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Cupmarks, stellar maps, and mankala board-games (6)
An archaeoastronomical and Africanist excursion into Palaeolithic world-views

Wim van Binsbergen

with the astronomical collaboration of Jean-Pierre Lacroix


6. The present book’s argument

In early 1998 I drafted a short note pointing out what I then thought was the striking similarity between the pattern of the major stars in the region of the sky extending from Hercules to Bootes, the pattern of cupmarks on the Serso stone from Northern Italy, and the pattern of cupmarks as found on the sepulchral block from the Moustérien (Middle Palaeolithic, classic Neandertal) infant burial VI of the Grand Abri of La Ferrassie, Miremont-de-Savignac, Dordogne, southwestern France. In the latter site the decapitated body of a child was found in a shallow pit grave, with nearer to the surface the jawless skull of a child, the whole covered by a cupmarked limestone plate — the oldest evidence of cupmarks so far.

 

Fig. 7. Cupmarks on the Serso stone from Northern Italy

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Fig. 8. A stellar configuration in the Bootes-Hercules region of the sky as isomorphic with the Serso cupmark pattern, Approach I

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Fig. 9. The pattern of the above stellar configuration, rotated, with relative positions of stars with magnitude brighter than 3.5 represented as circles in emulation of cupmarks

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Fig. 10. Left: the cupmark pattern from Serso (green) superimposed upon the pattern of the above stellar configuration (red). Right: The good fit is accentuated when, in each configuration, we connect the focal points by continuous lines

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Fig. 11. The major stars in configuration B at present.

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no

star

no

star

no

star

1

Alkaid

10

Graffias

19

Rasalhague

2

Alphecca

11

kappa Oph

20

Rastaban

3

Arcturus

12

Kornephoros

21

Seginus

4

Cebalrai

13

mu Her

22

Unukalhai

5

delta Boo

14

Muphrid

23

Vega

6

delta Her

15

Nekkar

24

Yed Posterior

7

Edasich

16

Pherkad

25

Yed Prior

8

epsilon Boo

17

pi Her

26

zeta Her

9

eta Dra

18

Rasalgethi

27

zeta Oph

                        Over the tens of thousands years, the relative pattern of Configuration B is only mildly affected by proper motion, as is demonstrated by Fig. 18, which shows the pattern at 30,000 BP:

 

Fig. 12. The stars of configuration B shown in the positions they occupied 30,000 BP
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                        By early 1998 I only knew the sepulchral block through the totally misleading rendering in Levy’s otherwise priceless book The gate of horn. Likewise, at the time my knowledge of the mechanics of the heavens was limited to the calculation of planetary positions with the aid of ephemerides — all I needed to appreciate the astrological background of Arabian geomantic divination and its widespread derivates in Africa, European Renaissance scholarly culture, the Indian Ocean region, and the New World. Virtually nothing did I know at that time of equatorial co-ordinates, magnitude, proper motion, altitudes of culmination, precession — the very concepts which (as I amply demonstrate in Chapter 2 below) were to lead from that original draft to the present book.

Fig. 13. Plan of the Grand Abri at La Ferrassie

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Fig. 14. Layout of burial VI at the Grand Abri, La Ferrassie[1]

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Fig. 15. The La Ferrassie burial VI limestone sepulchral block as reproduced by Levy[2]

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                        This book’s main argument is to demonstrate that cupmark patterns executed on rocky surfaces in Upper and even Middle Palaeolithic contexts may be considered stellar maps of identifiable regions of the sky, the individual cupmarks representing fixed stars and occasionally other celestial bodies (the Sun, the Moon, the planets).

                        In search of a method I first develop (Chapter 2) Approach I (in terms of trans-constellation asterisms in the Hercules-Bootes region of the sky). I present an attempt — which I consider convincing— at revindication of Dalmeri’s interpretation of the undated cupmarked Serso stone, Northern Italy, as a stellar map. Dalmeri’s suggestion was Ursa Major, which I first propose to replace by Bootes-Hercules, in which region of the sky a pattern of visible stars is discernible, and has been discernible for tens of thousands of years, which fits the Serso cupmark pattern fairly well. Meanwhile this attempt at archaeoastronomical vincidation makes us aware of the astronomical constraints (magnitude, proper motion, right ascension, declination, altitude of culmination, precession) to which any archaeoastronomical approach to Palaeolithic cupmarks is subjected.

