A study from 2018 found that some of the world’s most ancient cave drawings are not just regular depictions of animals as they appear, they are sophisticated star maps.

It was previously thought that scholars from ancient Greek such as Plato or Aristotle were the first to advance the study of astronomy, but European researchers suggest the profession must date a long time further back.

In a study by Martin Sweatman and Alistair Coombs from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent that was released in the Athens Journal of History in 2018, researchers believed the ancient animal paintings in European caves were actually star constellations. 

By analyzing the chemical makeup of the paint used in cave drawings, the team was able to date the time the paintings were created, which ranged from between 12,000 to 40,000 years.

They compared that with the position of the stars at the time the artworks were created, which were calculated by advanced software. 

Strikingly they found many of the paintings actually represent the dates of significant comet sightings, which were closely linked to the star constellations that were computed to have manifested in the sky back at the time. 

The study was conducted with sites in Turkey, Spain, France, and Germany that host Palaeolithic and Neolithic artworks of animal symbols. Surprisingly, even if the figures are tens of thousands of years apart, the same method of timekeeping is repeated.

It was previously believed that the Greeks were the first to launch a deep study of equinoxes—a process induced by the steady movement of the Earth’s spinning axis—pioneered by astronomer Hipparchus around 129 BC. 

“Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age. Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today,” said Dr. Sweatmand in a press release.

The study cited one of the world’s oldest sculptures, the Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany discovered in 1939 that dates back to 38,000 BC, which appeared to be correlated with the star constellation Leo.

Lionheaded figurine from Stadel im Hohlenstein cave in Germany. (L&R): from 2011. (JDuckeck/Wikimedia Commons). (Mid): taken on Nov. 29, 2007. (les animaux préhistoriques/Flickr)

“These findings support a theory of multiple comet impacts over the course of human development, and will probably revolutionize how prehistoric populations are seen,” said Sweatman. 

Prehistoric communities could have employed astronomical knowledge in navigating ocean voyages, thereby changing our perception of human migration patterns.