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Stone Age Astronomy & Astronomical Sites

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Did you know that the earliest people were also the first to study astronomy and recognize some of the constellations we study today? Learn more about astronomy and astronomical sites of the Stone Age in this lesson.

Stone Age Astronomy

Astronomy is something everyone can engage in: you can watch solar and lunar eclipses, observe changes in the moon, and look at constellations in the stars. This is not unique to the 21st century - the earliest humans were actually the first to engage in astronomy! Astronomy, literally the '' law of the stars,'' is considered the oldest science. People during the Paleolithic Age, the very first period of the Stone Age and human history, were the first astronomers. But how and why did they study astronomy in the first place?

Astronomy in the Paleolithic Age

Stone Age people did not have telescopes or smartphone apps to guide them in their study of the universe: they simply used their eyes. In the Paleolithic Age, they probably started studying astronomy because it gave them an idea of time and seasons. You probably know that birds fly south in the winter - but what if you did not have a concept of winter or a calendar that tells you what date it is? Paleolithic people depended on scavenging and hunting/gathering for their food, so they needed a way to track seasons and know when certain plants grew or animals left.

They learned that the stars and constellations could tell them this. They could track when a constellation would rise at a certain time of the year and be able to know what time that corresponded to the next year. The stars were also helpful in determining direction. The North Star, which we call Polaris and find the the Ursa Minor constellation, was just as important for the Paleolithic people as it was for seafarers in the Common Era. Cave paintings suggest that the Paleolithic people understood how to use their hands in a certain shape to find the North Star and let it guide them. Constellations are not a new idea either, as these cave paintings demonstrate, since some of the famous constellations we have today are recorded there: Orion, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), and the Pleiades cluster as part of the Taurus constellation.

Neolithic Astronomy

If astronomy was important for Paleolithic people, it was probably even more important for people in the Neolithic Age, the last period of the Stone Age that saw the rise of civilizations. Neolithic people were not merely hunter gatherers, but were farmers. If you know any basics about farming, you know that crops have to be planted and harvested at certain times of the year for the best growth. Neolithic people probably used astronomy to mark those periods: the rise of the spring constellations, like Virgo, would mark the time for planting crops while the fall constellations, like Orion, would mark the time to harvest crops before the winter. The phases of the moon were probably studied in their relation to menstrual cycles as well, as they are approximately the same length cycles, as a way to track fertility.

Like many forces of nature, the celestial bodies became part of Stone Age religion, from what scholars can tell based on archaeological evidence. As far back as the Paleolithic Age, shamans, people who worked with the realm of spirits, seem to have used constellations for their rituals. The moon, planets, and other celestial bodies might even have been deified - not much different from later civilizations having a sun god, a moon god, and so on.

Neolithic Astronomical Sites

One of the most amazing elements of Neolithic astronomy, in particular, is the building of various types of sites based on astronomical events. Stonehenge is perhaps one of the most famous examples of this as it seems to be aligned with the solstices, the periods when the sun is the furthest away from the so-called ''celestial equator.'' But Stonehenge is not the only site that does this - in fact, there are numerous astronomical and/or religious sites (scholars cannot definitively determine which) all over the world!

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