xvi. The First Astronomers

Following a lengthy examination of Chinese astronomy for his French language book Uranographie Chinoise ('Chinese Star Charts'), published in 1875, noted Dutch Orientalist, philologist and ethnologist Gustave Schlegel (1840-1903) came to a quite astonishing conclusion. According to him, their stellar calendar reflected the night sky of the Northern Hemisphere between 16,000-15,000 BC, when Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus, was Pole Star. His findings were verified by the US astronomer Julius Staal in a scholarly book entitled Stars of Jade (1984).

One of Chinese astronomy's most familiar tales concerns the Weaver Princess, or Spinning Damsel (the star Vega), who neglected her duties after falling in love with the king's herdsman (the star Altair). Thereafter the lovers were allowed to come together just once a year, at which time every magpie in the land would fly to heaven in order to create the so-called Magpie Bridge, formed across the Milky Way by the stars of Cygnus. Both Schlegel and Staal felt this story dated back to the time when Vega took over as Pole Star from delta Cygni in Cygnus around 15,000 years ago.

Was this really evidence of specific astronomical knowledge during Late Palaeolithic times, which might well have been passed down to those responsible for the oldest temple in the world, built in Southeast Turkey around 11,500 years ago? Dr Michael Rappenglück of Munich University has researched the Upper Palaeolithic cave art in the famous Lascaux cave, near Montignac in France's Dordogne region, and concluded that it was a symbolic representation of the night sky c. 15,000 BC.

Rappenglück's interest focuses on a scene in a deep well shaft showing a falling birdman with a bison to his right and a bird on a stick below him. Rappenglück proposed that this Well Scene, as it is known, shows the stars of Cygnus, which if correct proves that this asterism was seen as a bird as early as 15,000 BC, and that shamans transformed themselves into bird-men to make this otherworldly journey in a death-like trance state. The bird on a stick is the most interesting feature, for it is very likely a symbol of the sky-pole, or cosmic axis, with Cygnus as the bird on top. Furthermore, it demonstrates that this universal concept dates back to this age, and might easily have influenced the development of magico-religious ideals through until the beginning of the Neolithic age and beyond.

The Palaeolithic cave art at Lascaux was confirmation also that ancient astronomy and cosmology might indeed date back 17,000 years, a view confirmed again and again by evidence found in every part of the world. For instance, my own studies into the religious beliefs and practices of the Dogon tribe of Mali in West Africa show that it was not Sirius that they saw as the source of life, as some modern writers have speculated, but Cygnus, and more significantly Cygnus in the manner that it appeared in the night sky some 17,000 years ago.



The Weaver Princess standing on the edge of the Milky Way with the Bridge of Magpies (Cygnus) behind her.

Yet how did Palaeolithic peoples some 17,000 years ago come to believe that Cygnus was the point of creation, and the destination of the soul in death?