Ice Age Star Map Discovered

August 9, 2000
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The star map gives insight into our ancestors' minds

A prehistoric map of the night sky has been discovered on the walls of the famous painted caves at Lascaux in central France.

It is a map of the prehistoric cosmos

Dr Michael Rappenglueck The map, which is thought to date back 16,500 years, shows three bright stars known today as the Summer Triangle.

A map of the Pleiades star cluster has also been found among the Lascaux frescoes.

And another pattern of stars, drawn 14,000 years ago, has been identified in a cave in Spain.

According to German researcher Dr Michael Rappenglueck, of the University of Munich, the maps show that our ancestors were more sophisticated than many believe.

Scientific heritage

The Lascaux caves, with their spectacular drawings of bulls, horses and antelope, were painted 16,500 years ago.

Photo: The caves may have been a prehistoric planetarium where the stars were first charted

Discovered in 1940, the walls show the artistic talents of our distant ancestors. But the drawings may also demonstrate their scientific knowledge as well.

The caves could be a prehistoric planetarium in which humanity first charted the stars.

The sky map has been found in a region of the Lascaux caves known as the Shaft of the Dead Man.

Painted on to the wall of the shaft is a bull, a strange bird-man and a mysterious bird on a stick.

Summer triangle

According to Dr Rappenglueck, these outlines form a map of the sky with the eyes of the bull, birdman and bird representing the three prominent stars Vega, Deneb and Altair.

Photo: The ancient star map shows a bull, birdman and a bird on a stick

Together, these stars are popularly known as the Summer Triangle and are among the brightest objects that can be picked out high overhead during the middle months of the northern summer.

Around 17,000 years ago, this region of sky would never have set below the horizon and would have been especially prominent at the start of spring.

"It is a map of the prehistoric cosmos," Dr Rappenglueck told BBC News Online. "It was their sky, full of animals and spirit guides."

Seven sisters

But the sky map is not the only evidence that prehistoric man took a keen interest in the night sky. Nearer to the entrance of the Lascaux cave complex is a magnificent painting of a bull.

Photo: Cave drawings in Spain may also point to the stars

Hanging over its shoulder is what appears to be a map of the Pleiades, the cluster of stars sometimes called the Seven Sisters.

Inside the bull painting, there are also indications of spots that may be a representation of other stars found in that region of sky.

Today, this region forms part of the constellation of Taurus the bull, showing that mankind's identification of this part of the sky stretches back thousands of years.

Northern Crown

Dr Rappenglueck has also identified a star map painted on the walls of a cave in Spain 14,000 years ago.

The Cueva di El Castillo cave, in the mountains of Pico del Castillo, contains a region called the Frieze of Hands.

At the end of this remarkable section can be found a curved pattern of dots.

"Nobody paid much attention to it," said Dr Rappenglueck. "But, it is obviously a drawing of the constellation we call the Northern Crown. It is remarkable."

The archaeologists who have looked at Dr Rappengleuck's conclusions have so far agreed that they are reasonable and that he may have uncovered the earliest evidence of humanity's interest in the stars.

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