XI. The Proto-Zodiac and the eight-year Calendar


The present study is focused on constellations of the zodiac, and argues that three of our twelve zodiacal images, namely the aurochs bull/Taurus, the ibex/Capricornus, and the lion/Leo, were acknowledged in Palaeolithic astronomy and appeared as such already in early cave sanctuaries. This longevity of astronomical observations is a challenging concept, but we may recall, what historical sources confirm, that certain constellations have retained their identity over the last several thousand years. For sure, a major constellation is prone to retain its given image, once that iconic/symbolic form has become a fixture of traditional lore.

To the above three zodiacal images we subsequently add a fourth, no longer current one, namely the rhinoceros, which apparently was the predecessor of the historical scorpion/Scorpius. The four constellations in question were spaced between two and four months apart, so that each represented approximately a full season. Thus, their mutual relationships within the framework of a decorated cave may trace the progress of the sun throughout the year. Toward the end of the cave art era, the rhinoceros disappeared from the imagery, just as the lion became increasingly scarce, and other zodiacal images (Aquarius, Pisces, Virgo) apparently assumed importance. Many compositions in cave art suggest astronomical events of the year–the temporal appearance and disappearance of asterisms–illustrated through configurations of two or more zodiacal motifs (in sequence or in opposition, rising or descending). A great many juxtapositions of these zodiacal motifs and the omnipresent horse (the prime solar image, cf. Chapter V) create situations that carry seasonal implications. Ultimately, an astronomical interpretation of a given cave sanctuary may be corroborated if three factors agree: consistent relations between the zodiacal images; meaningful juxtapositions of these configurations and the figures of horses (representing the solar year); and, a fair match between these images and the seasonal skies of the given age.

Part Four remains to be written.

An Addendum (Part Five) investigates an eight-year calendar that kept lunar and solar years synchronized with fair accuracy.


For most of human history the sky was both timepiece and calendar, and we may reasonably speculate that the cave artists and their contemporaries already made extensive use of the great celestial clockwork. When Ice Age art was discovered in the late 19th century, astronomy was not yet an integral part of cultural anthropology, and early studies of Upper Palaeolithic images typically ignored sky lore. Since the 1970s, however, growing awareness of astronomic contents in rock art (notably in North American petroglyphs) brought the recognition, that the regular patterns of the skies were basic to hunter/gatherers’ concept of time and space. A. Marshack’s The Roots of Civilization (1972/1991) focused attention on time-factored features in the Upper Palaeolithic art works, partly in images of animals and plants with seasonal implications, partly in notational marks on many stone and bone artifacts that suggest regular observations of the moon’s phases. Marshack also speculated that Upper Palaeolithic people watched the sun’s yearly movement along the horizon, though he refrained from speculations about stars and constellations. Yet, we need not doubt that people of the Upper Palaeolithic watched the stars and perceived them as constellations. Gestalt Psychology confirms the inherently human propensity for seeing shapes rather than isolated points, hence constellations rather than disparate stars. Early historical sources show that certain animal species have served as images of specific constellations–Taurus, Leo, Capricornus–for several thousand years, and still earlier, proto-historical, images of some of these animals are accompanied by asterisks that suggest their inherent identity as constellations thousands of years before any written sources (Hartner 1965). Carved images on the columns of the very old sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe (about 10,000 years old) suggest representations of the constellations Leo, Scorpius, and Cygnus. These theories, albeit speculative as yet, extend the range of archaic astronomy back to the threshold of the Ice Age and the end-phase of its cave art (Belmonte 2010; Collins 2013). Even for the Paleolithic age, some scholars have long suspected that one painted figure in the Shaft of Lascaux–part swan, part human–may be the prototype for the historical Cygnus, the Swan, which suggests that some constellations may have lasted for even tens of thousand of years (Rappenglück 1999). Generally, we may recall that the extensive use of wild animals as images of major historical constellations (bear, swan, lion, fish, mountain goat) points far back into prehistory, apparently to an age before Neolithic farming cultures. We shall focus our study on constellations that belong to the zodiac, and specifically, on those stations of our historical zodiac, which are represented by animal species that also figure in the Palaeolithic cave sanctuaries, namely aurochs, ibex, lion, and fish. These could, theoretically, be very old stellar symbols, whereas the three other species of the present zodiac (crab, ram, scorpion) obviously are younger. The thesis of an embryonic zodiac in the Upper Palaeolithic has been stated from time to time, for example by the artist/philosopher Asger Jorn, whose book about the zodiac and the Wheel-of-Fortune (1957) assumed that some zodiacal images–including Taurus, Leo, and Sagittarius–date back to the hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic. Such speculations, however, did not gain credibility until decades later, with the discovery of the ancestor of Taurus among the paintings of Lascaux.

