Some of the oldest cave paintings in the world have revealed how ancient people had relatively advanced astronomical knowledge.
Artwork, on sites throughout Europe, is not just a depiction of wild animals, as previously thought. Instead, animal symbols represent the constellation of stars in the night sky, and are used to represent dates and mark events such as comet attacks, analysis shows.
They revealed that, perhaps as far back as 40,000 years ago, humans continued to track time using knowledge of how the position of stars slowly changed for thousands of years.
The findings show that ancient people understood the effects caused by a gradual shift in the axis of rotation of the Earth. The discovery of this phenomenon, called precession equinoxes, was previously credited to ancient Greece.
Around that time Neanderthals became extinct, and perhaps before humans settled in Western Europe, people could determine dates within 250 years, research shows.
The findings show that the ancient astronomical insights were far greater than previously believed. Their knowledge may help navigate the high seas, with implications for our understanding of prehistoric human migration.
Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent studied the details of Palaeolithic and Neolithic art that featured animal symbols on sites in Turkey, Spain, France and Germany.
They found all sites used the same dating method based on sophisticated astronomy, even though art was separated in tens of thousands of years.
The researchers clarified previous findings from a study of stone carvings on one of these sites – Gobekli Tepe in modern Turkey – which was interpreted as a warning for a comet attack that destroyed around 11,000 BC. This strike is considered to have started a mini ice age known as the Young Dryas period.
They also solved what might be the most famous ancient art work – Lascaux Shaft Scene in France. The work, which features dying humans and several animals, can commemorate other comet attacks around 15,200 BC, researchers suggest.
The team confirmed their findings by comparing the age of many examples of cave art – known from the chemical dating used in paint – to the position of stars in ancient times as predicted by sophisticated software.
The oldest statue in the world, the Lion-Man Cave from Hohlenstein-Stadel, from 38,000 BC, was also found to be in accordance with this ancient time storage system.
This study was published at Athens History Journal.
Dr Martin Sweatman, from the University of Edinburgh's Faculty of Engineering, who led the study, said: "Early cave art shows that people have advanced knowledge about the last ice age night sky. Intellectually, they are almost no different from us today. .
"These findings support the theory of some comet impacts on the course of human development, and may revolutionize how prehistoric populations are seen."