Astronomy in Prehistoric Europe


It is difficult to speak of “science” in prehistoric times. Perhaps the closest we can get is the systematic study of the heavens. Archaeoastronomy is the intersection between astronomy and archaeology. The patterns of stars in the night sky were far more familiar to people in ancient times than they are to us, who often suffer from light pollution from electric lights.

Lascaux is the setting of a complex of caves in southwestern France with beautiful prehistoric cave paintings and spectacular drawings of bulls, horses and other animals. It dates from the Upper Paleolithic, the final phase of the Old Stone Age, and is estimated to be more than 16,000 years old. Slightly younger (ca. 14-15,000 years old) cave paintings are known from the Cave of Altamira in Spain. German researcher Michael Rappenglueck believes that he has found a prehistoric map of the night sky among the Lascaux paintings. This is plausible, but the truth is that we simply don’t know what the function of these artistic drawings was.

According to Paul Mellars in The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe, “Exactly how the art would have functioned in this context remains more speculative. One possibility is that some of the major centres of art production (such as Lascaux in south-west France, or Altamira in northern Spain) served as major ritualistic or ceremonial centres – perhaps the scene of important ceremonies during regular annual gatherings by the human groups. Alternatively (or in addition) the production of the art could have been in the hands of particular chiefs or religious leaders who used the creation of the art, and associated ceremonial, to reinforce and legitimate their particular roles of power or authority in the societies.”

During the last Ice Age, much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered by thick ice sheets. Central Europe resembled the tundra of present-day Siberia. At the height of the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 BC, land temperatures were about 20 °C lower than they are today. After the end of the Ice Age (ca. 13,000 BC) came the gradual establishment of a milder climate similar to today’s from 9500 to 8000 BC. Because of this, the flora and fauna of the European continent changed rapidly, with species such as the woolly mammoth disappearing and others taking their place. The ice smelting following the retreat of the glaciers changed the face of Europe dramatically. Much of what was then dry land is now underwater and vice versa. The same goes for other regions of Eurasia and North America as sea levels began to rise. Around or before 5600 BC (the date remains a matter of controversy) the Mediterranean flooded through the Bosporus and began filling up what would become the Black Sea.

During the Neolithic or New Stone Age settled communities adopted agriculture, beginning in the Balkans close to the Near East. One well-preserved natural mummy from the Copper Age, the intermediate phase between the Stone and Bronze Ages when early metal tools were developed, was found in 1991 in the Alps between Italy and Austria. The mummy from about 3300 BC, named Ötzi the Iceman, probably died a violent death. He had many small tattoos, a cloak made of woven grass, a pair of leggings, a loincloth and excellent shoes. His coat was made of the hide of the domestic goat and he had a bearskin cap and a belt of calf’s leather.

Ötzi’s equipment consisted of 18 different types of wood and demonstrates that he and his contemporaries possessed excellent knowledge of natural materials and herbs. He carried a dagger with a flint blade, a bow and arrow set and above all a fine copper axe. While the Alpine region had rich copper deposits, only the wealthy could at this time afford copper tools, which indicates that the Iceman’s family may have been well-off. Ötzi himself may have been a shepherd who also had to be able to hunt and repair his clothing and equipment.

During the fourth millennium BC, people had lived in fixed dwellings for a long time in Central Europe, and food was procured from farming and animal rearing. Among the plants that were cultivated were naked wheat, einkorn, emmer wheat, barley, poppy, flax and peas. In addition to the traditional hunting, gathering and fishing, domesticated cattle, pigs, sheep and goats were used as sources of meat and provided leather, milk and possibly wool.

The Goseck circle, sometimes called Germany’s counterpart to England’s later Stonehenge, dates from just after 5000 BC. It is proof that Neolithic Europeans observed the heavens with greater accuracy than previously believed and is one of a rising number of archaeological finds aided by aerial photography. Scholar John North in his book Cosmos, 2008 edition, writes about early European astronomy. Many attempts have been made to reconstruct the belief systems of the peoples responsible for these astonishing astronomical monuments:

“There are numerous indications of cults of the Sun and Moon, not all of them stemming from the orientation and planning of large monuments. One of the most interesting finds was that made in 1902 at Trundholm on Zealand (Sjælland, Denmark), of a Bronze Age horse-drawn disk, dating perhaps from roughly 1400 BC. There can be little doubt that this had solar significance. The Sun is shown being pulled by a horse in several crude Swedish rock carvings of much the same date. An equally rich discovery, this time from Germany, was of a disk of bronze 32 centimeters in diameter, studded with gold shapes that related to the heavens in some way. Found near Nebra at the end of the twentieth century and now known as the Nebra disk, it came more specifically from Mittelberg – a modest hill in the Ziegelroda Forest, between Halle and Erfurt. It seems to have been discovered within a pit inside what had once been a Bronze Age palisade and complex of defensive ditches.”

The Nebra sky disk from ca. 1600 BC was first assumed to be a forgery (of which there are unfortunately quite a few in museums around the world), but closer studies eventually revealed it to be most likely authentic. The Trundholm disk or Sun chariot dates from the fifteenth century BC or earlier and shows a horse-drawn vehicle with spoked wheels. Horse-drawn chariots with spoked wheels are associated with the second phase of the Indo-European expansion and spread across Eurasia, from China to Sweden, in the second millennium BC.

