What the Lascaux Cave Paintings Tell Us About How Our Ancestors Understood the Stars
Pleiades in Taurus / infrared
Photo composite – NASA/JPL-Caltech/ J. Stauffer (Spitzer Science Center, Caltech)
Why We Look Up –
Lascaux is a World Heritage Site and late Upper Paleolithic cave complex in southwestern France that belongs to the Magdalenian Culture. Lascaux’s cave paintings were made c.15–18,000 B.C. The sophistication of the Lascaux cave paintings is extraordinary when considered against their great antiquity. Their subtlety, complexity of technique and metaphor are qualities we can immediately relate to. The full articulation of this cave art reveals a mind akin to our own. If time and language barriers could be set aside, it is very possible that Magdalenian people of the late Upper Paleolithic would understand us, and that in return we could understand them.
Paleolithic Cave artist
Photo – vikrambalaji9
What do these great paintings tell us? Aurochs and other large animals portrayed in Paleolithic cave art were often hunted for food. The act of painting them in a sacred cave has often been interpreted as an important element in a ritual that invoked sympathetic hunting magic. The act of a painting the animal sends a message to its spirit, that great respect is intended and that only those individuals essential for tribal survival will be hunted and killed. The spirit world and the gods are asked to ‘understand’ and not penalize the human sphere. The act of painting, the actions and protocol by which these paintings are executed, is the ritual. The finished painting is a record of the ceremony. It is a static reminder of the bond between the spirit world and humankind and of the obligations each ‘world’ owes to the other. We do not know if these great animal paintings were prayed to. We do not know if Paleolithic religion venerated and prayed to icons.
Hindu Brahma / Supreme God of Creation
Photo – Calvinkrishy / Wikipedia
At the beginning and end of time, all the ‘worlds’ are integrated and melded into an indescribable whole and ‘oneness’. This final and beginning state of reality is the adamantine bliss of yoga and Buddhist cosmology as typified by the god Brahma. It is often created by the cosmic dance of the multi-armed Shiva. It is everything and nothing, timeless and beyond words.
Lascaux – Hall of Bulls / panorama
Norbert Aujolat – CNP/MCC
This is the deep layer of meaning in many Paleolithic cave paintings that goes beyond sympathetic hunting magic. This is a multidimensional, mythological layer whose journey in the millennia to follow will connect with Stonehenge as a future article shall discuss. This deeper layer is also metaphysical and mathematical, and relates to the adamantine oneness of Vedic, Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The complexity of mind revealed in late Upper Paleolithic cave art is akin to that expressed much later in history by ancient Vedic philosophers whose art form was Sanskrit poetry.
Shiva – Lord of the Dance At Chidambaram, the center of the universe, Shiva taught all the gods that he is Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer.
Photo – rosemanios / flikr
Mathematical aspects in late Upper Paleolithic mythopoetics derived from observational astronomy. Some cave paintings recorded an understanding of the path the moon takes around the sun – the ecliptic. An understanding of the ecliptic leads to the discovery of the zodiac, the annual path of the sun through the celestial sphere. A construct for the zodiac then follows, in which it is divided into twelve sections later known as ‘houses’.
Stars, moons and planets in Upper Paleolithic culture are not the stars, moons and planets of modern astrophysics that we know. They are deities whose habitat is the Milky Way and the celestial sphere. Mathematics is art, as Plato knew well. If the annual journey of the sun, moon, visible planets and some very bright stars can be tracked and recorded with enough precision to enable accurate prediction, then the human ‘world’ has understood a great deal about the gods. We are no longer passive because we know where these celestial entities go during their year’s sojourn and what those journeys portend for life on earth. The gods do not travel alone, nor are they unconcerned about human welfare. We are their acolytes and worshipers, and the only beings that can nourish the gods. We are the only sentient beings beside the gods themselves.
Photo – Mila Zinkova / Wikipedia
This is not a child’s game where Paleolithic astronomer-shaman-priests looked into the night sky to find the silhouettes of familiar animals in the geometrical arrangement of stars in the night sky. We can be fairly confident that star gazing at night was not frivolous. It was a search for realities that were believed to exist.
What might be those truths? These early artifacts and cave paintings reveal a deep conviction that there was a spirit world inhabited by deities, and that some or all of that ‘universe’ was above us and was celestial. Another portion of the universe was below, an ‘underworld’ that was the antithesis of the celestial. The ‘world of the gods’ was not chaotic. Observational astronomy was the premier empirical science of the time. Astronomer-priests discovered that the ‘world’ of the gods was multidimensional and precisely organized by number and time. Pattern through time, provides consistency, a belief in structure and the possibility for prediction down the time track of the future.
