The Oldest Lunar Calendar on Earth


Image: The Clementine Project / NASA

Ecliptic moon earthshine Sun corona

The Earth orbits the Sun but as seen from Earth, the Sun moves on the pathway of the ecliptic (red) on the celestial dome. When the Sun seems to pass through the vernal equinox (longitude 0°), the longitude of the Earth is 180° degrees.

Calendars record events whose location in time is important to the clan. The time scale used on these earliest calendars is the phases of the moon because they are reliable and predictable, easily described with clarity and require only minimal artistic skill to draw. The few powerful ‘cosmic truths’ that were judged to be the most potent of all would be available to a few exceptional initiated adults in the clan. After all, upper level management has to maintain its power base :)

Upper Magdalenian lunar notations sometimes were carved on bones with animal and mythic imagery. The importance and meaning attached to the earliest constellations and the zodiac might have been taught last as initiation time approached and the acolyte’s preparation reached a terminus. The artifacts, upon which this earliest astronomy was recorded, are found in scattered localities, first and foremost sacred caves. Evidence for the auroch as Taurus the Bull and Solar God will soon follow.

Image: Marc Groenen / Don’s Maps

Upper Paleolithic Fauna / Cave Art styles –
graphic art

It seems likely that concepts of time and the lunar calendar had been understood by the astronomer-priests of Magdalenian culture. The brightest children/teenagers would be selected for training and initiation into this highest of ‘arts’.

Seasonal changes in plants and animal communities can be linked to lunar phases and the lunar calendar. We can speculate that Pliocene-era australopithecines in Africa became aware of this linkage between earthbound seasonal change and celestial events that occurred with predictable patterns. That understanding would expand with evolution of larger brained H. erectus.

The small H.erectus populations that are documented for Europe in the Lower Pleistocene are the distant ancestors of the Magdalenian peoples of the late Upper Paleolithic. In northern latitudes, seasonal changes in antlers, horns and the coat of important food animals are linked to the lunar calendar and the change of seasons. Important large animals included reindeer, horses, bison, auroch, mammoth, bear, rhino and ibex. Astronomer-priests who understood the lunar calendar could predict seasonal events before they occurred. Note that the importance of a species to the clan’s diet is not reflected in how often they were depicted in cave art. Animal imagery in cave art is not sympathetic hunting magic as was assumed for many years. It seems more probable that the most important ritual animals were accorded priority in cave art.

Before the lunar calendar was invented, a sharp eye towards the sky and changing weather allowed for a good deal of prediction as to what will unfold in the local habitat a short distance down the time track into the near future. The list of important life cycle events to be tracked and notated became obvious a very long time ago: birth, death, maturation-initiation, mating, family, animal plant resource/periodicity and weather cycles. If the tribe can understand these, it will do well over the long run.


Image: Dept. Physics / Durham University, UK

Sun’s Annual Path along the Ecliptic / animation

But then, what is the moon? The orb that shines at night might be far away. It also must be very important because its cycles are linked to cycles on earth that determine human health, female reproduction capacity, resource abundance, life and death. Only a few art compositions with obvious metaphorical and symbolic meaning were drawn on Upper Paleolithic lunar calendars. Time factored notation is not necessary to understand and record metaphor as the small archeological sample illustrates.

A fine example is an ivory plaque from the terminal Magdalenian of France (La Veche) where a molting bison that indicates an early spring molt, was drawn on a two month lunar notation. This small segment of a complete, year long, lunar calendar is self contained and served its purpose. Constellations and the Zodiac were discovered because they are ‘there’ and the human ‘big brain’ ‘plays’ all the time, is forever active and curious. Understanding the linkage between the lunar cycle and important natural cycles in the ‘world’ was unavoidable.

The discovery of time factored notation, mathematical sets and the lunar calendar set the stage. Upper Paleolithic people are now looking at the heavens and assuredly asking questions. The discovery of constellations and the Zodiac would soon occur. Paleolithic Lunar calendars are central to the mechanism by which observational astronomy at the end of the last Ice Age functioned.