimated to be constructed about 3000 BC (i.e. somewhat before Stonehenge), is oriented to allow the Sun beam on the winter solstice to pass along the roof elongated space (Brown, 1976).


Figures 13 (above, 14, 15 (below). Newgrange, Ireland.



5.2. Abu Simbel. This monumental rock-cut temple erected by Ramesses II appears a “modern” variant of prehistoric caves. The orientation was chosen with precision allowing the first rays of the rising Sun to illuminate the innermost halls and the sanctuary of the seated statues of the four gods twice a year (22 February and 22 October).


Figures 16 (above) 17, 18 (below). The rock-cut temple erected by Ramesses II and the illumination of the four gods



6. Concluding Remarks

To ancient man, the sky was a book to read, to copy, symbolize and translate into monuments and paintings of living celestial light. Archaeoastronomy, based on observational as anthropological research, examines the roots of our awareness of the Universe, and these roots extend deep into human history, from thousands to tens of thousands of years into the long ago.

Acknowledgements. We thank V. Panković for a number of references and useful discussions. Thanks are also due to S. Lefebvre for her kind interest and many useful references.


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Rappenglück, M. (2001). The anthropoid in the sky: Does a 32,000-year old ivory plate show the constellation Orion combined with a pregnancy calendar? In: Calendars, Symbols and Orientations: Legacies of Astronomy in Culture. Proceedings of the 9th annual meeting of the European Society for Astronomy in Culture (SEAC), Stockholm, 27-30 August 2001.

Ray P. Norris and Duane W. Hamacher, (2009). The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia, The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture, Proceedings IAU Symposium No. 260, (D. Valls-Gabaud & A. Boksenberg, Eds.)



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