Ancient humans and their early perceptions of the universe

In the Lascaux Caves In southwestern France, which is famous for its 17,000-year-old paintings, the artist’s subject has always been a large animal.

But hovering over the image of a single bull is an unexpected addition: a group of tiny black dots Some scholars explain as stars. Perhaps an eye-catching chandelier, which Paleolithic hunter-gatherers would have clearly seen in the unpolluted sky.

The claims of prehistoric astronomy are controversial. Even if this were true, we frequently track our own cosmic perspective instead Nicholas Copernicus, who in 1543 established a fixed course by proving that the earth revolves around the sun; to Galileo Galilei And Johannes Kepler, who refined the heliocentric theory after a generation; and to all their successors, who in just a few centuries (with the great advantage of telescopes and other advanced technology) have produced an astonishingly detailed map of the universe.

However, for tens of thousands of years, humans only studied the sky with the naked eye, and eventually, they studied primitive machines. They got a lot wrong but the ancient stargazers weren’t slack, and by a few thousand years they had become surprisingly sophisticated.

It is no exaggeration to say that astronomy has existed as an exact science for more than five thousand years. wrote the late historian of science John North.

sky read

Traces of these early observers, of the way they interpreted the universe, have come down to us in the form of mystifying artifacts. For example, dating from about 1600 BC, we have what may be the first picture of the universe: Nebra Sky Disk.

Nebra Sky Disk (Credit: Frank Vincentz/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

Discovered just two decades ago in what is now East Germany, this 12-inch bronze circle is inlaid with gold bands in the shape of various suns, crescents, and stars. It may have been used for religious or agricultural purposes, but its significance to whomever made it is unclear.

Regardless of the deeper meanings, experts generally agree that the disc is there Oldest known concrete depiction Astronomical phenomena, and they are more than just a mysterious abstraction. A single dense cluster of stars appears to represent the Pleiades (more accurately than the Lascaux cave painting).

if it was Seven sisters Keep appearing at different times and places, it may not be a coincidence – the nugget has drawn attention throughout recorded history, just by standing out from its isolated neighbours. Some cultures have used it as a file Indication of when to plant and harvest crops.

Search for meaning

Around the same time, the ancient Egyptians, who already had a long history of astronomical observation, were developing star charts. These schematic illustrations described the motions of the various stars—perhaps to keep the priests punctual for their nocturnal rituals, or perhaps to guide the dead in the afterlifebecause illustrations often appear inside coffins.

Later, probably in the first century BC, the Egyptians became more creative with Dendera Zodiac. At first, this bas reliefwhich decorated the ceiling of the temple dedicated to the god Osiris, looks like a random menagerie: rams, lions, crocodiles and others, arranged in a circle.

Dendera Zodiac (Credit: Sergey-73/Shutterstock)

But soon after its discovery in 1799, Egyptologists realized that it was a painting of the night sky organized around it Many of the same constellations We still use it today.

The Babylonians in the first millennium BC recorded their astronomical knowledge in a similar way, by writing on clay tablets the heliocentrics of important stars—the day the star first appeared over the horizon each year. from these lists, They produced “Globe”, The tools that showed the stars (and more importantly for their astrological predictions, which constellations) would be visible at any given time.

Read more: Interpretation of 5 ancient constellations across cultures

Incorporation of Greek philosophy

The word “cosmos” comes from ancient Greece, where it denoted not just the cosmos, but the cosmos as a harmonious and well-ordered whole. Although these classical philosophers took what they found useful from the Egyptian and Babylonian traditions, they deviated from the supernatural elements of astrology, and chose Celestial mechanics Based on (more or less strictly) logic and mathematics.

One of the methods of cosmic viewing at this time was war fieldA globe-like model with several rings to show the movement of the sun, moon and stars. The Earth, by Greco-Roman reckoning, was fixed at the center.

In this case, the sphere is a “Ptolemy,” named after the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy, whose geocentric model dominated Western belief until the 1500s. The spheres that instead show the Earth revolving around the sun are naturally called “Copernican”.

Armillary sphere (Credit: Giuseppe Cammino/Shutterstock)

for him A sky-high image, the Greek philosopher Aristotle took geocentrism to its logical conclusion. As he saw it, the universe consisted of a series of concentric shells revolving around our planet—one each for the sun, moon, every other planet, the fixed stars, and an outer plane of the “prime mover,” an object that he concluded must be necessary to start everything.

move towards modernity

This God-like vision meshed well with the advent of Christianity. Throughout the medieval period, it became conventional wisdom – despite the theoretical acrobatics required to balance it with actual astronomical observations (in particular, Planetary retrograde motion).

Aristotle and Ptolemy’s shared vision prevailed to such effect, in fact, that by the fourteenth century, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri The organizer of his world Divine Comedy around. And all he had to do was add a second set of concentric infernos.

These ancient notions, of course, were long ago overshadowed by the Copernican Revolution and its aftermath. But with every scientific advance, every An amazing image in deep space From the James Webb Space Telescope, we extend our view of the universe and continue the process that cave dwellers began when they climbed outside to look up at the sky.

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