Path vernal equinox along ecliptic / 6000 years
Star Map – Dbachmann / Wikipedia
Look up, think and perhaps the manifestations of several deities can be seen, if they wish that to be seen by humans. When the Late Paleolithic astronomer-priests found the gods in the heavens, they confirmed that the gods do wish to be seen by us, that their celestial form is recognizable and stable, and does not change from night to night.
Dr. Michael Rappenglück of the University of Munich has long believed that Magdalenian Culture of the late Upper Paleolithic in Europe looked at the night sky and ‘saw’ the Milky Way. They also discerned several bright, prominent arrangements of stars which could be described and integrated into a mythology. These arrangements of stars were the first constellations to intrude into human culture. Organized into a celestial landscape that winds its way through the Milky Way and upon which the Sun will travel, the earliest Zodiac had been found and mapped. As Plato said about mathematics, it is not an invention of human genius. It has always been there, waiting to be discovered.
Sun moves along the ecliptic / equatorial coordinates This diagram is in equatorial coordinates, i.e. Right Ascension and Declination. The (red line) is the celestial equator. Note sun’s position on the vernal equinox and summer solstice.
Animation – Durham University (UK)
These proposals imply that: a) the Sun’s orbit around the Sun was at least partially understood; b) the time track of history had been perceived and was under active discussion – i.e. there is a past, present and future; c) a multidimensional universe included beings called ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ with extraordinary powers; d) gods and goddesses often lived in the sky, in the heavens; and e) the gods’ interests and action targets included human society, and as such they could be approached and influenced with the appropriate rituals and ceremonies. Mythology is not passive, it is active and ritual is the mechanism by which to enter the Dreamtime and talk to the gods. Taurus or any other ‘new’ constellation discovery is not a static item to be cataloged and then quietly set aside for the occasional story. It is integrated into an existing, dynamic cosmos and mythology.
Auroch > Taurus, the Bull –
Taurus from Uranographia / Johannes Hevelius – 1690
Historical print – Chandra
Taurus is an ancient constellation, one of the first identified in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe and to which a mythology became attached. In the early Bronze Age, Taurus marked the vernal equinox. The Auroch in the cave paintings in the Salle des Taureux (Hall of the Bulls) at Lascaux is a complete animal, the oldest form of the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Long ago the bull was cut in half at the star 39 Tau. Many stars were then available for Aries, the Ram and Cetus, the Whale.
Bull #18 (Auroch) in Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux
Photo – Institute Interdisciplinary Studies
Ecliptic, Equinox, Solstice and the Sidereal Year –
An important cave painting at Lascaux, France depicts six large dots above a magnificent portrait of an Auroch that is known as Bull #18. (The northern hemisphere constellation known as the Seven Sisters is depicted on sky maps intended for ‘naked eye astronomy as six dots because the seventh sister is now only visible with binoculars. Astronomers speculate that the Seventh Sister was brighter and visible to the naked eye in the distant past, perhaps in the Neolithic.) Did those who designed the Pleiades representation and a great bull figure for the walls of Lascaux believe in a dynamic mythic relationship between these two ancient zodiac deities, or is this juxtaposition fortuitous and without meaning? In ancient cultures, the Pleiades are represented above the shoulder or back of Taurus.
Pleiades / Hyades / Taurus
Photo – Joe Orman / GSFC
The Hyades is a second, bright, open star cluster associated with Taurus. It contains five or six stars visible to the naked eye, if Tau – the Eye of Taurus – is included and it forms a speckled pattern on the face of the bull. Depictions of Taurus with six spots indicate that the celestial, astral and mythic Taurus had incorporated the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.
Lascaux / Pleiades
Photo – mazzaroth.com
Using the older and often preferred dating for Lascaux, the six stars and the aurochs in the cave paintings may mark the Summer and Winter Equinoxes and Solstice of c.15,300 B.C. Why mark this equinox? Was this the time when these paintings were started or completed? Calculations show that the Summer Solstice and Vernal Equinox on the Ecliptic for the Pleiades are not candidates for the event commemorated because both fall outside two to three standard deviations of dates indicated by the C-14 determinations. The Autumnal Equinox remains a viable candidate.