                        After this encouraging attempt we proceed to certified Palaeolithic cupmarked artefacts and their possible archaeo­astronomical interpretation.

 

 

Fig. 16. Lorblanchet’s rendering of the La Ferrassie sepulchral block, three-dimensional view

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Fig. 17. The sepulchral block as currently on display in the Musée National de la Préhistorie, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne[3]

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Fig. 18. Identification of the cupmarks on the La Ferrassie sepulchral block

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block outline and relief features in blue; cupmarks in yellow: identified by present author; arrow in black with question mark in black: present author uncertain of identification; cupmarks in red: identified by Lorblanchet 1999 but rejected by present author; arrows in red with question mark in red: indicates cupmarks identified by present author but not by Lorblanchet; cupmark in red shading: Lorblanchet uncertain of identification, and rejected by the present author

 

            Reducing these considerations to a purely diagrammatic form yields the following Figure:

 

 

Fig. 19. Schematic rendering of the identified cupmarks on the La Ferrassie sepulchral block

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            My initial fascination, in 1998, was with the La Ferrassie sepulchral block, but any attempt at an archaeo­astronomical interpretation of its cupmarks had to be situated against the debate on Neandertals and the Human Revolution, and against the very specialised accumulative scholarship concerning later Palaeolithic symbolism, in the work of such scholars as Breuil, Peyrony, Leroi-Gourhan, Laming-Emperaire, Brigitte and Gilles Delluc, Anati, to mention only a few of the protagonists in a debate spanning the entire twentieth century. Dominant approaches in this field have far from stressed astronomical interpretations, and in order to create room for the latter type of interpretation at all, I had to go over the existing material and the attending literature. This task will take up the central part of this book. In Chapter 3 I discuss, in the most cursory and superficial manner, the general background: Neandertals, the Out-of-Africa scenario, and the Human Revolution in Upper Palaeolithic Europe. Chapter 4 introduces the La Ferrassie sepulchral block as the oldest cupmarked stone attested so far, and seeks to situate it in a comparative context. Meanwhile another major prop of the argument manifests itself: the well-studied block La Ferrassie XVI, which dates from the Aurignacien IV; it therefore is considerably younger than the sepulchral block, and safely on modern man’s side of the Human Revolution of the Upper Palaeolithic — if we may yet speak of such a Human Revolution.

 

 

Fig. 20. The block La Ferrassie XVI (a) photograph[5]

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Fig. 21. The block La Ferrassie XVI (b) identification of cupmarks

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Fig. 22. The block La Ferrassie XVI (c) schematic rendering

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            One of the reasons to concentrate on block XVI is that it can be situated very comfortably in the entire data set of engraved Upper Palaeolithic limestone blocks from the Dordogne region, which comprises some sixty such blocks and which was studied in great detail and with considerable result by the Dellucs in the 1970s. I do not merely reiterate the Dellucs’ analysis but subject their data to a new statistical analysis, with surprising results suggestive of historical patterns of relationships and internal development.

 

 

Fig. 23. The Dellucs’ analytic sketch of the graphic patterns on the block La Ferrassie XVI[4]

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Fig. 24. Dendrogram showing the results of cluster analysis performed on the Dellucs’ data set

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Fig. 25. Clusters of Aurignacien engraved blocks from the Dellucs’ data set, and their typological and historical relationship

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This paves the way for Chapter 6, which discusses Palaeolithic signs: patterns and their interpretation. Here we discharge the obligation to look at the existing, non-astronomical interpretations before proceeding to an archaeoastronomical reading. Chapter 6 concentrates on typology, formal structures, juxtapositions and combinations of major categories of signs (cupmarks — including ‘cupules en jeu’ which look like proto-mankala —, vulva signs, animal representations, geometrical signs, and residual categories including somewhat doubtful male signs) without entering in a discussion of change and chronology. Chapter 7 subsequently, on this formal basis, seeks to identify some of the historical dynamics of Upper Palaeolithic symbolism, partly on the basis of the existing literature, and partly on the basis of my new analysis of the Dellucs’ corpus.

