Studying cave paintings from Turkey, Spain, France and Germany, researchers have come to the conclusion that humanity’s ancient ancestors were smarter than previously given credit. These famed paintings were not simply decorative, a new study says—they represent a complex understanding of astronomy pre-dating Greek civilization.
Going back 40,000 years, scientists now believe that ancient humans had the knowledge to keep track of time based on the movement of stars in the sky. They understood a concept called “precession of the equinoxes”—the idea that the Earth’s movement was causing the changes of star location, not the stars themselves.
History generally credits this idea to Hipparchus of Nicea, a famed Greek astronomer who is “regarded by many historians as a scientist of the highest quality and possibly the greatest astronomical genius among the ancient Greeks,” according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Several cultures, from China to Babylonia, discovered the idea independently.
Now it appears that Hipparchus was late to the idea as well, thanks to a new understanding of the cave paintings.
Researchers used perhaps the most famous cave paintings in the world to help make their determination—the Paleolithic art inside the caves of Lascaux in southern France. Studying a drawing referred to as “The Shaft Scene,” scientists now believe the picture of a dying man was made to commemorate a comet striking the planet in around 15,200 BC.
This determination was made through a combination of radiocarbon dating and studying the atmospheric history. Around the same time “The Shaft Scene” was being made, a climate change event was recorded in a Greenland ice core, ancient ice which has stored climate records for over 100,000 years.
Through dating the paints of the drawings, scientists were able to find when they were applied to the walls. Using powerful computer programs, they were able to compare these dates to the predicted positions of the stars.
Researchers now believe that several ancient cave paintings were made in recognition of climate change events. Specifically, the stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe, a mysterious archaeological site in southeastern Turkey, with a focus on one known as Pillar 43, “can be viewed as a memorial to the proposed Younger Dryas event [a period of abrupt climate change 14,500 years ago],” they say in their paper, available in preprint on arXiv.
From cave site to cave site, and from one ancient time period to another, researchers found a consistent method of time-keeping. Ancients societies had figured out similar ways to determine dates independently of each other, be they in southern Turkey or northern Spain. Even the world’s oldest statute, the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave from 38,000 BC, conforms to this time-keeping system.
“Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age,” says Martin Sweatman, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, who led the study, in a press statement. “Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today.”
Source: University of Edinburgh