Ancient people across Europe might have known more about the stars than we give them credit for, according to a new analysis of cave art from the University of Edinburgh.


Some of the world’s oldest cave paintings are now thought to depict not wild animals as was previously thought, but constellations in the night sky. This suggests that in these artworks, people were using the positions of constellations to represent dates, and mark events such as comets hitting Earth.

The researchers looked at Palaeolithic and Neolithic art featuring animal symbols at sites in Turkey, Spain, France and Germany. The examples of art they looked at varied in age by tens of thousands of years, but the system for representing dates with constellations appears to be constant throughout.

Spot the difference: a Modern European bison (or wisent) and a reproduction of a putative wisent © Rafa Kowalczyk/Carole Fritz

Some of the art in question dates back as far as 40,000 years ago, around the time Neanderthals became extinct.

Scientists work out the age of cave art by chemically dating the paint used. The team compared these dates to what the night sky would have looked like during known points in history, by using software to simulate the ancient sky.

The positions of the stars in the night sky changes slowly over thousands of years, as the Earth’s rotational axis shifts. This new analysis shows that ancient people could define dates to within 250 years by using constellations as a reference.

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“Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age,” said study leader Dr Martin Sweatman. "Intellectually, they were hardly any different from us today.”


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.