 

 

Fig. 26. Mankala-like Aurignacien cupmark patterns from the Abri Blanchard.[6]

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Fig. 27. The block Cellier VI, illustrating vulva signs in the Upper Palaeolithic[7]

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Fig. 28. Exuberant and life-like polychromatic animal representations as typical of the Magdalénien

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            It is only at this point that we may be said to have sacrificed sufficiently to existing scholarship, and take up the archaeo­astronomical line of argument. Meanwhile we have derived, from the general palaeoanthropological argument, a number of principles which will turn out to be essential in our subsequent archaeo­astronomical reading. We have identified the abstract, logical implications of the geometrical signs, and their suitability for astronomical representations. More important, we have sketched a chronological pattern according to which Palaeolithic symbolic ensembles may be reworked at several very different points in time under several, very different cultural assumptions, by rival human groups having supplanted each other in the same habitat and in so far as access to and use of the same engraved blocks is concerned. This suggests that we may be allowed to disentangle, as belonging to a different chronological phase, vulva signs and animal representations from cupmark patterns and geometrical signs, and to concentrate our archaeoastronomical reading of the latter signs while taking the vulva signs and animal representations to constitute a later, different phase of signification.

            In Chapter 8 I do take up the archaeoastronomical argument, demonstrating that at least the cupmarked pattern on the Aurignacien block XVI may be plausibly interpreted as a stellar map. For this I develop two further approaches in addition to the abortive one of Chapter 2. Approach II seeks to interpret block XVI’s cupmark pattern in terms of the sky’s very brightest stars, in so far as clustering on Sirius; or, more in general and less specifically, of the Milky Way as headed by Sirius. This leads to fairly plausible, if also very general and unspecific results, apparently foreshadowing the role which Sirius was to play in cosmological myth and ritual right up to modern times. In Chapter 11, therefore, I explore, with special reference to ancient Egypt and the contemporary Dogon people of West Africa, what the argument based on Approach II might mean for our understanding of the origin of mankala and its imagery, and for the current para-scientific debate on the archaeoastronomical status of Sirius.

 

 

Fig. 29. The clustering of several of today’s brightest star in a section of the sky centring on Sirius, and their proper motion over the past 35,000 years

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no

star name

no

star name

no

star name

1

Adhara

6

Beta Crux

10

Pollux

2

Aldebaran

7

Betelgeuse

11

Procyon

3

Alpha 2 Centauri

8

Canopus

12

Regulus

4

Arcturus

9

Capella

13

Rigel

5

Beta Centauri

10

Pollux

14

Sirius

 

From Fig. 29 we can extract the formal pattern produced by a set of very bright stars centring on Sirius, 35,000 BP. Reduced to the same rectangle as used in Fig. 9, this gives the following Fig. 30.

 

 

Fig. 30. The cluster of very brightest stars centring on Sirius, 35,000 BP.

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Diameter and boldness of the circular symbols reflects relative magnitudes as at 35,000 BP[8]

            When we now superimpose the stellar pattern of Fig. 30 upon that of the cupmark pattern on the block La Ferrassie XIV as rendered in Fig. 22, the result is the following Fig. 31:

 

Fig. 31. The pattern of brightest stars clustering on Sirius, 35,000 BP, rotated and superimposed upon Fig. 22.

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            But despite the fact that it opens up these vistas on the possible aftermath of a Sirius-centred Palaeolithic astronomy, Approach II has inherent shortcomings (especially the vagueness and wide celestial angle of its pattern) which make us search for yet another, more convincing approach. Therefore I finally present — in great indebtedness to the self-taught archaeoastronomer Jean-Pierre Lacroix — Approach III, which hinges on the idea that block XVI’s cupmark pattern is a detailed and fairly precise stellar map, notably of the region of the sky centring on Orion’s Belt.