The Taurus of Lascaux

In the 1990s, with the increasing interest in archaeoastronomy, a number of scholars independently noticed the profound similarity between one famous, painted aurochs bull in Lascaux and the historical Taurus (Antequera Congregado 1994; Edge 1997). This proto-type of our current Taurus constellation is featured in the cave’s monumental frieze of white bulls (Fig. 1b, and Fig. 2, to the right). The largest of the white aurochs bulls in the Rotunda, in particular, is a very close counterpart to the familiar Taurus (compare Fig. 1a and Fig. 1b). A group of conspicuous dots on the bull’s face mimics the shape of the Hyades, with the first-magnitude star Aldebaran as the eye, like in the current Taurus. We recognize the angular shape of the Hyades, with the upper leg of the “V” composed of a line of four dots (from Gamma to Epsilon Tauri), and the lower leg marked by Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri). Astronomer Frank Edge even argues that the shape of the “V” of the Lascaux Hyades agrees with a small shift in the location of Aldebaran within the constellation over the course of the last twenty millennia (Edge 1997, 16-17). The fact that these dots are also natural markings in the animal’s fur does not speak against a mythological reading, but rather agrees with historical evidence, as exemplified by the cult of the Egyptian Apis bull, whose natural markings revealed his sacred nature. As for the Lascaux bull’s extremely long horns, they seem intended to pick up the only two bright stars available for marking the tips of Taurus’ horns (including Beta Tauri, called El Nath, “The Butting One”). The bull of Lascaux mirrors almost to perfection the actual configuration of stars, and to eliminate any doubt, the six dots above the bull imitate the shape of the Pleiades, the star cluster that throughout the world is variously seen as comprising six or seven stars, and which in Western zodiacs is still depicted above the shoulder of Taurus. To these observations we may add that the figure of the bull is painted on the tall, domed ceiling of the Rotunda, an almost planetarium-like setting that contributes to the spectacle of a celestial object. This is the more compelling as the figure spreads across the fullest expanse of the dome (Fig. 2). In fact, the bull in question is plainly the largest extant figure from all of Palaeolithic cave art! The author of this exceptional work was certainly not casual about its sparse details. We have no compelling reason to question the identity of the Taurus of Lascaux, even though it is unusually explicit within cave art. In historical times, too, pictures of bulls have not typically been openly and expressly identified as Taurus, even though the association has been common knowledge. We may speculate that the Ice Age artists, likewise, assumed familiarity with the role of the aurochs bull as Taurus, and that they only exceptionally felt the need to stress the connection. For sure, the giant bull of Lascaux is atypical by its explicit references to the constellation. Still, it is not entirely unique in cave art, and one notable counter-part is, not surprisingly, found in Cosquer, a cave that shows numerous motivic, thematic, and stylistic similarities with Lascaux (as repeatedly noticed by Clottes and Courtin 1994, and Clottes et al. 2005). As in Lascaux, the Cosquer bull (Fig. 2A, a) is the largest figure in the cave, it is, again, an imposing creature with enormous horns, and it is, notably, the occupant of the highest ceiling of the cave (Fig. 2A, b).; as such it dominates the central hall of the cave. As is well known, the lower (southern) section of Cosquer has been submerged in water since the end of the Ice Age, but from the edge of the water, the central hall rises steadily toward the highest point of the cave, where the ceiling, too, reaches a peak. This is the location of the bull, which is engraved about ten feet over the floor. The analogy with the situation of the Taurus of Lascaux in the dome of the Rotunda is striking (cf. Fig. 60 b). In both caves, the bulls may reflect other sky-related themes beside that of the constellation Taurus (on the aurochs bull as a general image of the sky, see Chapter IV), but even so, the specific implication of Taurus is confirmed by the fact that the Pleiades are part of the decorative scheme, in Cosquer as in Lascaux. This star cluster is so closely tied to—often a part of—Taurus that the association is imperative: the Pleiades herald the emergence of Taurus rising; they add to the visual splendor of the bull constellation. In Cosquer, the cluster is depicted toward the back of the cave (Fig. 2A, b), on a projection of the vault in the tortuous Fault of the Bison. Thus, for the visitor, who moves from the deep pit in the very back toward the high grounds of the central hall, the Pleiades will be seen to announce the appearance of Taurus as a culminating event of the cave. The Cosquer version of the cluster is composed of uniform holes poked in the soft calcite film of a projection of the vault. This version deviates from that of Lascaux, which shows but the six most visible stars (Fig. 1 b), by adding a seventh star (Fig. 2B, a). This added star matches an outlier of the Pleiades cluster, designated as HD 23753 (cf. Fig. 2B, b). It is less bright than the other six, but it is equally as visible as several other stars that more often are included renditions of the cluster in sky-maps, some carrying names from Greek mythology (Pleione, Sterope, Celaeno). The Pleiades count among the most significant characters in star-lore from around the world, and we find the cluster widely depicted already in Upper Palaeolithic art. To the just-mentioned examples from Dordogne and from the Mediterranean coast of France, we may add a representation on a decorated bone artifact from the Spanish site of Pendo (Fig. 2C, a). Again, we find the six main stars in the familiar pattern (Fig.2C, b), here as the center-piece of a highly dramatic scene. On their left is an imaginary earth-monster, which is little more than a yawning mouth full of pointed teeth; it is a classical image of death and the subterranean realm of the dead (Fig. 2C, c). On their right is a stag, which is shown in the act of emerging from this netherworld (the surface of the earth marked by grass-like vegetation, and the passing of a threshold is indicated by the turn of he head); the arrows that pierce the animal make clear that the stag is escaping a realm of death (Fig. 2C, d). Following on the heels of the stag, the Pleiades are also seen as emerging from below, for the inclination of the cluster is, in fact, characteristic of the cluster as it rises, but is still close to the horizon. In short, the Pleiades are here associated with the conquest of death and renewal of life, as they are in the mythologies of later, archaic cultures (Krupp 1983, 86-87, 208).

