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Lascaux constellations

2 October 2010

BBC News ‘online science editor’ Dr David Whitehouse, in 2000, reported on the Ice Age prehistoric map of the night sky on the walls of Lascaux, as interpreted by Dr Michael Rappenglueck. Spanish researcher Luz Antequerra Congregeulo, in a doctoral thesis (1992) first suggested an astronomical interpretation of the dots above the shoulder of the bull painting as a depiction of the Pleiades. Qualifying that, the first academic publication of such an idea. Early investigators of the caves also suggested something quite similar. The V shape of dots on the face of the bull were identified with the Hyades (otherwise the jawbone of an ass). In 1994 she went on to identify four dots near the bull as the Belt of Orion.

Hence, the idea is that the Lacaux bull (there are in fact many bulls, but one in particular is being referred to – and they are aurochs) may actually represent the constellation we know today as Taurus (the Bull), an idea that was also propagated by Frank Edge in a booklet, or booklets on the subject (1995). Michael Rappenglueck took this a stage further by claiming the depiction of constellations was a cosmographic depiction by Palaeolithic shamans (1997 and 1998). However, goping back somewhat earlier Marcel Baudoin and Henri Bressuil speculated about the possibility of constellations being represented in prehistoric cave art, one reason being the nature of the wrap around painting of animals in the most famous of the cave chambers. It absolutely dominates the viewer.

To date, none of this is neccessarily convincing – but it is suggestive, particularly in view of the Clube and Napier hypothesis in that a short period comet routinely emerged out of a region of the sky where the Pleiades are located and significant meteor streams were associated with Orion and the Hyades. It is also a fact that from the remains of food debris (bones) found on cave floors the artists were reindeer hunters – following the herds as is done in the far north even nowadays. Reindeer do not appear on the cave art – but this might be because the reindeer herders lived somewhat later – after the end of the Ice Age. Therefore, it is not conclusive evidence as the cave art was produced over a long period of time, between 30,000 and 16,000 years ago.

The same subject matter appeared at www.christopherseddon.com/2008/01/ice-age-star-maps.html and adds the Lascaux cave paintings are specifically associated with Magdelanian Palaeolithic culture people. The Great Hall of the Bulls is a rotunda with a wrap-round mural portraying aurochs, horses and stags. The most dominant image is a huge bull auroch and it is this figure that is associated with the dots. The Hyades and Pleiades are star clusters within the Taurus constellation. Aldebara, the brightest star of the Hyades is known as the Bulls Eye. In Frank Edge’s interpretation the mural represents around half of the constellations and significantly they lie along or close to the ecliptic (which is an important feature of the Clube and Napier model). Michael Rappenglueck identified a second star map in a gallery known as the Shaft of the Dead Man – a stylised human like figure with the head of a bird and an impressive phallic member. He is apparently confronting a partially eviscerated bison. Below him there is a bird perched on top of a post. Rappenglueck interpreted these as Cygnus (the Swan constellation), Aquila (the Eagle) and Lyra (the Lyre). In the Palaeolithic the stars of Cygnus would have circled the celestial north pole, he suggested – going round and round. Basically, Rappenglueck envisaged the Bird Man as a shaman – and the spirit of the shaman was rumoured to ascend into the sky to commune with the gods or descend into the underworld (for the same purpose). The bird on a stick or post may be a spirit helper guarding the shaman in his ascent (or induced trance, as clearly shamans did not ascend into the sky but their spirit was thought to have that capability). In other words, the shaman as a man with a bird’s head was mimicking some feature of the heavens, which may actually have been a transient phenomenon of some kind. 

Seddon says we don’t know if any evidence for Palaeolithic astronomy is credible, or otherwise, as clearly some of the ideas are speculative. He expresses scepticism and presumably a majority of people would probably agree with him. However, if the Clube and Napier hypothesis has any credibility we should expect Palaeolithic people to be interested in the region of the sky associated with Taurus, the plane of the ecliptic (where a lot of the activity took place) and the polar regions as well, even the constellation of Cygnus with its prominent group of bright stars. In addition, if the figure with a bird’s head had a plasma connection, the kind of image noted by Anthony Perratt and others, and then a whole raft of opportunities is opened up – but note all this is taking place well before the so called Younger Dryas event.

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