From about 4500-2500 BC, a belt of megalithic monuments stretched along the Atlantic coastlands of Western Europe, the Iberian Peninsula and some western Mediterranean islands. In the Mediterranean region there were observations of the heavens similar to Stonehenge in England. In Sardinia, numerous nuraghes or towers of large stones were built in the second millennium BC or earlier, many of which still exist today. Some of their entrances and corridors may have had lunar or solar orientations, but their usage remains uncertain.

T-shaped megaliths are known from prehistoric Menorca, but some of the most impressive megalithic monuments can be found on the Mediterranean island of Malta. The earliest of these Maltese monumental stone structures probably predate the Egyptian pyramids. Some indications of ancient stone structures with a possible astronomical significance have been discovered in Brazil, in addition to the Andes region in South America and especially Mesoamerica where a relatively advanced level of astronomical activity is well-attested.

There is a persistent myth that the people who built Stonehenge, the world famous prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain in southern England, were Celtic-speaking Druids, but this is not true. According to archaeological data provided from twentieth century excavations, Stonehenge was built in three main phases, the first one beginning with the digging of ditches around 3100 BC. The final phase of construction took place around 1600-1500 BC, although it is possible that it was used as a cultic site and place of worship well into the later Iron Age.

Celtic is an Indo-European tongue. Proto-Indo-European probably existed as a living language between 4000 and 3000 BC because it contains words related to wheeled vehicles, which were invented at this time. The IE expansion began, most likely from the northern Black Sea region of Eastern Europe, in the centuries before and especially after 3000 BC when PIE started breaking up. The beginnings of the various IE branches began to emerge after this. The IE expansion had not yet reached Western Europe at this point, which makes it highly unlikely that the people who initially built Stonehenge spoke any version of Celtic.

The Iron Age began in the centuries just prior to and mainly after 1000 BC, during which time the Celtic expansion across much of the European Continent reached its greatest extent. There are indications that the Celts enjoyed a military advantage from their early adoption of iron weapons. Nicholas Ostler explains in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World:

“Gaulish owed its success, or rather the success of the lineages that spoke it, to their distinctive equipment, notably wheeled vehicles drawn by horses, and to the magnificent products of their smiths, especially ironwork for warriors’ swords, helmets and ring-mail armour. A linguistic note confirms this. The words for ‘iron’ in Greek (sideron), Latin (ferrum) and Celtic (isarno) have separate origins, but the Germanic word (e.g. Gothic eisarn, Old English isern, iren) appears to have been borrowed from Celtic. This is unsurprising, since the Celts were evidently the middlemen for the transmission of ironworking to the north of Europe. (Tacitus even mentions (Germania, xliii) that the Cotini, a Gaulish tribe, paid tribute to the German Quadi in iron ore. He adds typically, ‘quo magis pudeat — the more shame to them’: they should have been able to use the iron to turn the tables.)”

The Insular Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland of the first centuries BC later evolved into Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Welsh developed a rich literary tradition during the Middle Ages and is still a living language whereas Cornish became extinct by the end of the eighteenth century. Breton originated in Britain and was carried from there to Brittany (Bretagne) in northern France from the fifth to seventh centuries AD, where it may have encountered surviving speakers of Gaulish Celtic. Irish yielded two languages derived from Irish — Scots Gaelic and Manx — that were imported to their historical positions in the Early Middle Ages. From a linguistic standpoint, the most important of the Celtic languages are Old and Middle Irish due to their large textual output. Authors J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams state in their book The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World:

“In the first centuries BC Celtic languages could be found from Ireland in the west across Britain and France, south into Spain, and east into central Europe. Celtic tribes raided the Balkans, sacked Delphi in 279 BC, and some settled in Anatolia in the same century to become the Galatians. The expansion of the Roman Empire north and westwards and the later movement of the Germanic tribes southwards saw the widespread retraction of Celtic languages on the Continent. The Celtic languages are traditionally divided into two main groups — Continental and Insular Celtic. The Continental Celtic languages are the earliest attested. Names are found in Greek and Roman records while inscriptions in Celtic languages are found in France, northern Italy, and Spain. The Continental evidence is usually divided into Gaulish, attested in inscriptions in both southern and central France, Lepontic, which is known from northern Italy in the vicinity of Lake Maggiore, and Ibero-Celtic or Hispano-Celtic in the north-western two-thirds of the Iberian peninsula.”

Many Neolithic peoples around the world systematically observed the heavens, particularly the motions of the Moon and the Sun, and sometimes created astronomically aligned monuments that served as seasonal calendars and places of religious worship. In the eyes of historians of science James E. McClellan and Harold Dorn: “In the case of Neolithic astronomy, we are dealing not with the prehistory of science, but with science in prehistory.”

Be that as it may, it was hard to create a continuity of scientific studies in a non-literate culture. The true history of science therefore begins after the introduction of writing, and this crucial innovation was introduced to Europe from the Middle East. While many interesting things happened in Europe long before the Greeks and the Romans, the history of European science in the true sense begins with the ancient Greeks. I will leave that story for later.