Fig. 32. The three adjacent marks below the centre of this Figure suggest Orion’s Belt on the block La Ferrassie XVI

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Fig. 33. The block La Ferrassie XVI interpreted as a representation of the sky around Orions Belt, 31,000 BP

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                Purple open and closed circles represent cupmarks.Whereas the open purple circles each correspond with a specific star in this section of the sky, the closed purple circles represent cupmarks which do not have a material astronomical equivalent in the form of a fixed star. Light-blue filled circles represent stars, while narrow red lines connect a cupmark (shown in position as on block XVI) with the corresponding star (shown in actual position as in the sky at 31,000 BP, precession and proper motion taken into account, as specified in Table 9); the green broken lines h1-h4 are the roughly parallel grooves which appear on the La Ferrassie stone itself, and which Peyrony and later writers including Leroi-Gourhan have taken to represent extremities of animals; the possible astronomical significance of these lines will be discussed below.

The limited visibility of Orion’s belt in La Ferrassie in the Upper Palaeolithic suggests a more precise dating of block XVI, notably at 31,000 BP (Before Present), which is slightly more recent than the available stratigraphic and C14 dating. After calculating (in terms of equatorial co-ordinates, altitudes of culmination, and magnitudes, of the fixed stars involved) the pattern of the heaven in the region of Orion’s Belt at the date indicated, Approach III turns out to yield such an amazingly perfect fit between cupmark pattern and celestial pattern, that there can be no doubt left that block XVI is in fact a detailed and precise stellar map. That stellar map displays a number of further remarkable features: cupmark-indicated objects which do by their position not correspond with fixed stars at the time, and which are situated at the horizon, and at the intersection points of the meridian, ecliptic and celestial equator; these features are suggestive of ecliptic-based astronomic events (movements of the Sun, Moon and visible planets) which may yield clues as to the precise astronomical event which triggered the making of this stellar map in the first place. Moreover there are quasi-parallel lines which earlier analysts have interpreted as a quadruped’s extremities but which find a rival explanation here in terms of a Palaeolithic stellar clock.

            If the archaeoastronomical analysis of the Aurignacien block XVI yields such promising results, what about our initial central object, the Moustérien sepulchral block? This is the question posed, and answered in detail, in Chapter 10. There I apply, one by one, the Approaches I, II and III which have guided our archaeoastronomical argument so far. Despite its success in vindication of the archaeoastronomical reading of the Serso stone, Approach I yet yields a negative result. The results for Approach II, at the not impossible date of 35,000 BP, are somewhat more promising but still fail to convince on several major counts. However, Approach III (‘a precise and detailed stellar map of the region of the sky around Orion’s Belt’) once more yields an amazingly convincing fit, for the date of 55,000 BP. This date moreover has the advantage of being in line with common specialist estimates of the sepulchral block’s antiquity, confirming its Moustérien, Neandertal nature. Identification of the block as a precise stellar map has the implication that we are probably justified to interpreting the infant burial which is topped by the sepulchral block, as the consequence of human sacrifice at the occasion of a significant astronomical event. However, in the absence of ecliptic-based planetary clues from the sepulchral block’s astronomical pattern, we are as yet unable to pinpoint the exact nature of this astronomical event.

 

Fig. 34. Equatorial co-ordinates of selected stars for the astronomical interpretation of the La Ferrassie sepulchral block, Approach III, 55,000 BP; the red arrow indicates Orion’s Belt

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Fig. 35. Equatorial co-ordinates of selected stars for the astronomical interpretation of the La Ferrassie sepulchral block, Approach III, 55,000BP, with the block’s cupmark pattern superimposed

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yellow = fixed star; brightest stars rendered larger; green = certain cupmark; red = contested cupmark, with question marks and arrows also in red; blue = other features of the block; red arrows; lilac: suggested correspondences between stellar pattern and cupmark pattern

 

            The implications of the technical argument of this book, if found tenable, will reach far beyond the discipline of archaeo­astronomy.

