Over at Seed, Holly Capelo provides a helpful survey of the various ways in which the famous Upper Paleolithic cave paintings — found primarily in France and Spain — have been interpreted over the last several decades. The occasion for her survey, which strangely omits mention of David Lewis-Williams’ contention that the paintings were the work of shamans (likely) and signaled the emergence of social stratification (less likely), is another interpretation to add to the list. This new interpretation revolves around an older interpretation focusing on stars and constellations:
[A]rchaeoastronomer Michael A. Rappenglück of The Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Gilching, Germany, began addressing the possible astronomical significance of the cave imagery. He noticed a group of six spots painted above the back of one of the aurochs in a part of the cave known as the Hall of the Bulls. Charcoal freckles surround the creature’s eye, which Rappenglück thought could represent the eye of the Taurus constellation embedded in the Hyades cluster.
Although Capelo is not entirely clear on this point, it seems Rappengluck is suggesting these dots — found in more than one cave — are stars that we know today as the Taurus constellation and were actually seen by the paleolithic painters as such. If so, this would have been the earliest representation of Auroch or bull symbolism.
This is a bit hard to swallow, given that it unabashedly projects historical understandings of this constellation backwards in time some tens of thousands of years, and imputes a modern understanding of the Taurus constellation to Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Capelo has similar reservations and offers an alternative explanation, framed as a hypothetical:
If the Lascaux cave-painters really had a precise time-keeping system, then these people actually scheduled their hunting…much as their descendants eventually planned their agrarian affairs according to celestial cycles. The in-heat, rutting season of the Magdalenian aurochs may have coincided with a celestial cue, allowing ancient peoples to track the gestation of these animals as the bovine with six bright spots rose high in the spring sky.
I think there can little doubt that the Lascaux cave painters had a precise time-keeping system and scheduled their hunting accordingly. I doubt, however, that this time keeping was based primarily on stars.
If we examine the ethnohistoric and ethnographic record of known hunter-gatherer groups, nearly all of them tracked time using a cyclical lunar system which was sometimes supplemented by a linear winter count. There are much easier ways to keep track of bovid rutting, gestation, birthing, and migration than star gazing. Moon watching seems to have done the trick just fine.
Given this fact, we might expect Upper Paleolithic cave paintings to contain a plethora of lunar imagery and symbolism. The lack of such imagery calls into question any time-keeping hypotheses grounded in more complicated astronomical observations and symbols.
A more parsimonious explanation for six clustered spots would be they are entoptic images arising from altered states of consciousness. But without doing a statistical analysis of all the spots in the caves, not just cluster arrays of six, I would not be confident venturing even this hypothesis. The most parsimonious explanation may be that the spots are entirely random, the paleolithic equivalent of graffiti.