A scene painted on a cave wall more than 15 million years ago seems to tell the simple story of a hunter who collapsed in front of a disemboweled animal. By reading between the lines, the images could describe something bigger. Maybe even astronomical.
The figures represented in the famous prehistoric paintings of Lascaux have been placed with determination, according to a new analysis of the work. These are not simple hunting stories. These were zodiac signs arranged to record a significant cataclysmic event.
Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent have compared zoomorphic works found in Neolithic sites around the world, from Göbekli Tepe to Çatalhöyük in Turkey to the caves near Montignac in southwestern France.
Familiar-looking animal representations, such as bulls, lions and scorpions, are not meant to represent scenes of a familiar appearance, they say. Instead, they could symbolize constellations and, as such, constitute an early form of astronomical record keeping.
"The ancient rock art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky during the last ice age," says one of the study's authors, the Martin chemical engineer Sweatman of the University of Edinburgh.
If this is true, the scenes drawn in Lascaux could instead mark the date of a major event that coincided with an annual Taurid meteorite shower about 17,000 years ago.
Sounds a bit unfamiliar to you? Last year, the same researchers decoded stone sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe in reference to a comet strike supposed to be responsible for a temporary return to the ice age's climate conditions there are about 13,000 years.
This new study further pushes the analysis by applying it to other Neolithic works of art from other sites and periods.
The paintings of Lascaux were discovered by a group of teenagers from the region in the 1940s, and since then we have been gratifying ourselves. The exact date of their creation is unclear, but experts estimate that the 600 images scattered on the walls date back to 17,000 years ago.
A large number of characters represent animals that would have lived in the area, including horses and bison-like animals called aurochs.
The images known collectively as the Well Scene include a human figure bent next to an auroch, which carries loops of his intestines hanging from his belly.
Nearby, there is something that looks a little like duck, while a rhinoceros looks away. A horse's head is drawn on another section of the wall.
We can all guess why someone is bothering to crawl inside a cave to awkwardly inscribe a man tilting in front of a gutted animal while a scared standby bird and that one of them is not safe. a rhinoceros pretends not to notice … their opinions.
The caves are considered supernatural places related to deities and others. It is therefore possible that these images were drawn seeking God's favor before a hunt, such as a prehistoric wish list or a form of prayer.
But other researchers have noticed that the proximity of various animals around the caves seems less random. The French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan understood in the 1960s that this represented a kind of classification system, good and bad or masculine and feminine.
There are also geometric shapes, odd points and lines scattered throughout the images, which it is difficult to take into account if these attempts were to realistically draw natural parameters.
The idea that they may somehow reflect not pastoral scenes but celestial scenes has been discussed for over 40 years.
Sweatman and his colleague from the University of Kent, Alistair Coombs, now argue that this is the right approach and that we should give more credit to our ancestors when it comes to representing the world.
"Intellectually, they were not much different from us today," says Sweatman.
Like the stone of Göbekli Tepe's vulture, the Shaft scene shows a human figure that seems to be dying, almost four prominent animals.
Researchers contend that the wounded buffalo represents the Capricorn constellation at the summer equinox and that the bird replaces Libra at the spring equinox. The other animals are more speculative, but could easily match Leo and Taurus to the other equinoxes.
This arrangement could mark a date of 15,150 BCE, after a few centuries, alluding to an event that could have had less than pleasant consequences for humans.
Records taken from Greenland ice cores suggest that the climate began to shift around 15,300 BCE, but nothing indicates that it was caused by some sort of meteorite impact.
We have been sculpting and painting animals for tens of thousands of years and we do not always know why.
The sculpture of a lion erected in the 40,000-year-old Hohlenstein Grotto in Germany is another strange example that draws the attention of Sweatman and Coombs.
"These results corroborate the theory of the multiple impacts of comets during human development and are likely to revolutionize the way prehistoric populations are perceived," said Sweatman.
There is no doubt that historians will continue to debate the meaning of ancient art for a long time.
These results show instead that we should perhaps abandon the strictly shamanic interpretations to consider art as an integral part of time, based on a bold characteristic of the environment that we often forget in our modern world – the night sky.
This research was published in the Journal of History of Athens.