The skies of Lascaux

The Lascaux Taurus is a painting of extraordinary magnitude, executed on a pristine wall-face, in the most prominent location of the cave; it suggests that the night skies were a significant theme at Lascaux. We shall, in turn, test this impression against the seasonal program for the decoration and the iconography of the cave with its strong predominance of solar horses. Initially, a review of other images of aurochs bulls in the cave will determine that they, too, represent the celestial Taurus and that they all observe the cave’s seasonal program. To appreciate the overall design of the decoration we must, however, first review some elementary concepts in astronomy. In order to establish the relationship between a given constellation and a certain season, we must take notice of the slow-but-steady change whereby the location of the sun within the zodiac shifts forward by one constellation in roughly 2,000 years (the so-called precession of the equinox). In a given age, the sun may be in Taurus at the time of the vernal equinox, but 13,000 years later, that same event–the sun in Taurus–would, to the contrary, mark the fall equinox. Over roughly 26,000 years the precessional cycle comes full circle. This apparent complication offers both a challenge and an opportunity for our study: we need to determine the age of the decoration to know what the skies looked like when the cave was decorated, and the chronology can be elusive; but if we can determine a date, then we are in a position to test the match between zodiacal motifs and seasons. Some scholars are sceptical of atronomy in cave art, because we have only approximate dates for cave decorations, but the benefit of the zodiac as a venue is, precisely, that the study is possible within even a relatively broad chronological framework, because the inherent lack of accuracy is offset by the fact that changes of seasonal references happen over a very long period of time. Typically, the relationship between a given constellation and a particular season of the year is good for about 2,000 years; this gives us some leeway. From early historic sources we know that people successfully adjusted their readings of the skies to match the actual seasons, to the effect that zodiacal constellations have remained useful for calendrical purposes over the last approximately 3,000 years. We may assume that Ice Age populations likewise–slowly, perhaps imperceptibly–fine-tuned their seasonal narratives to reflect the changing skies.In the present age, Taurus is a winter constellation, but this was not necessarily so in earlier ages, and in order to determine what season was implied by the Taurus in the Rotunda of Lascaux we need to know the age of that painting. Determining the age of Lascaux is a complicated process that must negotiate a range of distinct dates and revise well-established mistakes in the literature on the cave. Prehistorians have for more than half a century been guided by carbon 14 dates for Lascaux that go back no farther than approximately 17,000 BP (i.e., “before the present”), and which place the decoration in the early Magdalenian age; for several reasons, this attribution is no longer sustainable. Since the time (the 1950s) when the familiar carbon 14 dates were obtained, it has become clear that a systemic error of the radiometric procedure requires calibrations that may add about two thousand years for the era of Lascaux, extending the upper range of carbon 14 dates to about 19,000 BP. To this comes, however, the evidence of an alternative carbon 14 date (from the 1990s) for a bone artifact from the cave. This item yields the date of 18,600 +/- 190 BP (Aujoulat 2004, 59), or, calibrated, 22,219 +/- 384 BP (using the CalPal 2007 online calibration tool). Though prehistorians tend to treat this date as aberrant, it may not be readily dismissed, for the bone in question belongs to a cache of similar spear points found at the foot of a painted panel in the deep Shaft. Significantly, these artifacts also relate conceptually to the wall art, because one of them carries a specific sign (see Fig. 6b) that is identical to one engraved on the figure of a horse in the Nave (Fig. 6c). As the deposition of these bone points most likely post-date the paintings of the Shaft, we can not exclude the possibility of a date close to 