“Artworks at Paleolithic sites across Europe are not simply depictions of wild animals,” said University of Kent researcher Alistair Coombs and University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Martin Sweatman.

“Instead, the animal symbols represent star constellations in the night sky, and are used to represent dates and mark events such as comet strikes.”

The scientists studied details of Paleolithic art featuring animal symbols at sites in Turkey, Spain, France and Germany.

They found all the sites used the same method of date-keeping based on sophisticated astronomy, even though the art was separated in time by tens of thousands of years.

They confirmed their results by comparing the age of many examples of cave art — known from chemically dating the paints used — with the positions of stars in ancient times as predicted by sophisticated software.

“The Paleolithic artworks reveal that, perhaps as far back as 40,000 years ago, humans kept track of time using knowledge of how the position of the stars slowly changes over thousands of years,” the study authors said.

“The findings suggest that ancient people understood an effect caused by the gradual shift of Earth’s rotational axis. The discovery of this phenomenon, called precession of the equinoxes, was previously credited to the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus.”

“Around the time that Neanderthals became extinct, and perhaps before mankind settled in Western Europe, people could define dates to within 250 years.”

Göbekli Tepe pillars. Image credit: Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute / Alex Wang / Klaus-Peter Simon / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Göbekli Tepe pillars. Image credit: Klaus Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute / Alex Wang / Klaus-Peter Simon / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Coombs and Dr. Sweatman also clarified the findings from an earlier study of stone carvings at Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey, which is interpreted as a memorial to a devastating comet strike around 11,000 BC. This strike was thought to have initiated a mini ice-age known as the Younger Dryas period.

They also decoded what is probably the best known ancient artwork — the Lascaux Shaft Scene in France.

The work, which features a dying man and several animals, may commemorate another comet strike around 15,200 BC.

The Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave from three angles. Image credit: © Ulmer Museum.

The Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave from three angles. Image credit: © Ulmer Museum.

The world’s oldest sculpture, the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, from 38,000 BC, was also found to conform to this ancient time-keeping system.

“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,” Dr. Sweatman said.

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

The team’s paper will be published in the Athens Journal of History.