A scene painted on a cave wall more than 15,000,000 years ago seems to tell the simple story of a hunter who collapsed for a disassembled animal. Between reading the lines the images can describe something bigger. Maybe even astronomically.
Figures depicted in the famous prehistoric paintings in Lascaux were placed with purpose, according to a new analysis of the artwork. These were not stories about hunting. They were signs of the zodiac that had been arranged to register an important cataclysmic event.
Researchers from the universities of Edinburgh and Kent compared zoomorphic works of art at Neolithic sites around the world, from Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük in Turkey to the caves at Montignac in the southwest of France.
Images of famous animals, such as bulls, lions and scorpions, are not meant to be familiar-looking scenes, they argue. Instead, they could symbolize constellations and as such represent an early form of astronomical archiving.
"Early cave art shows that people in the last ice age had advanced knowledge of the night sky," says one of the authors of the study, chemical engineer Martin Sweatman of the University of Edinburgh.
If true, scenes drawn in Lascaux can instead mark the date of a major event that coincided with an annual Taurid meteor shower of about 17,000 years ago.
Does that sound familiar? Last year, the same researchers found stone engravings at Göbekli Tepe decoded as references to a comet strike that was considered responsible for a temporary return to climate conditions in the ice age around 13,000 years ago.
This new study takes their analysis a step further by applying it to other Neolithic works of art from other sites and time periods.
The paintings of Lascaux were discovered by a local group of teenagers in the 1940s, and since then we have been scratching our heads over them. It is not clear exactly when they were made, but experts estimate that 600 images spread across the walls are up to 17,000 years old.
Many of the figures are from animals that would have lived in the local region, including horses and bisonous animals called auros.
The sculptures collectively known as the Shaft Scene include a human figure slanted alongside an auroch, which hangs loops from his intestines from his belly.
In the neighborhood there is something that looks a bit like a duck, while a rhino looks to the left. A horse's head is sketched on another part of the wall.
We can all guess why anyone would bother to crawl into a cave to awkwardly describe a man who falls over a hollowed-out animal while a bird looks creepy and a rhino pretends not to notice … and many historians have their opinions.
Caves are considered supernatural places related to gods and the like, so it is possible that these images were drawn in search of divine favor for a hunt, such as a prehistoric wish list or a form of prayer.
But other researchers have noticed that the proximity of different animals around the caves seems less than random. The French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan thought in the sixties that this represented a sort of classification system, of good and evil or of male and female.
There are also geometric shapes, dots and odd lines scattered throughout the images and that are difficult to explain if they were attempts to draw natural settings in a realistic way.
The idea that they could somehow not reflect pastoral scenes but heavenly has been around for more than 40 years.
Sweatman and his colleague from the University of Kent, Alistair Coombs, now argue that this is the right approach, and that we need to give our ancestors more credit when it comes to representing the world.
"Intellectually, they were hardly different today," says Sweatman.
Like the Gulch of Göbekli Tepe, the shaft scene shows a human figure that seems to die, near four prominent animals.
The researchers claim that the injured bison represents the constellation of Capricorn during the summer equilibrium, and that the bird is in the balance for Libra during the spring equinox. The other animals are more speculative, but could easily compare Leo and Taurus with the other equinoxes.
This arrangement could indicate a date of 15.150 BCE, give or take a few centuries, which indicates an event that has affected people in a less pleasant way.
Records from the ice cores of Greenland suggest that the climate around 15.300 BC. Started to shift, but there are no signs that this was caused by a meteorite impact.
We have been breeding and painting animals for tens of thousands of years, and it is not always clear why we are doing it.
The 40,000-year-old engraving of a standing lion in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany is another remarkable example brought to the attention of Sweatman and Coombs.
"These findings support a theory of the effects of multiple comet in the course of human development and are likely to revolutionize the way prehistoric populations are seen," says Sweatman.
Undoubtedly, historians will continue to discuss the meaning of ancient art for a long time.
These findings show that we may have to go further from strictly shamanic interpretations, to see art as an integral part of marking time, based on a daring feature of the environment that we often overlook in our modern world – the night sky.
This research has been published in the Athens Journal of History.