The 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.
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.“