23,000 BP for the murals of Lascaux. The fauna depicted at Lascaux may provide another argument in favor of such an early date. The strong presence of aurochs and red deer–as opposed to bison and reindeer–speaks for a temperate climate such as prevailed during one of the intermediate periods of the Ice Age. Traditionally, the so-called ”Lascaux Interstadial,” between roughly 21,000 BP and 18,000 BP (calibrated), has been acknowledged as fit for the cave’s decoration. The impact of this particular warming episode has, however, been disputed (for example, by Soledad Corchón 1999), and with the adjusted date for Lascaux in mind, we may reasonably associate the cave with the well-established “Laugerie Interstadial,” roughly from 23,500 BP to 22,000 BP. This earlier period of relative warming is clearly detectable in the Greenland ice core samples and is sustained by other climate studies (Rivera Arrizabilaga 2004). Almost certainly, the period preceding 24,000 BP saw severe climatic conditions that were incompatible with the temperate fauna of Lascaux, just as a period of severe cold around 21,000 BP separated the two warming episodes in question. Ultimately, we must accept the wide range of feasible dates between 23,000 BP and 20,000 BP.Finally, a comparison between Lascaux and caves with similar, better dated, art speaks for the earlier date of approximately 23,000 BP. Notably, the imagery of Lascaux aligns well with the works from the second phase of Cosquer, a body of art that yields calibrated carbon 14 dates of roughly 21,000 – 23,500 BP. Cosquer conforms to Lascaux stylistically, for example, in the articulation of the muzzles of horses, the attachment of the horns of ibexes, and the shape of the horns of bison (Clottes and Courtin 1996, 172-73). Thematically, too, we find such parallels as a bracket-like arch cut through by the horns of an ibex (ibid. 121, our Fig. 17), and of particular relevance to the present study, the above-mentioned aurochs bulls and representations of the Pleiades (Fig. 1 b, and Fig. 2A). In general, the painted aurochs of Lascaux resemble figures of aurochs that are engraved or sculpted on objects from Fourneau-du-Diable and Le Placard, both sites of unquestioned Solutrean dates, probably pre-dating 20,000 BP (Aujoulat 2004, 60-61). In the present study, we settle for the date of 23,000 BP–the upper limit suggested by the known evidence–because the understanding of the skies in any culture tends to be conservative, beholden to centuries of observations and stubborn conventions (not unlike our present use of the term Tropic of Capricorn, which reflects an astronomic reality that was current 3,000 years ago). Thus, our charts of the seasonal skies of Lascaux (Fig. 3A, and Fig. 3B ) pertain to roughly 23,000 BP. would still apply to the skies around 22,000 BP, at which time a given celestial events would still occur in the same season, only some ten days later. If, however, the charts are applied to an age closer to 20,000 BP, some real adjustments would be needed, because a given constellation that marked, say, late spring around 23,000 BP, might characterize early summer three thousand years later. Even so, an advance by less than three thousand years would answer to a difference of only about half a season, which would not require a total shift of paradigm, but would allow successive generations of artists to work in a given cave using the same repertory of visual themes and formulations as their predecessors. Acknowledging that our chronology is somewhat fuzzy and that we ignore the precise observational practices of Upper Palaeolithic star gazers, our sky-charts are merely schematic, rendering the sky as a diagram, and the constellations as conventional images, providing a general impression of the skies at certain times of the year rather than snapshots of specific moments. We presume that Palaeolithic observers primarily studied the skies early in the evening, as the stars came out, and that they looked for constellations that were near culmination as well as those that were about to disappear into conjunction with the sun (heliacal seting). We also assume that they checked the skies in the morning, looking for constellations that were returning to the sky just before sunrise, particularly if the return of those stars was eagerly anticipated (heliacal rising).