Pleiades in Taurus / infrared
Photo composite – NASA/JPL-Caltech/ J. Stauffer (Spitzer Science Center, Caltech)
“At Lascaux in 15,300 B.C. the Pleiades were very near the point of the autumn equinox (: 12h, : 0°), when we consider the relation to the position of the brightest star 25 • Tau (Alcyone; 2m.9, : 12h 16.6m, : +2° 51´). That means that the distance separating the two was the equivalent of only 5.5 times the width of the moon, that is only 2.8° away from the equinoctial point. Even better is the star 27 • Tau (Atlas; 3m.6, : 12h 17.8m, : +2° 34´). This star reached its smallest distance of 2.6° at the time of 15300BC. Only [one] hundred years earlier or later the distance was already larger.” (Source #8)
“The six stars in the Salle des Taureaux therefore represent a striking and excellent heavenly marker for the beginning of autumn and of spring. The epoch calculated astronomically lies extraordinarily close to the uncalibrated oldest carbon fourteen dating: 17,190 ± 140 radiocarbon years (with the reference point being 1950) and 17300 astronomical years (in reference to the year 2000), corresponding to 15,300 BC. The difference is minimal even if the margin of error of the astronomical calculation is taken as being ± 500 years.” (Source #8)
Lascaux caverns / plan
Plan of Lascaux caves – 120 / Wikimedia
In the ‘Salle des Taureux’ at Lascaux, the autumn positioning of the constellation Taurus, within which is the Pleiades and the Hyades, has been portrayed by a great, anonymous artist. Simulation with astronomy software confirms the impressive sight that greeted those who looked upward into the night sky from the Lascaux Hill . “On the geographical latitude of the cave of Lascaux (:45°03’17″ N), the six stars at the time of 15,300 BP were invisible for 46 days between the 26th of August and the 11th of October (some days plus/minus).… the Pleiades were visible around the 11th, that is the 283rd day in the year, eighteen days after the autumn equinox in the dusk shortly before sunrise.”
“The first glow took place at 7° above the horizon. The sun was located at this moment in time 8° under the true horizon (with an arcus visionis about 15°). After another 161 days, exactly at the beginning of spring at midnight local time, the Pleiades reached their highest position of about 47.8° in the south above the true horizon.” (Source #8)
North Celestial Hemisphere – star map / Solutrean 16,730 BC
Arkéorb program – Amateur Astronomers of Ajaccio. The advanced stone tool designs of the Solutrean Culture followed the last Mousterian assemblages made by Neanderthals in western Europe.
The constellation of the Bull loomed up steeply in the sky with its head turned downwards and its rump upwards. 158 days later, on the 237th day of the year, the 26th of August, these [stars] could be seen for the last time in the dusk after sunset. The position of the Aurochs in the rotunda could result from the attempt to convey this [specific] image. The autumnal equinox came 28 days later (a sidereal month) and the cycle of the star year of the Pleiades was completed again. About 319 days passed from the first morning to the last evening, the beginning of spring dividing this period almost exactly in half (161 to 158 days). “(Source #8)
Pleiades Star Cluster in Taurus
Composite Photo – NASA / ESA / Caltech
The helical rise and fall of the Pleiades provides a yearly calendar that has been used worldwide throughout history, perhaps starting in the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian Culture of Western Europe. The heliacal (near dawn) rising of the Pleiades is a timeless calendar marker for the start of spring. The setting of the Pleiades in autumn divides the year in two and defines fixed points for the counting of the Year of the Pleiades, that long period of time when location of the pole of the northern sky changed, along with the coordinates for the solstices and equinoxes.
Summer Triangle vertex in Cygnus / Deneb top center – Northern Cross
Composite Photo – Robert Gendler / NASA
These are the most basic, profound and important points of celestial reference because they track the seasons. This is the measurement of the space time of human experience as structured by the gods who live in the heavens as constellations of the Zodiac and travel on the celestial sphere.
The Zodiac is born at Lascaux –
Heck Cattle / The Auroch recreated
Photo – Walter Frisch / Wikimedia
The Blackfoot of North America synchronized seasonal change in buffalo coats and rutting time with phases of the Pleiades. As with aurochs, buffalo rut is between August and October. In about 280 days, 9 or 10 sidereal months, a calf is born with a yellow coat. A deep brown coat is established by the first autumn season and adults change their coat at the beginning of spring. Did the paintings of aurochs in the Salle des Taureux at Lascaux function as a partial calendar? If they did, the yearly events in the life cycle of earthbound aurochs cross referenced with those of the celestial auroch, the constellation of Taurus with two open star clusters – Pleiades and Hyades.
Lascaux / The Celestial Auroch and Shaman-Bird Man
Photo-Diagram – Archeociel
Dr. Rappenglück also sees the Summer Triangle on the walls of Lascaux. The eyes of the auroch in this painting (Taurus, the celestial bull), birdman-shaman and a bird together may represent three bright stars – Vega, Deneb and Altair. This is the Summer Triangle and would have been seen during the height of summer at northern latitudes. The Summer Triangle would also have been very prominent at the start of spring and would never set below the horizon.
