The earliest astronomers?

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 élite 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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Julien says:

    Using phylo­gen­et­ics meth­ods, we can recon­struct paleo­lith­ical ver­sions of many astro­nom­ical myths, for instance: There is an animal that is a horned herb­i­vore, espe­cially an elk. One human pur­sues this ungu­late. The hunt loc­ates or get to the sky. The animal is alive when it is trans­formed into a con­stel­la­tion. It forms the Big Dipper. For the demon­stra­tion, see: http://​www​.aca​demia​.edu/​3​2​2​6​0​5​8​/​U​n​_​o​u​r​s​_​d​a​n​s​_​l​e​s​_​e​t​o​i​l​e​s​_​r​e​c​h​e​r​c​h​e​_​p​h​y​l​o​g​e​n​e​t​i​q​u​e​_​s​u​r​_​u​n​_​m​y​t​h​e​_​p​r​e​h​i​s​t​o​r​i​q​u​e​.​_​-​_​P​r​e​h​i​s​t​o​i​r​e​_​d​u​_​s​u​d​-​o​u​e​s​t​_​2​0​_​1​_​2​0​1​2​_​9​1​-​106 and http://​www​.aca​demia​.edu/​3​0​4​5​7​1​8​/​P​R​E​P​R​I​N​T​_​A​_​C​o​s​m​i​c​_​H​u​n​t​_​i​n​_​t​h​e​_​B​e​r​b​e​r​_​s​k​y​_​a​_​p​h​y​l​o​g​e​n​e​t​i​c​_​r​e​c​o​n​s​t​r​u​c​t​i​o​n​_​o​f​_​P​a​l​a​e​o​l​i​t​h​i​c​_​m​y​t​h​o​l​o​g​y​.​_​L​e​s​_​C​a​h​i​e​r​s​_​d​e​_​l​A​A​R​S​_​1​5​_​2​0​12_

  1. November 14, 2011

    […] go back an awful long time. I enjoyed archae­oastro­nomer Alun’s post on a recent paper about astro­nomy activ­it­ies in the Paleolithic era – many, many thou­sands of years […]