Some ancient cave paintings assumed to be animal symbols actually represent star constellations, scientists have claimed.
New research suggests humans had a sophisticated knowledge of the stars as long as 40,000 years ago.
They also appear to have kept track of time by watching how stars slowly change their position in the night sky.
The phenomenon, known as precession of the equinoxes, is caused by the gradual shift of Earth’s rotational axis.
Its discovery was previously credited to the ancient Greeks thousands of years later.
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Pictured is the Lascaux Shaft Scene in a complex of caves in the Dordogne region of France. The work features a dying man and several animals. According to a new study, it may commemorate a comet strike around 15,200 BC
The cave artists looked to the stars to mark major events such as comet strikes, according to the researchers.
Study leader Dr Martin Sweatman, from the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age. Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today.’
Teams from the universities of Edinburgh and Kent studied details of Palaeolithic and Neolithic cave art sites in Turkey, Spain, France and Germany.
Animal symbol pictures daubed on the walls of the caves were aged by chemically dating the paints used.
Computer software was then employed to predict the positions of stars when the paintings were made.
The results showed that what looked like abstract depictions of animals could be interpreted as zodiac signs based on constellations as they appeared at the time.
At every site, the cave artists practised a method of time keeping based on astronomy, the scientists claimed.
This was despite the fact that the paintings were separated in time by tens of thousands of years.
The world’s oldest sculpture, the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany (pictured), an ivory carving almost 40,000 years old, was also found to support the zodiac symbol theory
The world’s oldest sculpture, the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, an ivory carving almost 40,000 years old, was also found to support the zodiac symbol theory.
Researchers said an ancient carved stone pillar from Gobekli Tepe in Turkey provided them with their ‘Rosetta Stone’ – the key to unlocking the zodiac code.
It was thought to commemorate a devastating meteor impact in North America 11,000 years ago that led to the Younger Dryas Event, a period of sudden climate cooling that triggered a mini-ice age across the northern hemisphere.
The authors wrote in their paper: ‘The date carved into the Vulture Stone is interpreted to be 10,950 BC, to within 250 years.
‘This date is written using precession of the equinoxes, with animal symbols representing star constellations corresponding to the four solstices and equinoxes of this year.’
The scientists also decoded what is probably the best known ancient artwork, the Lascaux Shaft Scene in a complex of caves in the Dordogne region of France.
The work features a dying man and several animals.
It may commemorate another comet strike around 15,200 BC, the researchers suggest.
Dr Sweatman added: ‘These findings support a theory of multiple comet impacts over the course of human development, and will probably revolutionise how prehistoric populations are seen.’
The study was published in the Athens Journal of History.
WHAT EXAMPLES OF EARLY HUMAN ART HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED WORLDWIDE?
It seems that humanity and its ancestors have been driven to create patterns, abstract images and representations of the world around them for thousands of years.
The earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern, incised on a fresh water shell from Trinil, Java, was found in layers of sediment dated to 540,000 years ago.
A recent article proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old and therefore produced by Neanderthals.
The oldest known shell (top) to have been engraved by an early human has been uncovered in a Dutch museum collection, where it remained unnoticed since the 1930s. Pictured here is its polished edge (bottom)
Lifelike images found at sites such as the famous Lascaux Cave in south-west France, which date to around 30,000 years ago, are said to demonstrate an ability to depict animal movement superior to that seen today.
In 2018, experts uncovered evidence of art made by humans dating back 73,000 years in an African cave.
Scientists say the drawing, which consists of three red lines cross-hatched with six separate lines, was ‘intentionally created’ on a smooth silcrete flake.
That makes the drawing, found in the Blombos Caves site in South Africa, the oldest drawing by Homo sapiens ever found, experts say.