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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThe short version of this post is that Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic? by Hayden & Villeneuve is a great paper. If you’re interested in astronomy in hunter-gatherer societies you should read it. I’m going to disagree with some parts of the paper below, but if Hayden & Villeneuve are wrong about some things, then it’s for interesting reasons. And it’s by no means certain that I’m right to disagree about the things that I do.

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave. Photo (cc) tourisme_vezere.

The archaeology of astronomy is contentious at the best of times, but the Palaeolithic is a particularly difficult period to study, because the remains are so fragmentary and few in number. So to put this in context we need to know when the Upper Palaeolithic is.

You’re probably familiar with the Three Age System, Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. In this system in Europe the Stone Age ends roughly between 4000 and 2500 BCE depending on where you are and exactly where you want to draw the line. Everything before this is a long time period so you can split it up further. The Neolithic is a period when people settle down and become farmers, it starts between 8000 and 4000 BCE in Europe depending on where you are. The south-east of Europe adopts farming much sooner than the people in the north-west. The Palaeolithic, if you ignore all sorts of subtleties is the period before that. To narrow down things further the Palaeolithic is sub-divided into three sections, Lower, Middle and Upper. Again, roughly speaking, the Lower Palaeolithic is the time of early humans, the Middle is the time of Neanderthals roughly 300,000 BCE to 35,000 BCE, and the Upper Palaeolithic is the period after that with Homo Sapiens.

This gives the astronomical readers a rough idea of when we’re talking about. Archaeological readers could very easily pick holes in more or less everything I’ve said about the dates. One important reason we’ll get to later is that when we use terms like Bronze Age or Palaeolithic, we’re not directly talking about a specific time, we’re talking about the technology we find that’s associated with a specific time. So some ‘periods’ make no sense outside of Europe. If you live somewhere where Obsidian was much easier to get than Bronze, then it’s possible local people never bothered with a Bronze Age.

Hayden & Villeneuve realise that evidence from the Upper Palaeolithic is scant, but they also recognise that the Upper Palaeolithic is not just a time, but it’s tied to a place. What they’re interested in is whether or not ethnographies of modern hunter-gatherer societies can give us information about possible uses for astronomy. You can’t simply say that modern hunter-gatherers from now were exactly like hunter-gatherers twenty thousand years ago, but you can see if tackling astronomical problems produces debris similar to what archaeologists find. You can also see if there are common features in astronomy around the world from hunter-gatherers. If you can see hunter-gatherer astronomy in action then you have clues why hunter-gatherers used astronomy in the past and that can produce work a lot more interesting than “there’s marks on this bone, people could be counting moon phases.”

After a quick recap of various claims of palaeolithic astronomy, such as paintings at Lascaux and various markings on bones, they get down to asking what sort of hunter-gatherers we should use for comparison with Upper Palaeolithic Europeans. This is Hayden’s field and he has a few features that would affect the possible use of astronomy. He points out complex hunter-gatherers don’t just wander. They can set up long-term bases for seasons, or even year round. There is economic activity, storage of surpluses, competitive consumption, and the creation prestige objects. This helps create the ability for people to have a social élite and these people can attempt to defend their position by controlling access to supernatural powers. Most surprisingly (to me) he argues for “complex counting systems that extend into the hundreds or thousands.”

If these are the kind of things you’re looking for you need ethnographies of sophisticated hunter-gatherers, and he says there’s plenty to draw upon from California and the Pacific northwest coast, as well as Siberia and Japan in Asia. However, Hayden hasn’t argued for a shopping list approach to ethnographies. It’s not enough that a modern people has similar traits, do they also live in a similar environment?

In the modern world hunter-gatherers have been pushed to marginal environments, that agricultural societies can’t find much use for. In contrast Upper Palaeolithic Europe would have had prime farming land, had there been any farmers. There weren’t, so hunter-gatherers had control over a fertile landscape. For this reason Hayden & Villeneuve prefer the Pacific northwest as the most apt ethnographic analogy. The astronomically important feature is that these people could settle in a place for years at a time.

So what do hunter-gatherers look for?

