“The stars we are given. The constellations we make. The stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the reading we give the sky, the stories we tell. —Rebecca Solnit
Lascaux Cave, Grotte de Lascaux, is in the Vezere River valley in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. The cave is situated in an area rich in earlier prehistoric sites—caves, rock shelters, and settlements. The discovery of the cave paintings at Lascaux was first made public in 1880 and led to bitter controversy between experts, which continued into the early twentieth century. Many “experts” did not believe that prehistoric humans had the intellectual capacity to produce any kind of artistic expression, let alone the magnificent art on the cave walls. Acknowledgment of the authenticity of the paintings finally came in 1902 and changed forever the perception of prehistoric humans. The Lascaux paintings are dated to 17,000 years ago and have been called “the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art.”
There are more than 350 cave-art sites in France and Spain alone that were occupied at various times over the 25,000 years preceding the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain are the most famous. Until recently, the earliest European Paleolithic cave art dates from around 32,000 years ago, at Chauvet in France. However, new research published in June 2012, in Science, reveals that hand stencils and disks, made by blowing paint onto the wall in El Castillo cave in Northern Spain, have been dated to at least 40,800 years, making them the oldest-known cave art in Europe. A large, club-shaped symbol in the famous polychrome chamber at Altamira was found to be at least 35,600 years old, indicating that painting started there 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, and that the cave was revisited and painted a number of times over a period spanning more than 20,000 years.
Four young boys exploring Lascaux Hill found the Lascaux Caves in 1940. The cave walls are decorated with more than 1,500 stunning images, spanning a distance of 850 feet (250 meters). Lascaux has long been closed to the public in order to protect the priceless prehistoric artwork, but December of 2016 marked the unveiling of a $94 million full-scale replica. Called Lascaux 4, the project has completely reconstructed one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Simon Coencas, now 89, is the last surviving member of the original explorers. He was a special guest at the unveiling of the new replica.
Lascaux has three long and narrow subterranean galleries in the form of a letter ‘K,’ including what have become known as the Axial Gallery, the Hall of the Bulls, the Chamber of Felines, the Nave, the Apse, and the Shaft. Numerous monochrome and polychrome paintings and engravings cover most parts of the cave. Images include horses, aurochs (ancestors of modern cattle), bison, oxen, stags, ibex, felines, woolly rhinoceros, birds, bears, an anthropoid, and a chimera. There are some possible abstract representations of plants, symbols, geometric figures, series and sets of dots. Carbon-14 dates from charcoal used sparingly for painting, pollen analysis, and stylistic evaluations suggest that the majority of the rock pictures are associated with what is called the Lower Magdalenian culture from 17,000–15,000 BP. Magdalenians are considered Cro-Magnon and were known as reindeer hunters.
Some researchers have suggested that the Lascaux paintings are sympathetic magic, relating only to the hunt. Copying the animals onto the cave walls created a place to prepare, understand, and follow the animals during their seasonal migration. However, the idea that paintings at Lascaux represent stars or constellations is not new. In the 1990s Frank Edge, who taught mathematics and cosmology at Mitchell Community College in North Carolina, saw the Hall of the Bulls as a map of the summer sky. He explored his ideas in a research paper titled Aurochs in the Sky. The key to his vision was the seven dots painted above the shoulder of one of the bulls (circled in red above). Edge saw this as the Pleiades star cluster above Taurus, the Bull. The Pleiades, because of their position on the ecliptic, have drawn the attention of many cultures. The auroch is the ancestor of modern cattle, suggesting that this animal was an earlier depiction of what is now the constellation Taurus, the Bull. If true, this places the origin and identity of Taurus at least 10,000 years earlier than is currently believed.
French researcher Dr. Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez has been working on this for a decade. She affirms that there was a long tradition of sky watching among the Cro-Magnon people of Europe during the period from 30,000–10,000 BCE. Dr. Jegues-Wolkiewiez visited 130 caves in France over a seven-year period to identify solar alignments. She found orientations to sunset during solstices in 122 of the sites. She believes the famous paintings in the caves at Lascaux record the constellations of a prehistoric zodiac, which includes major stars as wells as solstice points. She examined alignments using modern astronomy software. Models were made of the western map of each constellation and then the orientation of the paintings was measured according to an astronomical compass. She was able to determine that summer solstice sunsets penetrated the caves and illuminated certain paintings. Her work is based on identification of dots and tracings superimposed on the paintings of bulls, horses, and aurochs on the cave walls. These appear to correspond to the constellation of Taurus, the asterism of the Pleiades, and the stars Aldebaran and Antares.
Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, from the University of Munich, has arrived at similar conclusions. He believes the paintings of Lascaux represent not only constellations but also the cosmology of Paleolithic shamans. He suggests that an enigmatic painting of a male figure, a bull, and a bird on a pole represent the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair, all of which supports the earlier work of Frank Edge. These bright stars form what is now called the Summer Triangle. Rappenglueck says these three stars would have been prominent in early spring skies 17,000 years ago.