            What, in the current scholarly literature concerning the Upper Palaeolithic, is often described as the Human Revolution in the hands of early modern man, would seem to coincide with the production (during the Aurignacien, which implied early modern man) of vulva signs and animal representations, whereas cupmarks, some of which have Moustérien and by implication Neandertal associations) might well date from prior to that development. What becomes discernible here is some kind of conceptual Primordial Sin, or Fall, in which the earlier representation of the recurrent, unapproachably distant, ultimate Otherness of the stars and of Death (the two connotations manifest in the case of the sepulchral block as the oldest attested instance of human signification), gives way to the representation of whatever is nearby, tangible, full of life force, ready to be approached and to be appropriated for the gratification of hunger and sexual desire: animals and human female genitals. Although such a development no doubt generated much mental and social energy, it represents a movement towards the tangible, the material, the appropriative and the manipulative conceptual and physical mastering of the natural and human environment, which may well explain mankind’s subsequent history, but which only from a very specific and contentious viewpoint could be considered an instance of progress.

            The conceptual transition evoked here is massive, but at the same time it is one which absolutely presupposes the full human capabilities of the Neandertals. There has been a pendulum swing movement of the appreciation of Neandertals’ humanness ever since the late 19th century. The virtual denial of their human capabilities by Boule in the early 20th century was relaxed in the course of that century, and reinforced again in the 1980s, to return to a reluctant and reticent admission in the 1990s. Here the present book’s argument, however much written by a non-specialist in the field of palaeoanthropology and however predictably defective, therefore, may yet have a contribution to make. For it claims that man’s oldest attested sign representations were made by Neandertals, and constituted more or less exact stellar maps.

            Three important conclusions then present themselves:

     In the first place, in the light of my argument the Human Revolution would appear to have been a relative and not an absolute step in conceptualisation -- it represented a shift in what was already there, more than a beginning.

     And in the second place, we are confronted with the image of the Neandertal with an upward gaze turned to the stars, and engaging in the first visual graphic representation not for survival-based drives for food and sex, but in inquisitive amazement. As if the origin of human graphic art, writing, representation, articulate logic, lies in what can only be called the Neandertals’ proto-scientific stance. It is only later, with the advent of early modern man and the explosion of Upper Paleolithic symbolism, that we see the tangible, immediate gratification in terms of food and sex invade this initial contemplation and representation of the resignedly Other; and it is only in this process, presumably, that man becomes more human by becoming less, not more, spiritual.

     In the third place it appears as if we have to distinguish more carefully between the demographic/ somatic, and the cultural, developments of the later Paleolithic. This may lead to a new model of intercontinental interactions in the later Palaeolithic. There are indications of a rapid African and/ or Near Eastern demographic east-west and north-south influx up to 40,000 BP, bringing early modern man to southwestern Europe, where she would ultimately replace the Neandertals. This movement did not coincide with the invention of symbolism: findings of the last few decades have indicated that there was symbolism on the African continent simultaneous with and prior to the Upper Palaeolithic of the Franco-Cantabrian region; and meanwhile the Neandertals resident in southwestern Europe have turned out to be capable of making at least one stellar map, that of the La Ferrassie Neandertal block.

 

Fig. 36. A specimen of figurative art from the Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia, c. 27,000 BC

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Fig. 37. An enigmatic Palaeolithic engraved stone plaque from Angola

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Janmart[9] describes this small plaque and its signs in the following terms:  ‘A.—La pierre perforée. La perforation a été faite avant la gravure, comme le prouvent certains traits du dessin qui y penètrent. L'orifice a été fait par piquetage. Seule la partie la plus étroite a été égalisée en y faisant tourner un morceau de bois ou une pierre allongée.
La fig. 34 [ our Fig. 24 ] montre la nature des dessins, qui semblent avoir été exécutés au moyen d'un eclat trenchant de roche cure. J'y distingue: une figure humaine à couvre-chef empenné (1) une vulve (2), une figure oblongue à allure géometrique (3), un phallus (4) en partie creusé dans la plaque, un schéma d'homme assis (5) à côté d'une personne de sexe non indiqué (le graveur s'est amusé à creuser la partie du zig-zag qui touche à l 'orifice), un zig-zag multiple (6), dont les éléments ne sont pas très rectilignes, figure que l'on interprète habituellement comme un groupe de femmes assises, un petit ovale auquel sont accolées des lignes droites (7), figure que j'interprète comme un homme debout, un poing sur la hanche et, enfin, diverges lignes droites et courbes s'intersectant pour créer des dessins divers.’

