Ancient humans used the moon as a calendar in the sky

Cave art and stone carvings reveal early humans’ time-tracking sophistication

crescent moon

TIMEPIECE  Archaeological evidence suggests that early humans used the moon as a timekeeper, as first argued during the Apollo missions.

Kym MacKinnon/Unsplash

The sun’s rhythm may have set the pace of each day, but when early humans needed a way to keep time beyond a single day and night, they looked to a second light in the sky. The moon was one of humankind’s first timepieces long before the first written language, before the earliest organized cities and well before structured religions. The moon’s face changes nightly and with the regularity of the seasons, making it a reliable marker of time.

“It’s an obvious timepiece,” Anthony Aveni says of the moon. Aveni is a professor emeritus of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and a founder of the field of archaeoastronomy. “There is good evidence that [lunar timekeeping] was around as early as 25,000, 30,000, 35,000 years before the present.”

When people began depicting what they saw in the natural world, two common motifs were animals and the night sky. One of the earliest known cave paintings, dated to at least 40,000 years ago in a cave on the island of Borneo, includes a wild bull with horns. European cave art dating to about 37,000 years ago depicts wild cattle too, as well as geometric shapes that some researchers interpret as star patterns and the moon.

For decades, prehistorians and other archaeologists believed that ancient humans were portraying what they saw in the natural world because of an innate creative streak.

The modern idea that Paleolithic people were depicting nature for more than artistic reasons gained traction at the end of the 19th century and was further developed in the early 20th century by Abbé Henri Breuil, a French Catholic priest and archaeologist. He interpreted the stylistic bison and lions in the cave paintings and carvings of southern France as ritual art designed to bring luck to the hunt.

In the 1960s, a journalist–turned–amateur anthropologist proposed even more practical purposes for these drawings and other artifacts: They were created for telling time.

In the early days of the Apollo space missions, the journalist, Alexander Marshack, was writing a book about how the course of human history culminated in the moon shot. He delved into prehistory, trying to understand the earliest concepts of timekeeping and agriculture (SN: 4/14/79, p. 252).

“I had a profound sense of something missing,” Marshack wrote in his 1972 book, The Roots of Civilization. Formal science, including astronomy and math, apparently had begun “suddenly,” he noted. Same with writing, agriculture, art and the calendar. But surely these cognitive leaps took thousands of years of preparation, Marshack reasoned: “How many thousands was the question.”

To find out, he examined ancient bone carvings and wall art from locations including caves in Western Europe and fishing villages of equatorial Africa. He interpreted what was seen by some as simple dots and dashes or depictions of animals and people as sophisticated tools for keeping track of time — via the moon. Today, some experts support his thesis; others remain unconvinced.

Early almanacs

It’s easy enough to keep track of the seasons just by paying attention to the environment, of course. Throughout the world, animals like deer and cattle are pregnant through the winter’s dark privation; they give birth when the leaves appear on trees and when grasses grow tall.

Early humans of 30,000 years ago frequently connected the changes in these “phenophases,” the seasonal stages of flora and fauna, with the appearance of certain stars and the phases of the moon, says science historian and astronomer Michael Rappenglück of the Adult Education Center and Observatory in Gilching, Germany. He refers to early cave depictions as “paleo-almanacs” because they combined time-reckoning with information related to the cycles of life.

As Rappenglück puts it, simply noting the spinning of the seasons would not be enough to keep time. For one thing, flora and fauna change from place to place, and even 30,000 years ago, humans were traveling great distances in search of food. They needed something more constant to help them tell time.

“People carefully watched the course of the moon, noting its position over the natural horizon and the change of its phases,” Rappenglück wrote in the 2015 Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy.

In the 1960s, Marshack, the first to argue that Paleolithic people were connecting the moon with time, sifted through dusty cabinets in French museums, retrieving bone and antler pieces that had been worked by humans. Others had interpreted the etchings on these objects as the by-product of point-sharpening, or maybe, as most before Breuil thought, abstract artworks made by idle hands.

