Grasping for an understanding of the universe has been a part of human experience for a long time. Doubtless, even before recorded history, people have asked big questions. Early cave paintings hint at curiosity about the heavens. Beyond curiosity, a recent study of archeological evidence suggests the use of stars’ positions to track time as far back as 40,000 years ago. If true, it signals that a kind of cosmology revolution is in store.

A study published in 2018 examines prehistoric sculptures and drawings and connects them to astronomical events and timekeeping in prehistoric periods. These findings contradict previously held beliefs that later cultures were likely the first to use stars to track the passage of time. Two examples from the 2018 study are the Lascaux cave drawings and sculptures from a site in Turkey called Gobekli Tepe.

Lascaux Cave Drawings

The Lascaux caves in southwestern France contain artistic depictions on the cave’s walls that have been the subject of much study and interpretation. The 2018 study by researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent looked at these paintings and compared them to known positions of stars in ancient times.

Analysis of the paints used in the drawings established a time window for their creation. They then used computer simulations capable of plotting the positions of stars and constellations during that same time period. The results of their analysis revealed remarkable connections between the art and the night sky at that time. They may indicate that early man understood something called the precession of the equinoxes and used it to document and measure time.

Gobekli Tepe Sculpture

A sculpture from Gobekli Tepe, an archeological site in modern-day Turkey was also examined in the study. The archeologists clarified earlier studies of this art and discovered it may be a kind of memorial to a planetary collision with debris from a comet or meteor. The event thought to have occurred around 12,900 years ago may have been the cause of a mini ice-age referred to as the Younger Dryas period.

The study concludes that artistic expressions of early civilizations may provide evidence that their understanding of astronomy was further advanced than has been previously thought. Specifically, their understanding of the predictable changes in constellations over long periods of time, known as the precession of the equinoxes, was used to measure and document the passage of time.

If the conclusions of this study are proven true by further research and new discoveries it would profoundly change our understanding of how early humans viewed the night sky and interpreted what they saw there.

Contributing Author