      The north-west bound movement however does seem to have coincided but with the shift from contemplative astronomical cupmarks to appropriative and objectifying vulva signs and animal representations. Is this shift another one of Africa’s contributions to global cultural history? And do we have to admit, once more (like in my claim, in Global Bee Flight, of the emergence of Ancient Egyptian civilisation from the interaction between Eastern Mediterranean and sub-Saharan African elements), that this African contribution did constitute a necessary contribution, but not a sufficient condition, in the sense that towards this shift also another major, non-Africa-based factor contributed: Europe-based proto-scientific astronomy and its representative engravings?

            These are momentous observations. But let us not forget that they are mere hypotheses, which may only remotely apply if and only if the specialists are prepared to accept my claim that the later Palaeolithic cupmark patterns represent stellar maps.

            And even if such specialist confirmation were forthcoming, much further research is required before we can assess the extent to which this original astronomical meaning has continued to adhere to cupmarks throughout their long and many-sided career in prehistory and history — or alternatively can gauge the extent to which an original astronomical meaning was transformed into, or replaced by, other meanings and connotations. If the oldest cupmarks meant stars, this does not necessarily mean that tens of thousands of years later, when Neolithic mankala-like stone boards come into view, the cupmarks constituting these boards still represent stars — although I advance, in Chapter 11, reasons why this may plausibly be said to be the case.

 

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[1]              Cf. Capitan, L., & Peyrony, D., 1921, ‘Découverte d’un sixième squelette moustérien à la Ferrassie, Dordogne’, Revue Anthropologique, 31: 382-88, p. 388. The text is literally incorporated in: Peyrony, D., 1934, ‘La Ferrassie: Moustérien, Périgordien, Aurignacien’, Préhistoire, 3: 1-92, also published separately, Paris: Larose, pp. 33f; Maringer, J., 1960, The gods of prehistoric man, London: [ publisher ]; Engl. translation of first German ed.; Dutch translation De godsdienst der praehistorie, Roermond/ Maaseik: Romen, 1952; Lorblanchet, M., 1999, La naissance de l’Art: Genèse de l’art préhistorique, Paris: Errance.

[2]              Levy, G.R., 1948, The gate of horn: A study of the religious conceptions of the stone age, and their influence upon European thought, London: Faber & Faber, p. 66.

[3]                Photograph by Mr. P. Jugie, graciously made available by the Musée National de la Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, reproduced by permission from the Musée National de la Préhistoire, which I hereby gratefully acknowledge.

[4]              Delluc, B., & Delluc, G., 1978, ‘Les manifestations graphiques aurignaciennes sur support rocheux des environs des Eyzies (Dordogne)’, Gallia: Préhistoire: Fouilles et monuments archéologiques en France métropolitaine, 21, 1: 213-438, p. 314, Fig. 61.

[5]                Photograph by Mr. P. Jugie, graciously made available by the Musée National de la Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, reproduced by permission from the Musée National de la Préhistoire, which I hereby gratefully acknowledge.

[6]              Source: Delluc & Delluc o.c., p. 259, Fig. 26. The blocks 1 and 2 have been lost. Photograph, a sketch and a cross-section of block 3 appears in Delluc & Delluc, o.c., Fig. 25, p. 257.

[7]              Delluc & Delluc, o.c., Figs. 79 and 80, pp. 353f.

[8]                Magnitudes have been subjected to a linear conversion normalised towards Sirius:

M = (SQRT(1/e^m))/M’, where

m = a star’s normalised magnitude 35,000 BP, and

M’ = magnitude of Sirius, 35,000 BP (cf. Table 2).

[9]              Janmart, J., 1946, ‘Les stations paléolithiques de l’Angola Nord-Est’, Diamang: Publicaçoes Culturais (Companhia de Diamantes de Angola (Diamang)), no. 5, Museu de Dundo, Lisbon, pp. 11-65, p. 56f.

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