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. [Continue reading…]