But Marshack saw the earliest examples of sky almanacs. The etchings were numerical and notational, he argued. On a bone shard from a prehistoric settlement called Abri Blanchard in France, dating to 28,000 years ago, he found a pattern of pits, some with commalike curves and some round. He viewed it as a record of lunar cycles.

Deeply excited by the find, Marshack soon brought his conclusions to archaeologists and anthropologists throughout Europe and the United States. Some of these experts were impressed, according to accounts at the time.

Hunters who could figure out when the night would be illuminated by moonlight would have had an “adaptive advantage,” Aveni says. “That is so much what the cave paintings are about,” he says, referring to the tally marks near the animals on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in France and elsewhere.

Regarding Marshack’s speculations about the Blanchard bone shard, paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall is still unsure. “We know Ice Age European art was highly symbolic, and there is no doubt that [ancient people] perceived symbols all around them in nature. And it is pretty certain that the moon played a huge role in their cosmology, and that they were fully aware of its cycle,” says Tattersall, curator emeritus of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “Beyond that, all bets are off.”

Thirteen notches

In the decades after Marshack published his findings, historians and anthropologists began noticing similar lunar motifs throughout the archaeological record of this time period and afterward, Aveni notes. “There are more than one of these items that have markings on them that might relate to the moon,” he says.

The Venus of Laussel is one extraordinary example. It is a carving of a voluptuous woman, one hand resting on her abdomen, the other raised and holding a bison horn etched with 13 notches. Her face is turned toward the horn. The figure was carved between 22,000 and 27,000 years ago, in a rock-shelter in the Dordogne region of southwestern France.

The Venus of Laussel holds a horn carved with 13 notches, which may represent lunar cycles and fertility. Museum Collection of Aquitaine–France Photo J-M Arnaud, Bordeaux City Hall

Some archaeologists now think the 13 notches represent the number of lunar cycles in a solar year — and, approximately, the average number of menstrual cycles. Though modern scientists have debunked any direct connection between the cycles of the moon and human fertility, ancient people would have recognized the parallel timing; the lunar cycle repeats every 29.5 days, roughly the same schedule as the average woman’s menstrual cycle. People of 30,000 years ago could have used the moon and stars to plan their pregnancies, Rappenglück speculates.

Cave paintings in the Dordogne region may be depictions of the lunar and menstrual cycles. Specifically, the Lascaux cave paintings, dating to 17,000 years ago, are best known for their curvy, sweeping depictions of horses and bulls. Beyond the cave entrance, past what is called the Hall of Bulls, is a dead-end passage called the Axial Gallery. Red aurochs, an extinct form of cattle, stand in a group. A huge black bull stands apart from them. Across the gallery, a pregnant horse gallops above a row of 26 black dots. The mare is running toward a massive stag, with front legs invisible behind 13 additional evenly spaced dots.

The animals may represent seasons, Rappenglück suggests. In Europe, bovines calve in the spring; horses both foal and mate in the late spring. The deer rut takes place in early autumn, and the wild goats known as ibex mate around the winter solstice.

To Rappenglück, the dots depict the 13 full moons of the lunar cycle. The 26 dots may roughly represent the days of a sidereal month, or the time it takes the moon to return to the same position in the sky relative to the stars. “The striking row of dots is a kind of a time-unit,” he wrote in 2004.

Critics have said Marshack’s work overinterprets many artifacts from Africa and Europe, some of which contain markings at the limit of naked-eye visibility (SN: 6/9/90, p. 357).

“By modern standards of evidence, he is playing with numerological coincidences,” art historian James Elkins wrote in 1996 in an article that is part critique and part celebration. Elkins noted that Marshack countered his doubters by throwing their uncertainty back at them, arguing that better explanations were lacking.

“Nights were real nights at that time, and Paleolithic people certainly had deep insights into what was going on in the sky,” says Harald Floss, an anthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who studies the origin of art. “But I would not risk saying more.”

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