Mankind has been making star charts for thousands of years. Particularly for ancient societies, stars and other celestial bodies represented their mythological figures–gods, heroes, and wild creatures–each standing for a force of nature with power over their lives. For decades, historians and astronomers credited the ancient Babylonians with developing the earliest star catalogs. There is evidence that these catalogs were already incredibly detailed as far back as 5,000 years ago, including predictions of planetary motion, observations of eclipses, and the earliest known named constellations. But to Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, of the University of Munich, this history didn’t make sense.
There is plenty of unassailable evidence that societies far older than the Mesopotamians were fascinated by the stars. Archaeological sites around the world, such as Stonehenge, show societies with less advanced mathematical knowledge than the Babylonians successfully developing complex astronomical calendars. And given the relative ease with which an observer can spot major stars with the naked eye, it is a long-accepted historical fact that celestial bodies played a critical role in ancient religion and mythology. So where, wondered Rappenglueck, were the maps? Why hadn’t very ancient societies pre-dating the Babylonians made diagrams of the night sky?
According to Rappenglueck, they did, and archaeologists have been looking at them for decades without realizing it. Amazingly, Rappenglueck claims to have discovered star charts among cave paintings created as long as 17,000 years ago.
European caves such as Lascaux in France contain a large number of striking and extremely old hand-drawn paintings by prehistoric peoples. Some of these paintings are adorned with series of dots that, Rappenglueck claims, resemble what major constellations would have looked like tens of thousands of years ago. Rappenglueck used algorithms of stars’ movements over time to replicate what the night sky would have looked like when the paintings were created.
According to this BBC article, the Lascaux paintings include not just representations of horses, antelopes, and bulls, but also more abstract figures, such as this painting of a bull charging a human figure with a the head of a bird, who is beside yet another bird seemingly on a stick:
According to Dr Rappenglueck, these outlines form a map of the sky with the eyes of the bull, birdman and bird representing the three prominent stars Vega, Deneb and Altair.
Together, these stars are popularly known as the Summer Triangle and are among the brightest objects that can be picked out high overhead during the middle months of the northern summer.
Around 17,000 years ago, this region of sky would never have set below the horizon and would have been especially prominent at the start of spring.
In other words, these abstract paintings are actually ancient constellations dreamed up by prehistoric man.
Rappenglueck has also found evidence of similar star charts in other caves. For example, he claims that an image from the “Frieze of Hands” in the Cueva de el Castillo cave in Spain is actually a representation of the Corona Borealis (“Northern Crown”) constellation. He has produced a paper detailing how he arrived at this conclusion, including explanations of how he reproduced what the night sky would have looked like thousands of years ago.
The more one thinks about Rappenglueck’s hypothesis, the more it seems to make sense. Prehistoric peoples drew images from their world on the walls of the caves they lived in, so why couldn’t they have also drawn the stars? We know very little about what, if anything, these peoples believed in terms of mythology or religion, but if later civilizations could form figures of their gods in the heavens, why not prehistoric man as well? If these peoples would paint a bull or a horse or an antelope, why wouldn’t they also paint the figures they saw in the sky?
Rappenglueck’s theories are very difficult, if not impossible, to prove conclusively, but other astronomers consider his work reasonable and plausible. If Rappenglueck is correct, that we can credit the men and women living tens of thousands of years ago with making the first graphical representations of the world around them–maps of the heavens, not of the earth.
For a primer on stellar cartography, you can see this previous post. You can also learn more on Dr. Rappenglueck’s field of archaeoastronomy by clicking here.