Astronomy & Paleolithic Cave Paintings

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.

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17 thoughts on “Astronomy & Paleolithic Cave Paintings

  1. jaap

    Really! The paleolthic equivalent of graffiti? What a facile ‘explanation’! This painstaking rock-art littered with meaningless rubbish? That can’t possibly be true … You must be underestimating the profound familiarity ancient people had with the stars, and the stories they connected with it. But I must agree with you that time-keeping alone simply doesn’t cut it! Even if it’s very likely part of it.

  2. Gyrus

    Cris, just curious why you thought the painted caves aren’t likely to be evidence of social stratification? I don’t see anything full-blown, as per agricultural societies, but most of what I’ve read about this art seems to chime with the idea of ‘transegalitarian’ culture. At least, the shamanic aspect seems to imply a kind of nascent spiritual hierarchy.

    As for the ‘graffiti’ comparison… Like jaap, I tend to baulk at the idea that any aspects of this art were ‘meaningless doodles’. And while I tend to agree that there’s not much systematic interest in stars among hunter-gatherers, William B. Gibbon’s work, together with that of Maud Makemson / Marcel Baudouin) suggests quite an early date for the origins of interest in Ursa Major.

    That said, I think the graffiti comparison is interesting, and jaap’s rejection of it maybe a little hasty. As in, I think Cris’s comparison is a little too disparaging of graffiti – which, for the majority of its creators, even apparently mindless teenagers, is usually heavily loaded with informal significance. The real underworlds of graffiti art have an interesting disconnection from the modern ‘consensus’ world of art because they’re speaking such a different language. And – without dismissing the possibility that some prehistoric art pieces were more casual than others – there’s a similar disjunction between the way art bore significance in the Ice Age compared to how we approach it today.

  3. jaap

    Gyrus, I like what you say about graffiti. There are obviously gems of consciousness relegated to the dark side by being dismissed for too long. And an additional caution comes from your word ‘consensus’! We are talking of a different reality here, very unlike ours. So I agree: graffiti is not necessarily a prejorative term. But I just don’t think that applies in this case. All I have read about ancient people – including hunter-gatherers – suggests they were immensely interested in the heavenly bodies. This ‘knowledge’ obviously goes back way beyond the neolithic, where this is well attested. I’ve just looked at some of Michael Rappenglück’s work (Lascaux, Gobekli Tepe), and am impressed, even if I suspect he’s only scratching the surface. This is serious work!

  4. Gyrus

    jaap, I don’t see hunter-gatherers as ignorant of the heavens. But what you mention are, historically, very late hunter-gatherers – Upper Palaeolithic (the cave paintings) and then right on the edges of the Neolithic transition (Gobekli Tepe). These were cultural pockets which were (unconsciously, of course) laying down some ‘groundwork’ for sedentism and agriculture, and I believe their cultural obsessions were transforming along with their ways of life. Hence why I questioned Cris’s dismissal of the idea that cave painters were showing evidence of social stratification (which, in its vertical hierarchy, I believe is mirrored in a more emphatic sense of a division between Heaven and Earth, and an increasing spiritual interest in the former).

    That said, it’s important to bear in mind that the label ‘hunter-gatherer’ can apply to sedentary people with strong social hierarchies (like the Pacific Coast Indians, and a lot of coastal Mesolithic European cultures), and cover a huge spectrum of cultural forms all the way to so-called ‘simple’ nomadic foragers. And I think there’s very important distinctions to be made along this spectrum, as well as between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. One of the distinctions is in cosmology, and without suggesting there’s no interest in the stars among simple foragers, there certainly seems to be a much looser, less systematised approach to them, to the extent that they’re not really useful for the foraging way of life. (As Cris says, the moon is perhaps another story.) And even where there is an interest in stars, there’s certainly less of the investment of spiritual significance in them. I think we’ve inherited such a weighty sense of ‘the heavens’ being of paramount spiritual significance that it’s easy to project this back, back past its historical origins, and into realms where the sky doesn’t carry anything near this significance.

    Well, dots in the painted caves will always be open to interpretation. And while I definitely don’t dismiss the idea that there could be stellar references involved (I often wonder if the caves themselves acted as a kind of early analogue of the idea of the vault of the sky being a solid dome), I’m wary of lumping this Upper Palaeolithic culture together with all hunter-gatherers, and lumping hunter-gatherers together with ‘ancient people’ as having a similar attitude to the skies.

  5. Cris Post author

    Gyrus, I’m skeptical of these assertions because I don’t think “social stratification,” as we tend to think about such issues, appears much among hunter-gatherers, especially those who may have been painting caves. Dating those paintings is a hugely imprecise business, or science, and I just don’t see any good evidence of stratification, specialization, or even shamanism. In fact, several of those caves contain childrens’ handprints and doodles, all of which suggests that the caves were open to all. I have a hard time imagining, based on HG ethnography, that it would be otherwise. And I’m not much impressed by the whole transegalitarian thesis. It’s plausible, but I can’t think of much data that supports it or bears on the argument.

  6. jaap

    Gyrus, thanx for your elaborate reply. Fascinasting! I can see the lines of your approach to these things, and I can go along with them. On the dots we’re in total agreement (key-concept: investment). One fthe things graffiti is disconnected with is status, and that doesn’t seem to apply here.