Hayden & Villeneuve examined many ethnographies and found almost all peoples had a concept of the extreme limits of the Sun, the solstices. They also tied lunar cycles to environmental events, like the appearance of first berries. In some ways this is similar to Hesiod’s astronomy which is a factor in a wider cosmological view that ties astronomy, weather and nature into one whole cosmos to be observed. They also – and this is big – found no evidence of observation of the equinoxes, except for one group. This ties neatly with the Clive Ruggles paper Whose Equinox? where he has argued that looking for equinoxes in pre-Greek astronomies is an anachronism.

Solstice observations could be accurate, but they say the observations used “trees, posts or rock alignments” They give an example of a man sitting on a certain stump watching the shadow from a specific tree, and we know this astronomical activity happened because an anthropologist was there recording it, but what debris did it leave? If people used a similar technique in the Palaeolithic what would you look for in the archaeology?

Hayden & Villeneuve reflect on how these special places and the techniques for using them translate into social relationships. They argue that it leads to what is effectively a ‘secret society’ of people with astronomical knowledge. Archaeologically this raises the possibility of equipment being stored in secret spaces, that might be marked with art for those in the know.

A secret society implies specialist knowledge, but that creates a problem. If you don’t have writing how to you transmit knowledge? This is a major topic for the paper.

One way is to embed tales in constellations. A survey of 26 modern hunter-gather groups revealed 18 constellations, with some complexities. The interesting findings are that surprisingly few constellations or stars were recognised by more than a third of peoples. Orion was known to 16 groups, Venus 15, the Pleiades 12 and the Milky Way and Ursa Major 10. There’s a long tail of other stars with many being important to only one or two groups. That, to me, suggests that astronomical knowledge is often local and specific.

Hayden & Villeneuve take the interpretation the other way and emphasise that there is evidence of cross-cultural importance to some clusters, like the Pleiades. They note they’re usually seen as a group of individuals, often women or children and recognised throughout the world. It’s obviously not an arbitrary generalisation and if you’re looking for general patterns in Palaeolithic behaviour, then it’s a useful hook for showing evidence of common behaviour.

They also note that Ursa Major is seen around the world as a bear. I find this a more interesting observation, because it really doesn’t look like a bear. Yet if people in the Americas and Europe are seeing a bear then either it’s an amazing coincidence, or else there’s a common source for the myth. If there is a common source that has to be in the Palaeolithic. So when Brian Cox tells everyone about the Great Bear this winter in Starwatch, he’ll could be connecting back to a 20,000+ year old tradition of story telling. That’s pretty mind-blowing. If I’d been peer-reviewing the paper, this is one of two sections that I’d have any concerns about. In this case there’s a lot of work on Sky Bears that is uncited. Roslyn Frank has done a lot of work on them. I don’t know if they ignored it or, with quite a bit being in obscure SEAC publications, they simply weren’t aware. This section isn’t bad, but if they’d made reference to Frank’s work it could have been better. I think Hayden & Villeneuve clearly would have had something interesting to say about it.

They view Palaeolithic constellations as being different from the modern concept of the term, and I think they’re dead right. I really need to get my paper about this out, and this is another article to cite in it.

They also look how astronomical practice can be embedded in social practices. This section talks a lot of sense but I would say that as one of the points I’ve already written in this blog, which I’m sure they haven’t read. It’s cliché number one: Astronomy was developed so that ancient peoples knew when to plant the crops / follow the herds / do something else weather dependent. They mention that weather changes from year to year. The first snow does not always fall on November 28, and planning your food around the idea that must happen is a recipe for disaster. What you can do is schedule social activity around astronomical events.

This is what Hayden & Villeneuve suggest. Competitive feasting, they argue, emerges in complex hunter-gatherers. This is competitive in the sense of who can provide the most food rather than who can gobble the most in five minutes. This is where Hayden & Villeneuve come up to an alternative to the “you need to know when to plant crops idea”.

We suggest that it was emerging elite aggrandizers who, in the context of creating feasting and ritual sodalities (like secret societies) for the purpose of increasing their political control, developed or supervised the development of accurate astronomical systems and calendars especially for the purpose of setting dates for feasting and creating ritual esoterica.

Hayden & Villeneuve (2011:346)

Working out the implications of that could be a whole book. Does this mark the beginning of Time as a concept against a vaguer notion of Duration? Constellations in the northern hemisphere today are at least two thousand years old. Does this mean that our earliest constellations are ten or twenty times older than that? And instead of knowledge starting with eating forbidden fruit, did it start with someone telling us when it was forbidden to eat the fruit?