Lascaux northern sky / summer triangle – 16,500BP
Diagram – INFIS
Polynesians spoke of the Pleiades as ‘both above and below’. The zodiac is born when the position of the Pleiades was used to define elliptical divisions – ‘houses’ or ‘stations’ – of the sun’s annual orbit through the heavens near the ecliptic.
The sun’s annual orbit near the ecliptic could also be related to seasonal hinges. Fifteen thousand years ago, the position of the Pleiades was opposite to the scenario discussed above. The Pleiades was then a spring constellation whose disappearance signified autumn. Taurus, the auroch sun god would not disappear but would weaken – begin to ‘die’ – as winter slowly approached and the grandest of all cosmic cycles was again engaged. Is it possible that the animals painted on the cave walls of Lascaux are deity creatures, constellations that comprise the earliest zodiac whose map could not yet be read in its entirety?
Zodiac / Giovanni Battista Fontana 1586
Photo – Xocolatl / Wikimedia
Astrologers consider the Bronze Age to be the ‘Age of Taurus’. The origins of astrology and the earliest zodiac are usually assumed to be accomplishments of Babylonian astronomy. Taurus was known as GU4.AN.NA in ancient Babylonia. In Akkadia, Taurus was “The Heavenly Bull” whose name was In Sh?r. Much later in ancient Greece, we find the most famous manifestation of Taurus, the white bull whose form Zeus assumed in order to abduct the Phoenician princess Europa. One of the 12 Labors of Hercules was to subdue the Cretan Bull. In India, there is a mythological bull image on an artifact from the Harappan civilization. Later, a great bull named Nandi is the protector of Siva, his sacred mount and perhaps the ‘first’ guru. Nandi is usually black, occasionally white in color.
Later star atlases through the 19th century sometimes show Taurus taking the Milky Way upon its horns, an allusion that has an archaic sensibility.
Lascaux Cave Entrance / Solstice Sun – June 1999
Photo – Jacques-Wolkiewiez / Archeociel
Lascaux / The Cave / Summer Solstice Sunlight –
In 1999 and 2000, independent researcher Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez conducted an intensive study at Lascaux. Other researchers had proposed that at least some of the animal figures in the cave paintings were constellations, and that an arrangement of several portrayed a partial Zodiac. Obtaining, precise observational data to confirm this idea had proven difficult. This is exactly what Jean-Michel Geneste proposed that he and Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez should do.
Lascaux Cave Entrance / Solstice Sun Set – June 21,1999
Photo – Archeociel
From first contact with the cave and the immense and poignant Hall of Bulls, the two scientists followed strict scientific protocol. Constant humidity and temperature was maintained in the interior of the cave, particularly in an interior cavern known as the ‘Well’. C-14 laboratory determinations confirmed the older dates for the Lascaux cave paintings at 17,000 years B.P.
Lascaux – Solar Solstice Equinoctial
Graphic – Archeociel
The sky in this Magdalenian period was recreated using computer astronomy software and models were made for the western map of each constellation. Measurements of the orientation of all the paintings were taken according to an astronomical compass, which was precise to one half of azimuth (an arc of the heavens extending from the zenith to the horizon, which it cuts at right angles). Outlines of the paintings in the Hall of Bulls were compared to those of constellations in the sky in Magdalenian times.
Lascaux -_maximizing equinoctial sunbed
Lascaux diagram – Archeociel
Hall of the Bulls –
The Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux is large and the artistic scale used to depict the largest aurochs is almost monumental. The ‘hall’ is 16 metres long x 7 metres wide and 6.5 metres high. The largest auroch is 6 metres long. Most important for what would follow, the westward facing Lascaux entrance has a 12° downward slope. Geneste and Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez intended to show that this 12° slope led to the paintings in the Hall of the Bulls cavern, and that at Summer Solstice Sun Set, the sun’s rays penetrated far into Lascaux, reached the Hall of the Bulls and illuminated several paintings. One metaphoric description of such an event would have the Solar God blessing and Nourishing – the sacred animals – animal paintings/constellations – of the Zodiac. This would be an annual renewal right of great importance.
Lascaux -_Sunlight Path into caves / Summer Solstice Rise
Lascaux diagram – Arlette Leroi-Gourhan et Jacques Allain / Archeociel
Computer simulation allowed the outlines of the animal paintings, and their orientation to one another in the Hall of the Bulls, to be compared to the summer sky of Magdalenian times, ~15,000 B.C. The Summer Solstice of June 19, 1999 was chosen for direct observation of Sun Set and last light into Lascaux. On June 19 at 21 hrs GMT, the last rays of this Summer Solstice Sun Set were observed for 15 minutes. As predicted, the sun’s rays did reach the Hall of the Bulls and illuminated the cave wall paintings. The auroch bulls that dominate much of the panorama of animals in the Hall of the Bulls were confirmed as a mythic priority of these Magdalenian people.