Rappenglueck also identified what might be the earliest known depiction of Orion that was carved into the tusk of a mammoth and has been dated to 32,000 years ago. He also identified what could be the oldest lunar calendar on the walls of Lascaux, showing symbolic paintings dating back 15,000 years. The German researcher says groups of dots and squares painted among representations of bulls, antelopes, and horses depict the 29-day cycle of the Moon.
A number of Lascaux pictures have possible astronomical significance. These include the ‘e’ and ‘fronting ibex’ in the Axial Gallery and the ‘crossed bison’ in the Chamber of Felines; the stag-and-horse motif and related dots in the Axial Gallery and the five ‘swimming stags’ in the Nave; the aurochs in the Hall of the Bulls with its clusters of dots; and two pictograph panels in the Shaft. The majority of the animals depicted at Lascaux show seasonal characteristics that could have functioned as calendars. For example, deer are represented in their rutting season at the start of autumn, horses at the time of mating and foaling in late winter/early spring, and ibexes at the time when they congregated during late summer/early autumn in same-sex herds. Paintings of animals accurately represent their seasonal coat colors, and indications of particular seasons are sometimes enhanced by drawings of stylized plants. The ‘Chinese horse’ in the Axial Gallery is shown in its summer fur, pregnant, and surrounded by stylized branches, illustrating the time of foaling around summer solstice.
Some abstract designs associated with seasonal animals may be like almanacs. It’s been argued that a set of 13 dots and another of 26 that appear beneath a roaring stag and a pregnant horse (representing autumn and spring, respectively) in the Axial Gallery represent the 13- and 26-week intervals from summer solstice to autumn equinox and then to the spring equinox—each spot counting seven days. Two pictograph panels in the Shaft have been interpreted as the sky panorama that would have been seen by the Magdalenian people from the top of Lascaux Hill around midnight at the time of summer solstice circa 14,500 BCE.
Herodotus, a Greek historian from the fifth century BCE, claimed he received his material from Egyptian priests who, in turn, claimed that their Egyptian history was at least 14,000 years old. Charles Berlitz, in his book, Atlantis, quoted Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century CE, who said, “The Egyptians were strangers who, in remote times, settled on the banks of the Nile, bringing with them the civilization from their mother country, the art of writing and a polished language. They had come from the direction of the setting Sun and were the most ancient of men.” Authors Graham Hancock, Dr. Carmen Boulter, and others believe that what we call “Atlantis” was not merely an island nation in the Atlantic Ocean but was instead a number of sophisticated cultures around the globe that were destroyed by a series of ancient cataclysms.
According to the famous psychic Edgar Cayce, Atlantis was destroyed by volcanic and earthquake-like explosions on three distinct and widely separated occasions. Cayce said in trance sessions that each of these destructions lasted over a period of months, or years, not just in a single day and night. The first of these disasters appear to have taken place about 50,700 BCE and the second about 28,000 BCE. The third and last destruction occurred around 10,000 BCE, which is the most familiar timeframe in Atlantis lore. If there were multiple destructions over a 40,000-year time span, it makes sense that colonists and survivors would go to great lengths to preserve and protect knowledge that was critical to their survival, as they may have done at Lascaux and elsewhere.
The site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, which upended the conventional view of “hunter gatherers,” has been dated at about 11,700 years ago. This date corresponds with eerie precision to the end of what is called the Younger Dryas (named for an alpine tundra wildflower that is an “indicator genus”), a geological period from circa 12,900–11,700 BCE. The Younger Dryas saw a sharp decline in temperature over most of the northern hemisphere at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, which is often colloquially referred to as the Ice Age. This geological epoch lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the world’s most recent period of repeated glaciations. The end of the Pleistocene also corresponds with the end of the so-called Paleolithic Age. The change was relatively sudden, taking place in decades, and resulted in the extinction of most of the large mammoths and the rapid demise of the North American Clovis culture. The Younger Dryas ice age lasted for about 1,200 years before the climate warmed again.
Could at least parts of the zodiac, which we think originated in Babylon, be instead a legacy of Atlantis? It is possible to imagine, based on growing evidence of the antiquity and sophistication of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal cultures, that the spread of civilization may have come over thousands of years from Atlantis and may have affected ancient cultures in Europe and Asia as far back as 40,000 years ago?
It seems natural that before artificial light, the night sky was a canvas upon which the shining dots of light were connected into star pictures, and tales were told to mark the passage of the seasons. What ancient stories might have been shared, by fires and inside caves, to bring meaning to a universe that must have seemed remote, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous? A change in the sky could portend disaster. It is both humbling and inspiring to imagine that some of the paintings on cave walls such as those at Lascaux, like the Bull of Heaven, have survived as art and symbolism for many thousands of years. We have much in common with our ancient forebears. We still gaze at the stars and study the constellations, reflecting on their mythic stories and decoding their symbolic meaning.