Archeoastronomy: 12 Facts About the Night Sky in History

Jared Barlament
9 min readApr 7, 2022

Artifacts of ancient stellar reverence litter the historical record.

detail of Lascaux painting with Taurus and other constellations marked (David Em)

It’s no secret that various systems of astronomy and astrology have been practiced by cultures across the globe for thousands of years. The Greeks did it, of course, and the Babylonians before them. Ancient India did it, ancient China did it, and the Maya and the Aztecs did it just the same.

But this view of ancient astronomy is incomplete and outdated. The stars were not afterthoughts to our ancestors. Contrary to the relative ignorance of the night sky common in our own polluted day, for most of history — and much of prehistory — humans made astronomical calculations and astrological mythologies. Furthermore, they did so not as afterthoughts or side-hobbies, but as one of their foremost activities.

1. A Magdalenian Mystery

In the dark halls of Lascaux Cave in France lay hundreds of paintings up to 17,000 years old. They display hand stencils, as one would expect, and animals — mammoths, lions, deer, bears, bison, aurochs and more — and symbols. Lots of symbols. Some, archaeologists are speculating, may contain traces of proto-languages. Others, it’s long been determined, contain maps of the stars from all the way in the Magdalenian Era, when mammoths and cave lions roamed and glaciers dominated the European continent.

Since the turn of the millennium, models of both the lunar cycle and of constellations such as Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades have been identified on the walls of Lascaux by multiple archaeological teams, suggesting that even thousands of years before the dawn of civilization anywhere on earth, people were already making advanced stellar measurements and connecting said measurements to stories. Bulls are not an uncommon sight at Lascaux. But to have a bull overlayed on a series of dots exactly corresponding to the stars of Taurus, which is known even today as the bull constellation? Or to have correspondingly aligning dots over the places of Orion and the Pleiades?

And of the speculation that many Magdalenian cave locations were chosen only for the availability of light to shine into the cave on the solstices or equinoxes? Or that the “Shaft Scene” of Lascaux could depict the Summer Triangle or even an…

Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.