Friday, December 28, 2018

Ancient Humans and the Stars

From Popular Mechanics:
Studying cave paintings from Turkey, Spain, France and Germany, researchers have come to the conclusion that humanity’s ancient ancestors were smarter than previously given credit. These famed paintings were not simply decorative, a new study says—they represent a complex understanding of astronomy pre-dating Greek civilization. Going back 40,000 years, scientists now believe that ancient humans had the knowledge to keep track of time based on the movement of stars in the sky. They understood a concept called “precession of the equinoxes”—the idea that the Earth’s movement was causing the changes of star location, not the stars themselves.

History generally credits this idea to Hipparchus of Nicea, a famed Greek astronomer who is “regarded by many historians as a scientist of the highest quality and possibly the greatest astronomical genius among the ancient Greeks,” according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Several cultures, from China to Babylonia, discovered the idea independently. Now it appears that Hipparchus was late to the idea as well, thanks to a new understanding of the cave paintings.

Researchers used perhaps the most famous cave paintings in the world to help make their determination—the Paleolithic art inside the caves of Lascaux in southern France. Studying a drawing referred to as “The Shaft Scene,” scientists now believe the picture of a dying man was made to commemorate a comet striking the planet in around 15,200 BC. This determination was made through a combination of radiocarbon dating and studying the atmospheric history. Around the same time “The Shaft Scene” was being made, a climate change event was recorded in a Greenland ice core, ancient ice which has stored climate records for over 100,000 years. Through dating the paints of the drawings, scientists were able to find when they were applied to the walls. Using powerful computer programs, they were able to compare these dates to the predicted positions of the stars. (Read more.)

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