Ancient humans and their early depictions of the universe

By | January 19, 2023

Astronomy reports:

In the Lascaux caves of southwestern France, which are famously adorned with 17,000-year-old paintings, the artist’s subject is almost always a large animal.

But hovering above the image of one bull is an unexpected addition: a cluster of small black dots that some scholars interpret as stars. Perhaps it is the eye-catching Pleiades, which Paleolithic hunter-gatherers would have seen vividly in the unpolluted sky.

Claims of prehistoric astronomy are controversial. Even if true, we frequently trace our cosmic perspective instead to Nicolaus Copernicus, who in 1543 set a steady course by proving that Earth revolves around the Sun; to Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, who refined the heliocentric theory a generation later; and to all their successors, who in just a few centuries (with the considerable advantage of telescopes and other advanced technology) have produced an astonishingly detailed map of the universe.

Yet for tens of thousands of years, humans studied the heavens with just the naked eye and, eventually, crude instruments. They got plenty wrong but the stargazers of old weren’t slouches, and by a few thousand years ago they’d become surprisingly sophisticated.

“It is no exaggeration to say that astronomy has existed as an exact science for more than five millennia,” writes the late science historian John North. [Continue reading…]

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