The oldest image of a star pattern, that of the famous constellation of Orion, has been recognised on an ivory tablet some 32,500 years old.
The tiny sliver of mammoth tusk contains a carving of a man-like figure with arms and legs outstretched in the same pose as the stars of Orion.
The claim is made by Dr Michael Rappenglueck, formerly of the University of Munich, who is already renowned for his pioneering work locating star charts painted on the walls of prehistoric caves.
The tablet also contains mysterious notches, carved on its sides and on its back. These could be a primitive “pregnancy calendar”, designed to estimate when a pregnant woman will give birth.
It was found in 1979 in a cave in the Ach Valley in the Alb-Danube region of Germany. Carbon dating of bone ash deposits found next to the tablet suggest it is between 32,500 and 38,000 years old, making it one of the oldest representations of a man ever found.
It was left behind by the mysterious Aurignacian people about whom we know next to nothing save that they moved into Europe from the east supplanting the indigenous Neanderthals.
The ivory tablet is small, measuring only 38 x 14 x 4 millimetres, but from the notches carved into its edges archaeologists believe that it was made that size and is not a fragment of something bigger.
On one side of the tablet is the man-like being with his legs apart and arms raised. Between his legs hangs what could be a sword and his waist is narrow. His left leg is shorter than his right one.
Rappenglueck has found other evidence
From what is speculated about the myths of these ancient peoples before the dawn of history, archaeologists have suggested that the man-like figure could be praying or dancing, or be a half-man, half-cat, or a divine being.
But Michael Rappenglueck thinks it is a drawing of the constellation of Orion that is nowadays, and was perhaps also 32,000 years ago, called the hunter.
The proportions of the man correspond to the pattern of stars that comprise Orion, especially its slim waist – which corresponds to its famous belt of three stars and the left “leg” of the constellation being shorter.
The “sword” on the ivory tablet also corresponds to a famous and well-know feature that can be seen in Orion.
There are also other indications that Dr Rappenglueck may be correct.
The stars were in slightly different positions 32,000 years ago because they are moving across the sky at different speeds and in different directions, a phenomenon called “proper motion”.
Dr Rappenglueck allowed for this effect by using a computer program to wind back the sky and found evidence for a particular star in Orion that was in a different place all those years ago.
Human gestation period
The tablet may also be a pregnancy calendar.
There are 86 notches on the tablet, a number that has two special meanings.
First, it is the number of days that must be subtracted from a year to equal the average number of days of a human gestation. This is no coincidence, says Dr Rappenglueck.
It is also the number of days that one of Orion’s two prominent stars, Betelguese, is visible. To ancient man, this might have linked human fertility with the gods in the sky.
Orion is one of the most striking constellations. The Ancient Egyptians identified it with their god Osiris and it has a special significance for many cultures throughout history throughout the world.