In September 1940, four French teenagers made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the last century. Walking in woods in the Dordogne after a storm, they came across a small hole that had been made by the falling of a tree. Using their penknives to enlarge the hole, they cut away earth and undergrowth until at length they were able to slide feet first into the chamber below where, in the flickering glow of their kerosene lamp, they saw prehistoric paintings of horses, cattle and herds of deer.
Although the world at that time was rather preoccupied with other matters, the caves’ fame spread rapidly. Named the Lascaux Caves by the site’s landowners, they were opened as a tourist attraction and by the 1950s were attracting 1,200 visitors a day. Unfortunately by 1955 it became clear that the exhalations of all these visitors were promoting the growth of algae and causing significant damage to the paintings. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the problem, the caves were eventually taken over by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs and closed to the public in 1963. Visitors today have to make do with Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original.
The paintings are now believed to be 16,500 years old – more than three times older than the Pyramids - and are associated with the Magdalenian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic. There are some 600 animals depicted, mainly horses, deer, aurochs (wild cattle) and bison - animals which at that time roamed wild on the fertile steppes of Ice Age Europe. These magnificent paintings are among the earliest examples of representational art and remain to this day among the finest. They have been compared to the works of Michelangelo and da Vinci and it is said that Pablo Picasso, on visiting the caves, proclaimed “We have discovered nothing [since]”. But what purpose did the unknown Palaeolithic genius or geniuses responsible for the caves have in mind? We don’t know and probably never will know for certain. Many believe the purpose was for magic rituals, possibly intended to bring good luck to hunters, but in 1990s a number of researchers suggested that the caves might contain some of the world’s oldest star maps...
The Great Hall of the Bulls is a vaulted rotunda containing a remarkable wrap-around mural, portraying aurochs, horses and stags. American astronomer F.L. Edge and Spanish researcher L. A. Congregado both noted that a pattern of six dots above the mural’s dominant animal, known to archaeologists as Great Bull No. 18, resembles the Pleiades and also identified a V-shaped set of dots on its face with an open star cluster known as the Hyades and the bright star Aldebaran. These star formations are portions of the present-day constellation of Taurus (the Bull). If Edge and Congregado are correct, Man’s identification of this region of the sky is very old indeed.In his 1995 pamphlet Aurochs in the Sky, Dancing with the Summer Moon, Edge, having identified Taurus in the Great Hall of the Bulls, goes on to consider the other animals portrayed in the mural. His scheme runs from west (sunset) to east (sunrise), which rather confusingly is contrary to the scheme adopted by archaeologists, who numbered the animals from left to right as seen on entering the rotunda.
Edge associates the constellations of Orion (the Hunter) and Gemini (the Twins) with a second aurochs, Bull No. 13 and that of Leo (the Lion) with a third, Bull No. 9. Uniquely for the mural, these two animals stand head-to-head. Other animals are associated with Canis Minor (the Lesser Dog), Virgo (the Virgin), Libra (the Scales), Scorpius (the Scorpion) and Saggitarius (the Archer), the last three being represented by the mural’s last animal (in Edge’s scheme), Figure No. 2, which is generally known as the “Unicorn”, despite having two horns. The Unicorn lies on the opposite side of the rotunda to the “Taurus” Bull; in the skies Scorpius lies opposite Taurus.
If we accept Edge’s interpretations, then the mural as a whole seems to be a representation of just over half of the prominent star-patterns lying along or close to the ecliptic. Today the mural’s lead constellations, Taurus, Orion and Gemini, are prominent in the winter skies. However due to the precession of the equinoxes (a "wobble" of the Earth's axis which takes 25,700 years to complete a cycle) in the era of Lascaux these constellations would have been prominent in spring. As summer approached, they would have begun to move down towards the western horizon, and at the summer solstice, they would have stood low down on the horizon just after sunset.But instead of the three present-day groupings of the Bull, the Hunter and the Twins, the Magdalenian people saw a pair of bulls, which at this time of the year in Edge’s words, “seemed to walk on the horizon”. The other constellations depicted would have been visible between sunset and sunrise.Edge believes that the stars portrayed in the mural were used in conjunction with the phases of the Moon to predict and keep track of the time of the summer solstice. He believes people in the Dordogne region were observing the phases of the Moon at least 15,000 years before the Lascaux Caves were painted, citing the work of archaeologist Alexander Marshack. In his 1972 book The Roots of Civilization, Marshack claims that bone tallies were being used to record moon-phases as long as 35,000 years ago. One such tally, 32,000 years old, was found in the Dordogne region and is engraved with marks that may show the Moon waxing and waning through two complete cycles (though as I have stated elsewhere this is not the only possible interpretation).
