Some ancient cave paintings are not simply depictions of animals, but represent star constellations in the night sky, research from the University of Edinburgh suggests.
The discovery indicates that as far back as 40,000 years ago humans kept track of time using relatively sophisticated knowledge of the stars.
The artworks across Europe use animal symbols to represent constellations and represent dates and mark events such as comet strikes, analysis suggests.
They 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 findings suggest ancient people understood an effect caused by the gradual shift of Earth’s rotational axis. Discovery of this phenomenon, called precession of the equinoxes, was previously credited to the ancient Greeks.
Around the time Neanderthals became extinct, and possibly before mankind settled in Western Europe, people could define dates to within 250 years, researchers found.
The findings indicate the astronomical insights of ancient people were far greater than previously believed. Their knowledge may have aided navigation of the open seas, with implications for our understanding of prehistoric human migration.
Researchers from the universities of Edinburgh and Kent studied Palaeolithic and Neolithic art featuring animal symbols at sites in Turkey, Spain, France and Germany.
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 also decoded what is probably the best known ancient artwork – the Lascaux Shaft Scene in France. The work, featuring a dying man and several animals, may commemorate another comet strike around 15,200 BC, researchers suggest.
The study was published in Athens Journal of History.
Dr Martin Sweatman, study leader from Edinburgh University’s school of engineering, said: “Early cave art shows people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last ice age. Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today.
“These findings support a theory of multiple comet impacts over the course of human development and will probably revolutionise how prehistoric populations are seen.”