So how do you archaeologically test for this?

There’s the deposition of artefacts in caves, but with my sceptical hat on I think that might be difficult to link to an astronomical motive. Their reasoning makes sense, but not all secret societies have to be astronomical, and you can see why people might be wary of an astronomical society holding meetings in the back of a dark cave.

Another method they consider are tallies and they use the example of the Thaïs bone. This is an Ice Age bone that has markings like some kind of count on it. It could be a count of moons, but Hayden & Villeneuve give other examples of tallies being used to track debts in modern hunter-gatherer societies. It ties in with the development of social élites, who is tracking a debt to whom, but despite other examples of Palaeolithic tallies no single one can be neatly tied to astronomy.

One idea they suggest is one I dropped a few years ago, and I might be wrong about that. After the incised art at Creswell was discovered I noticed it would have been best lit around sunset in high summer. I wondered if this is why it was a cave on the southern side of the gorge that was chosen, and if examining the azimuths of caves with art could give details about seasonal use. The same idea came back to me when I heard of incised art on Levanzo in the Aegadian Islands. My idea was if it’s incised it needs a grazing angle of light to be seen best, so art would be most likely to have been created and used when the conditions were the best for seeing on that surface. It’s a simple idea and – if you ignore the evidence that Palaeolithic people had portable light, else how could they paint deep in caves, pretty sound. It was remembering about portable light that killed the idea for me.

Hayden and Villenuve haven’t worked around that problem, but they argue that accessibility to light is a factor that should be thought about in rock art. Not all sites will rely on sunlight, but a large sample could pull a signal of seasonal use from random noise of artificially lit cave sites. They present some results and there’s an interesting preference for 304º for decorated caves (think summer sunsets) and 124º for rock shelters (think winter sunrises). For undecorated caves and shelters there’s a slight preference for 0º (where would the light come from? I think there could be meteorological reasons for avoid due North, like the wind, but the results are definitely interesting enough to be worth pursuing.

All in all I think this is one of the best papers I’ve read this year. For a start Hayden & Villeneuve stay focused on the interesting aspect of ancient astronomy, the people who did it. It’s all very well saying this stone row aligns to this sunset or whatever, but a list of things that align to other things would be utterly tedious. The authors nearly always stick to explain why that should matter.

The only place where I think they miss is discussing the Abri Blanchard bone, which they interpret as a record of the highest zenith of the moon. They see this as the result of systematic observations almost like modern scientific observation. I’m bothered by this. One is why would someone want to know the variation of zenith height for the moon to any great detail, as opposed to the phases? Elsewhere through the paper they back up astronomical motives with examples from modern hunter-gathers. I don’t see anything similar for the zenith observations. I’m also concerned with how the observations were made. I can understand qualitative observations, like this is the furthest north or south the moon rises, but I’m wary of quantitative measurements, like the Moon is X units above the horizon. In this case there is a paper that argues when the moon is more than around 20º above the horizon it’s simply perceived as being ‘in the sky‘. (Jaaniste 2006:191)

It’s not worth overplaying this problem, it’s about a paragraph in the whole paper and the reason it stands out is that it is so much in contrast to the extremely well-reasoned argument in the rest of the article.

Another feature I really like about the paper is that you can read it. It’s cynical to see that people with something interesting to say write well to explain it, while people with nothing to say write poorly to hide it. Some people just write poorly. But you can’t write with clarity if your ideas are vapid, and Hayden & Villeneuve do write with clarity.

I’ve wracked my brains to think of a comparable introduction to Palaeolithic astronomy. It gets mentioned in a few books, but often as a couple of pages as a prelude to astronomy by settled populations. That’s understandable, the evidence is very fragmentary, but I think it means that if you’re looking for an introduction European Palaeolithic Astronomy you can’t do better than this article. Even if you’re more interested in North America or Australia it’s still a useful read in showing what a good argument looks like.

References: Hayden, B., & Villeneuve, S. (2011). Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic? Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 21 (03), 331-355 DOI: 10.1017/S0959774311000400

Jaaniste, J. (2006). On the Time-Space Context of Moon-Related Beliefs Folklore, 32, 185-196 [PDF]

Photo: Balade au Thot en vallée Vézère by tourisme_vezere. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.