In the era of Lascaux the Moon, during spring and summer, would have reached full when passing through the constellations portrayed in the mural. The full Moon occurring closest to the summer solstice would have occurred in the region of the sky represented by the space between the “Leo” Bull and the “Orion/Gemini” Bull which, recall, stand face-to-face; the full Moon would have appeared caught between the horns of the two animals.The approach of the summer solstice would have been heralded by the waning crescent moon lining up with the horns of the Unicorn; this would occur twice - at seven weeks and three weeks prior to the solstice. Following the solstice a waxing crescent would align with the horns of the “Taurus” Bull; again this would occur twice – at around three weeks and seven weeks after the solstice.Notably the horns of the animals on both sides of the mural face the same way as the crescent Moon would appear in the corresponding part of the sky. This is an early example of the symbolic association that has long existed between the crescent Moon and the horns of a bull, for example in ancient Egypt. The prediction method is not infallible, as in some years two full Moons could occur between the horns of the facing bulls. However, the “true” full Moon occurred when the “Taurus” Bull lay on the horizon at sunset and the Unicorn lay on the horizon just before sunrise. The “false” full Moon, occurring a month earlier, when the Unicorn was not yet in the pre-dawn skies, could thus be ignored.
Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, formerly of the University of Munich, believes the caves contain a second star map. His investigations focussed on the caves’ solitary representation of a human figure, which is located in a gallery known as Shaft of the Dead Man. The highly stylised man has the head of a bird and a rather impressive phallus. He is apparently confronting a partially-eviscerated bison. Below him, a bird is perched atop a post. Rappenglueck believes that these paintings may be an accurate representation of what are now the “summer triangle” of constellations, which include Cygnus (the Swan), Aquila (the Eagle) and Lyra (the Lyre). The eyes of the bison, bird-man and bird represent the first magnitude stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. Precession is once again the key to understanding the significance of this grouping. 16,500 years ago the Pole Star was not the familiar Polaris, but a moderately-conspicuous star known as Delta Cygni, which forms part of the Swan’s wing. Thus at that time, the grouping displayed would have circled the celestial North Pole, never setting, and it would have been particularly prominent in early spring. Rappenglueck believes that the bird-man is a shaman. Shamanism refers to a variety of beliefs and practices involving manipulation of invisible spirits and forces that are held to pervade the material world and affect the lives of the living. The spirit of a shaman is held to be able to ascend to the sky or descend into the underworld. Shamans enter altered states of consciousness, often using natural psychotropic drugs. Shamanism is very common in hunter-gatherer societies and has almost certainly been practiced since earliest times. The word “shaman” was borrowed by anthropologists from the Tungus tribesmen of Siberia and literally means “he who knows”, though shamans are not necessarily male. The bird-on-a-stick may be a spirit helper, guiding the shaman in his ascent to the sky. Rappenglueck believes that even weather vanes today may stem from this tradition.
Rappenglueck has also identified possible evidence of a lunar calendar in the Great Hall of the Bulls. Below one painting, of a deer, there is a row of 29 dots, one for each day of the lunar month. Elsewhere there is a row of thirteen dots to the right of an empty square. Does this represent the waxing of the Moon, with the square representing the New Moon, which cannot be seen? Rappenglueck believes so, though others argue that the dots are simply tallies of hunting kills.
We do not know how much if indeed any of the evidence so far presented for Palaeolithic astronomy is valid, some of the ideas that have been put forward are speculative to say the least, and I will admit to being sceptical. However Edge, Rappenglueck and Congregado are highly respected by the scientific community; their respective methodologies are considered to be perfectly sound; and this intriguing theory is certainly worthy of serious consideration.
The last word must go to Michael Rappenglueck, quoted in October 2000: "They were aware of all the rhythms of nature. Their survival depended on them, they were a part of them."
© Christopher Seddon 2008