Lascaux – Two Aurochs / Taurus, Scorpio
Photo – Prof saxx / Wikipedia
The two aurochs that face each other were aligned with arrangements for the constellations of Taurus and Scorpio. They also correspond to the rising and setting opposition of two fixed stars: a) Aldebaran, which is the eye of the bull in the constellation Taurus; and b) Antares which is in Scorpio. Understand that there are several aurochs depicted on the cave walls in the Hall of the Bulls, but only one depiction of the constellation Taurus the Bull.
Why do the Bulls predominate, why is Taurus the dominant constellation? Taurus is not the Solar God unless we make him so. The eye of the auroch that is Taurus is the supergiant star Aldebaran in the center of the constellation. The open star cluster Hyades encircles, and the Pleiades is above, the shoulder of Taurus.
Scorpio and Libra constellations / Mercator celestial globe,1551
Historical Print – Wikimedia
Other auroch bulls align with the constellations of Taurus and Scorpio. Parts of these aurochs correspond to the rising and setting opposition of Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus and Antares in Scorpio. That Taurus and Scorpio are not visible in the same region of the sky at the time of opposition indicates a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy in this Magdalenian culture.
Lascaux – Falling Horse
Photo – contracosta.edu
Falling Horse and Second Horse –
At the end of the Axial Gallery is an animal found nowhere else in Upper Paleolithic Art, the Falling Horse. The legs and head of this horse are visible in the passageway and are raised towards the sky. The lower half of the body is hidden behind a fold of the wall. The direction that the Falling Horse indicates is the location of Sun Rise on the Winter Solstice. Above the Falling Horse is another horse identical to one in the Hall of the Bulls.
Lascaux – Second Horse
Photo – mazzaroth.com
Second Horse is positioned above the two Bulls that face each other. Second Horse corresponds to the constellations of Leo and Scorpio: see photograph above. The mane of this horse points to the bright star Arcturus, which is visible at the end of winter at the point above the horizon where the Sun Rises. Second Horse therefore corresponds to Sun Rise at Spring Equinox. Once again, the ability of Cro-Magnon astronomer priests to calculate the positions of stars that are not visible is indicated.
Orion Barnard 30 star birth
Composite photograph / infrared/multiband – NASA/JPL-Caltech/D. Barrado y Navascués (LAEFF-INTA)
Orion at Lascaux –
Spanish researcher Luz Antequera Congregado in her 1992 doctoral thesis “Arte y astronomia: evolución de los dibujos de las constelaciones” offers this interpretation of Great Bull #18 in the Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux. Two sets of dots are associated with this bull. One set is above the auroch’s shoulder, the other is on the face. There is a third set of 4 dots to the immediate left of this bull. Congregado believes the dots above the shoulder are the Pleiades, as does Dr. Rappenglück. The dots on the auroch’s face represent the Hyades open star cluster. In a later 1994 research paper, Congregado stated that the row of 4 stars depict the belt of Orion, the Hunter.
Lascaux / Horse – Lunar Calendar
Photo – Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog
Lascaux / One Half Lunar Cycle
Photo – Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog
On the wall of Lascaux are Lunar Calendars, as first understood by Dr Michael Rappenglück. This completed 29 day lunar calendar was painted underneath a horse.
Cueva di El Castillo / Northern Crown
Graphic derived from Photo – mazzaroth.com
Let’s conclude with a brief mention of the Cueva di El Castillo cave, located in the mountains of Pico del Castillo, Spain. The cave art at this site is dated to 14,000 BP and includes an image that is a strong candidate to join the earliest constellations list. Dr. Rappenglück has identified a star map of the Northern Crown in a curved pattern of dots that has long been known by the misleading name ‘Frieze of Hands”.
These Upper Paleolithic pictorial artifacts are also a record of humankind’s earliest writing, a language of images that embodied complex metaphors. Sophisticated paintings recorded the most important truths of the Upper Paleolithic, the annual cycles of the solar and lunar gods, and the supernatural animals of the Zodiac. The celestial realm and its deities controlled the rhythm of life on earth: seasons; the health of all living things – plant, animal or ‘man’ – and the reproductive cycles of life without which there is no family, no generations or future. Order and purpose, survival, reproduction and the cycles of life are structured by the gods of the zodiac. The constellations that ‘rule’ each partition were later named ‘houses’ by astrologers.