16,000 years ago, our ancestors painted spectacular drawings of Ice Age animals on the walls of their cave dwellings in Lascaux, central France. When archaeologists first found the paintings back in 1940, it was a hugely exciting discovery. But they didn’t know then the full extent of what they had unearthed.
It wasn’t until 2000 that the world realised there might be more to these paintings than first met the eye. German researcher, Dr Michael Rappenglück believes that the paintings were more than just decorations. The caves could also be a prehistoric planetarium, where mankind first charted the stars.
He stumbled on this while exploring one region of the Lascaux caves known as the Shaft of the Dead Man. Painted on the wall was a bull, a strange bird-man and an enigmatic bird on a stick. Dr Rappenglück realised to his amazement that these outlines form a map of the sky! The eyes of the bull, bird and bird-man represent three prominent stars: Vega, Deneb and Altair.
Put together, these three stars are known as the Summer Triangle because they are so incredibly bright during the summer months. During the Ice Age, the Summer Triangle would never have set below the horizon and would have shone even brighter than today. It’s no wonder our ancestors were captivated. "It was their sky, full of animals and spirits", says Dr Rappenglück. So on the walls of their cave, it seems, they drew a map of the prehistoric cosmos.
That wasn’t all. Dr Rappenglück went on to find another Ice Age animal in the stars. Nearer the entrance of the Lascaux cave complex is a splendid painting of a bull. Dr Rappenglück says this too holds secrets to the sky. Hanging over the bull's shoulders, is what genuinely looks like a map of the cluster of stars called the Seven Sisters (Pleiades). And then, inside the bull itself, there are spots that seem to represent other stars. Incredibly, this part of the sky today is the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. It seems our Ice Age ancestors were the first to recognise the bull within the stars.
Dr Rappenglück found another star map in Spain, on the walls of the Cueva di El Castillo cave in the mountains of Pico del Castillo. A long-ignored curved pattern of dots on one wall appears to be a map of the Northern Crown constellation.
He may even have found a link between Far Eastern festivals of stars and the caves of the Ice Age. Rappenglück noticed a series of pits on the floor of a cave at La Marche, France which seems to be in the shape the Seven Sisters star cluster. He wonders if the small holes were filled with animal fat and set alight to mimick the flickering stars in the sky. That set him thinking. "Perhaps this is the origin of the candlelit festivals of the Far East where lighted candles are held in the shape of the Pleiades. Perhaps it is a tradition that stretches back tens of thousands of years into our Stone Age past".
The world is amazed and excited with Dr Rappenglück's research. Archaeologists who looked at his conclusions agreed that they are reasonable. It seems Dr Michael Rappenglück is the man to have uncovered the earliest evidence of human interest in the stars.