Tech UPTechnologyWho were the first astronomers?

Who were the first astronomers?

They say that to be an astronomer you need to have the patience of a mother, the dedication of a monk and the schedule of an owl. But despite all these drawbacks, human beings have always looked to the sky. Astronomy is the oldest science, perhaps because of that overwhelming vertigo that the contemplation of the night sky gives us.

For our ancestors it was a short distance above their heads; For the Chinese, the great systematic observers of the heavens, only 40,000 km separated the Earth from the place where the emperor came from. For the !Kung, the San who live in the arid land of the Kalahari desert and whose language is populated with consonant clicks (the ‘!k’ in their name should be pronounced as if they were uncorking a bottle of wine), that milky arm that for us it is the Milky Way for them it represents the backbone of the night; if it disappeared, the sky would fall on their heads. For the Egyptians, the sky was a kind of awning supported by the mountains that pointed to the four corners of the Earth. Since the mountains were not very high, the sky could not be very high.

Now, we know nothing of what the first humans believed about those tiny lights that appeared in the sky after sunset, although we can imagine the fascination that must have caused them. The astronomer and disseminator Carl Sagan imagined in his famous Cosmos that the campfires of other groups similar to them might seem distant to them.

Of all the celestial objects, our satellite, the Moon, stands out with its own light -although it is actually reflected light. From Greenland to Patagonia, all peoples have greeted and adored her. The lunar cycle, with its phases, must have exerted a special attraction on the first humans. In fact, the oldest archaeological record we have of human beings’ awareness of the sky is a lunar calendar. It comes from the Aurignacian culture, which occupied Europe and Southwest Asia, around 32,000 BC.

Alexander Marshack, an archaeologist of such caliber that he was a research associate at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University without a Ph. by an artist, they were actually records of the lunar cycle . Studying these marks microscopically, he found that they were anything but careless cuts: those who made them took great care to control the thickness of each line so that the lunar cycle could be easily followed. Sometimes these marks met in a sinuous line, which suggested to Marshack a certain devotion to a snake goddess or, conversely, to the representation of a river. 

Following this line, the French Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewiez, who likes to call herself an ethnoastronomer, has studied the paintings in the caves of the French Dordogne and has come to the conclusion that the Paleolithic artists chose them because the interior is illuminated by the sun of the evening of the winter solstice. If so, then we have no choice but to conclude that those early astronomers were able to understand the interrelationships between the lunar annual cycle, the ecliptic, the solstices, and the seasonal changes of the planet.

It should not surprise us that astronomy was present in the lives of both hunter-gatherers and early farmers; their survival depended on knowing the cycles of life as precisely as possible, and these are inextricably linked to astronomical cycles. Charting the passage of time was vital to survival.

For Marshack these lunar calendars, carved on small stones, bones or antlers to be easily transported, had a practical application: to help in hunting parties . However, the phases of the Moon represented in these sets of marks are inaccurate. This is understandable if we take into account that it is impossible to be precise in the observations unless every night of the year is completely clear and without clouds. But the most important thing is not the markings themselves, but how paleolithic humans came to keep track of the phases of the Moon . Realizing that it can be done is far from obvious and requires some rational effort and awareness that “all animal activities depend on time, simply because it passes; the future is always coming,” Marshack wrote. For this archaeologist, creating a calendar, however simple it may be, required primitive man to have previously gone through the intuitive discovery of the underlying mathematical principles. 


Marshack, A. (1972) The Roots of Civilization: the Cognitive Beginning of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation, McGraw-Hill

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