Today is what we modern folk call new year’s eve but that is such a new invention, indeed the Gregorian calendar which we currently use dates from 1582, a mere 435 years ago! The idea of counting from January to December we bought from the Romans some 2000 years ago, so even that is not really old. These calendars work to somewhat jiggled solar rhythms, not the easiest to work out, whereas our ancestors worked with lunar rhythms, the rhythms of the moon which are far more obvious; and they don’t require adjusting for leap years either!

We found the oldest lunar calendars, along with the earliest (as yet) known constellations in the cave art found in France and Germany. The people of the late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures were no mean mathematicians, they understood mathematical sets, and the interplay between the moon’s annual cycle, the ecliptic, the solstices, and the seasonal changes that all these helped to show and produce.

 The earliest calendar we’ve found so far in our archaeological explorations – from  34,000-odd years ago in the Aurignacian Culture of Europe – shows that we were very much aware of the stars, the patterns they make and their movements … and what these could mean for us in our lives. Back in 1964 Alexander Marshack began exploring these ideas and continued until the early 1990s. He published breakthrough research which documented the mathematical and astronomical knowledge of the Late Upper Palaeolithic Cultures of Europe. Marshack deciphered sets of marks – sets of crescents or lines – carved into animal bones, and sometime on the walls of caves, as records of the lunar cycle. The folk who made them were very skilled and able to carefully control the thickness of the lines so that those who read them (like Marshack, 34,000 years later) would be able to see the correlation with lunar phases. The sets of markings were often laid out in serpentine patterns, suggesting snakes perhaps, or streams and rivers.

Our ancestors carved these lunar calendars on small pieces of stone, bone or antler. Such things would be very portable, lightweight and easy to carry in one’s pouch as one moved about one’s range according to the seasons and migrations. Many animals, like reindeer, are wise enough to go up into the high pastures during the hot summer when they would otherwise be tormented by flies, and then move back down into the warmer valleys and forests for the winter. Our ancestors would follow them.

They hunted horses, bison, mammoth, auroch and ibex, and would watch the hunting behaviour of cave bear and cave lion, learning from these master predators. And all thes animals can be found in the constellations they drew on the cave walls and in the calendars.

Until Marshack’s work, many archeologists believed the sets of marks he chose to study were nothing but the aimless doodles of bored toolmakers – a usual misconception from people who preferred to believe they were superior to the ancestors who they call “savages”. Marshack uncovered the intuitive discovery of mathematical sets and the application of those sets to the construction of a calendar: our ancestors were much more in tune with both themselves and the whole of the world, and the cosmos, in which they lived than we are today. Nowadays everyone is encouraged to only work with their brain and all our other functions gradually atrophy from neglect – something we need to change. We understand, at least partially, that all animal activities (including our own as we, too, are animals) are dependent on time and the seasons. We get all hifalutin about it with regard to what we call objective physics, without realising we need an and/and approach that includes our animal-human awareness and our consciousness. Our ancestors had this. They recognised that there are phases of the moon and seasons of the year that can be counted, and that should be counted because they are important. That is profound, and we need to adjust our own preconceptions to include it.


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