The Oldest Lunar Calendar on Earth

Aurignacian Lunar Calendar

The Oldest Lunar Calendars and Earliest Constellations have been identified in cave art found in France and Germany. The astronomer-priests of these late Upper Paleolithic Cultures understood mathematical sets, and the interplay between the moon annual cycle, ecliptic, solstice and seasonal changes on earth.

The First (Lunar) Calendar –

The archaeological record’s earliest data that speaks to human awareness of the stars and ‘heavens’ dates to the Aurignacian Culture of Europe, c.32,000 B.C. Between 1964 and the early 1990s, Alexander Marshack published breakthrough research that documented the mathematical and astronomical knowledge in the Late Upper Paleolithic Cultures of Europe. Marshack deciphered sets of marks carved into animal bones, and occasionally on the walls of caves, as records of the lunar cycle. These marks are sets of crescents or lines. Artisans carefully controlled line thickness so that a correlation with lunar phases would be as easy as possible to perceive. Sets of marks were often laid out in a serpentine pattern that suggests a snake deity or streams and rivers.

Aurignacian Lunar Calendar / diagram, drawing after Marshack, A. 1970

Many of these lunar calendars were made on small pieces of stone, bone or antler so that they could be easily carried. These small, portable, lightweight lunar calendars were easily carried on extended journeys such as long hunting trips and seasonal migrations.

Hunting the largest animals was arduous, and might require hunters to follow herds of horses, bison, mammoth or ibex for many weeks. (Other big animals such as the auroch, cave bear and cave lion were well known but rarely hunted for food because they had special status in the mythic realm. The Auroch is very important to the search for earliest constellations.)

Sun’s ecliptic path (red) on the celestial dome – schematic

The phases of the moon depicted in these sets of marks are inexact. Precision was impossible unless all nights were perfectly clear which is an unrealistic expectation. The arithmetic counting skill implied by these small lunar calendars is obvious. The recognition that there are phases of the moon and seasons of the year that can be counted – that should be counted because they are important – is profound.

“All animal activities are time factored, simply because time passes, the future is forever arriving. The reality of time factoring is objective physics and does not depend upon human awareness or consciousness. Until Marshack’s work, many archeologists believed the sets of marks he chose to study were nothing but the aimless doodles of bored toolmakers. What Marshack uncovered is the intuitive discovery of mathematical sets and the application of those sets to the construction of a calendar.” (Source #1, p.10)

Bone is the preferred medium because it allows for easy transport and a long calendar lifetime. Mankind’s earliest astronomy brought the clan into the multi-dimensional universe of the gods. Objects used in the most potent rituals had the highest contextual, cultural value and were treated with great reverence.


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.


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.

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.


Orion on mammoth tusk ivory / Germany – photo

Orion / The First Constellation –

Michael A. Rappenglück in Germany has published exceptional research in which he proposes that astronomer-priests in European Upper Paleolithic cultures could ‘see’ constellations in the night sky. They recorded those observations in cave paintings, on calendars and in sculptural art. Furthermore says Dr. Rappenglück, the astronomer-shamans of Magdalenian Culture created a cosmology and the first zodiac known to history.

These ideas were first presented in 1966, then in Dr. Rappenglück’s doctoral thesis in 1968. Dr. Rappenglück was not the first scholar of Upper Paleolithic European cultures to propose that astronomer-priests had found important constellations. Proposals of this sort had been published since the early decades of the 20th century. It is time to honor these researchers who are little known to the general public: Marcel Boudouin (France), Henri Breuil (France, early work at Lascaux), Amandus Weiss (Switzerland), Heino Eelsalu (Estonia), and Marie König (Germany).

Orion from Bayer’s “Uranometria” – 1603, print

Orion is the oldest and therefore the first constellation discovered by the human mind. The evidence is a carving on mammoth tusk ivory found with Aurignacian culture artifacts in 1979 in a cave in the Ach Valley, Alb-Danube region of Germany. C-14 dating of adjacent ash deposits brackets the age of this small sliver of mammoth tusk to between 38,000 and 32,000 B.C. Upon it was carved a man-like figure with outstretched arms, a pose that is a match to the stars of Orion, The Hunter. Dr. Rappenglück has also suggested that the notches on the backside of this Orion figure are a primitive pregnancy calendar for predicting when a woman will give birth.

The tablet is 38 x 14 mm and the notches carved into its edges tell us that this is its final size. The tablet is not a fragment broken off from something larger. The Orion figure has arms raised and legs spread apart. Orion appears to have a sword hanging between his legs, and his left leg is shorter than his right leg. The slim waist of this tiny figurine of Orion would correspond to the bright stars of his belt in the constellation. The sword in this ivory figurine is the sword in the constellation of Orion. More telling perhaps is that the left leg in the constellation of Orion The Hunter is shorter than the right leg.


Image: Michelet B


Taurus & Orion constellations / animated – digital graphic

There are 86 notches on this ivory tablet, which is the number of days to be subtracted from the day count of one year to arrive at the average number of days in the human gestation period. ‘86’ is also the number of days that Betelguese, one of Orion’s two prominent stars, is visible to the naked eye each year.

We can conclude with 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”.

In rebuttal to these interpretations, we have to consider that a) we have no idea if or how the Aurignacian people conceptualized the ‘year’, and what method of counting ‘days’ they used; and b) the figure on the Aurignacian mammoth tusk could be a shaman in a ritual costume that has nothing to do with any constellation Orion. Nonetheless, Dr. Rappenglück’s argument is persuasive and we await additional candidates for early constellations.

Solstice Sun stars Taurus Gemeni composite –
photo montage

The interface between Taurus, Solstice and Equinox Sun Rise and Sun Set is unmistakable and will be dissected in a forthcoming article. Did the Magdalenian Year begin plus or minus some days about October 11 to coincide with the rutting season of the Aurochs? If so, would these phenomena be understood as determined and predicted by cyclical position of the Pleiades? Near the ecliptic, the Pleiades was never far from earthly seasonal changes. The Pleiades might be understood as celestial deities, melded to the celestial auroch of­ the constellation Taurus – which was soon transformed into a solar god, the first such deity to be ‘seen’ by our ancestors.

Sources –

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7