Science/Tech

How Ancient Humans Used The Night Sky As A Calendar

We’re all familiar with ancient humans using the sun to find out what time of the day it is, basing the hours on the shadows cast by our solar system’s burning centerpiece. But if they used the sun as a clock, then how did they keep track of the days? And what did they use to find out what day of the week it is?

Simple. They turned to a different light in the sky. More specifically, the night sky and the Moon.

Sky calendar

According to professors and scientists, the Moon was one of our first timepieces, and it’s been that way long before we invented written language. In fact, the idea and practice itself is even older than structured religion and our earliest organized cities. That’s because the Moon’s face changes every night along with the seasons, making it a very good marker of time.

“It’s an obvious timepiece . There is good evidence that [lunar timekeeping] was around as early as 25,000, 30,000, 35,000 years before the present,” said Anthony Aveni, a professor emeritus of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and a founder of the field of archaeoastronomy. 

In fact, the night sky itself is usually depicted in the earlist known cave paintings. However, the idea that they were depicted for more than artistic purposes wasn’t developed until the end of the 19th century, when  Abbé Henri Breuil, a French Catholic priest and archaeologist, interpreted these cave paintings as ritual art.

Then, in the 1960s, a journalist–turned–amateur anthropologist named Alexander Marshack proposed a more practical reason: they were made to tell time. He was able to do this by examining ancient bone carvings and wall art from locations, including caves in Western Europe and fishing villages of equatorial Africa. 

Years after his thesis however, there are still that remain unconvinced.

This is despite numerous other instances of ancient cave drawings and artifacts found that more or less reference the Moon, or its lunar cycle. One such example is the Venus of Laussel, which is a carving of a woman holding a bison horn with 13 notches. Per theories, the notches supposedly represent the lunar cycles in a solar year, or in the carving’s case, the average number of menstrual cycles.

In fact, the cave paintings found  in the Dordogne region of southwestern France may be depictions of the lunar and menstrual cycles.

However, some still argue that Marshack’s thesis was overly-interpreted.

“Nights were real nights at that time, and Paleolithic people certainly had deep insights into what was going on in the sky,” says Harald Floss, an anthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who studies the origin of art.

“Nights were real nights at that time, and Paleolithic people certainly had deep insights into what was going on in the sky,” says Harald Floss, an anthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who studies the origin of art.

“But I would not risk saying more,” he added.

Moon The 'Supermoon' rises over Asuncion on February 19, 2019. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the previously planned 2028 lunar touchdown has been rescheduled for an earlier launch in 2024. Norberto Duarte/AFP/Getty Images

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