  7. Gyrus

    Cris, that’s interesting, I constantly found myself in research wondering if I was projecting the ‘egalitarian’ model of HG society too rigidly into the past. Being too simplistic in thinking ‘HG = egalitarian’, because it happened to fit in with the story of history I warmed to, without complicating things. And I constantly found evidence that (as ever) it’s not that simple. We know from ethnography that there’s a huge spectrum between (say) Bushmen and the Pacific Coast Indians in terms of social arrangements. Do you see all Palaeolithic HGs as egalitarian right up to the Neolithic? What about HG sedentism prior to farming?

    Well, if you’re right, that’s one correction that I’ll have to make to my book where I’ve been too cautious instead of not cautious enough! :-)

  8. Cris Post author

    What sort or kinds of evidence would support the claim that these children were “important”? Are you aware of any such evidence?

    What sort or kinds of evidence would support the claim that access to these caves was restricted? Are you aware of any such evidence?

  9. Gyrus

    Cris, when I think of restricted access to caves, I think of the deep portions which you have to crawl down small tunnels for quite a while to get to. I recall Lewis-Williams’ idea that, in contrast to the larger galleries nearer cave entrances, this division perhaps reflected some form of social strata (possibly related to shamanism) as being quite convincing. Not ‘certain’, but certainly a fair theory that fits the available evidence.

  10. Cris Post author

    I do not see HGs, across time and space, as being strictly “egalitarian.” Within this overly broad category, there is all kinds of variability. But I don’t see “classes” among mostly nomadic HGs and am not sure there is any good evidence for “complex” HGs in Paleolithic Europe, such as those found on the Northwest Coast. Structures have not been archaeologically located in those areas, and Brian Hayden’s argument that these areas sit near major game migration routes, which were in turn monopolized by these groups (groups which, in turn, supposedly contained special classes of shamans), is a cool hypothesis that requires some archaeological data to support it. Otherwise, it’s just an idea which may or may not be correct. No one knows.

  11. Cris Post author

    I don’t find the idea convincing at all — why would remote areas of these caves have restricted access? While shamans may have been more interested in remote areas for “spirit” reasons, I am not aware of any evidence — other than an argument — which connects this to social stratification.

  12. Cris Post author

    It seems to me that the fact of their presence in the caves, along with lots of apparent doodles, suggests the caves were not very restricted and at least in some times and places, not so sacrosanct. I’m not aware of any HG groups, based on ethnography, in which some children but not others are deemed “important.” All children in HG groups seem to be important, and treated more or less equally.

  13. jaap

    And I’m really beginning to wonder now … Doodles by children? Within this context? An Elysaean inclusive society? Is that possible? Certainly. Is that probable? Possibly uninitiated children? ‘Here’s some pigment, go and play!'(?) You really got me scratching my head there …
    There is another aspect here about the way these caves may have functioned. I suppose you’re all agreed that an investment was being made here. A lot of time, talent, pigments and whatnot was being invested in this Magdalenian context, where.tool-making was simpler (less time-consuming?) compared to the Solutrean period for reasons we have yet to understand … Solutrean tool-making disappeared perhaps not unlike Clovis tool-making suddenly ceased: there, too, I have not yet got the full story. They (these tools) were held in such high regard, evidenced by grave-gifts that had been kept for generations … Does the disappearance of the megafauna explain this to the hllt?
    An investment! Laurence Vanderpost describes the reactions of Bushmen to pictures of the Lascaux caves: they were tickled no end! Didn’t remark on the dots over the bull, but saw things about these animals, and delighted in them. In a Darwinian sense, is delight worth working for? Possibly! The questions will go on forever, I suppose. I know these Bushmen were interested in the stars, where they had apparently occult knowledge connected with hunting that they hinted at, but didn’t share with Vanderpost.
    Social cohesian? Inclusive? Stratified? Shamanic elite? (Priests?) Altered states of consciousness? Is there any way for us to address that last item? Seems important …

  14. jaap

    One crackpot can ask more questions than 100 wise men can answer … I’ve been reading up a bit about the Solutrean-Magdalenean transition. I guess it has more to do with climate-change than with stratification, the stepping up of subsistence-pressures. I will leave you now thanking Gyrus and Cris for their thoughts/intuitions. You know Cris, I am like a child in this field, and I’ve enjoyed entering your cave and talking to the wise old men. And getting answers, too! Which I hope blogs like this are all about: drawing the uneducated!
    However, I’ve had a life-long education in methodology! (I’m a teacher) And I must add that Gyrus’ probing questions have intrigued me. Though I understand they must go unanswered I hope they will will never go ‘unapproached’. I’m making a big leap now: ‘Where did they start to be too holy to take children seriously?’ Now there’s a crackpot-question if ever there was one …
    And Cris, you’ve been blamed before for asking evidence while not feeling obliged to deliver on that score yourself! And Gyrus showed you that intuitions/ideas/expert-gut-feelings may well be projections of your own expectations and wishes … He was very careful not to offend you: there is a very respectful guy! With an agenda of his own …
    Methodology also demands questions not to be too random, they must be educated (there go my questions). So Gyrus must somehow be able to explain why he feels this HG-society may have been on the road towards stratification (‘nothing full-blown’). Maybe he has, maybe he has not, it’s tentative. And in the hypository trajectory fully justified! No theory without speculation, and then submitting that speculation to be peer-reviewed.
    Cris, I like your blog! Keep it up (but don’t work so hard you get impatient with fools). Gyrus, thank you for your thoughts! Let me know when your book is finished! Please publish online …

  15. Gyrus

    jaap, just click on my name in these comments for details of my book. And yes, I’ve an agenda – but I try to be honest about it, and never carve it in stone!

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