Taurus in spring

Our charts of the skies of Lascaux, which trace the varied appearances of Taurus during the year, show at a glance that spring was the only season during which the skies offered a spectacle to match the image of the exuberant white bull in the Rotunda (cf. Fig. 3A, a). Taurus is the most splendid of the zodiacal constellations, and–in combination with neighboring Orion–one of the most conspicuous displays in the northern skies (second only to Ursa Major). In the age of Lascaux, Taurus was at its most splendid in spring, after sunset, when the bull constellation was near its peak, close to zenith; by early summer, already, its status was declining.The brilliant appearance of Taurus in spring justified the artists’ use of the sparkling white, calcite-covered wall face of the Rotunda for the body color of the enormous aurochs bulls of the Rotunda, even though the natural hue of the wild bulls (known from specimens still extant in Eastern Europe in historical times) was a dark shade of brown with only a lighter stripe along the back. The brilliant white sheen of the bulls of the Rotunda is, in itself, a celebration of spring after a long, dark winter. Certainly, the concurrence of these two phenomena in the age of Lascaux–the majestic appearance of Taurus and the triumph of spring–motivated the enormity of the white bulls. On this scale, size is certainly a signifier.The brilliant white aurochs bulls in the Rotunda convey the appearance of Taurus around the spring equinox. The artists’ attention to the constellation and its seasonal appearance should, however, not be taken as evidence of a purely objective interest in astronomy, nor should the frieze be seen as a proto-scientific mapping of the sky. Rather, this figure, as well as the composition of the frieze at large, served a narrative/dramatic interpretation of a crucial moment in the course of the year, namely, the transition from winter to summer.This narrative is evident in the arrangement of the main figures into two groups that are pitched against each other (Fig. 2); this situation is, of course, not to be observed in the night sky, where Taurus does not move in two opposite directions. We would also be wrong to read the confrontation of the two central bulls, leaders of the two factions, as a naturalistic description of the fights of male aurochs, as the battles of the bulls were characteristic of the fall, whereas the timing for the scene in the Rotunda is the spring. The encounter of the two groups must, then, be seen as a symbolic battle, the more so as the two camps, besides aurochs, also include horses and deer (cf. Fig. 7a, and Fig. 8), which suggests a confrontation on a wider, even cosmic, scale. If we pay attention to the situation of the Rotunda within the cave and to the geographic/cosmic orientation of Lascaux at large, we can not fail to see the scene as the battle between a “winter group” and a “summer group,” representations of the two halves of the year that vie for influence with the unfolding of spring (cf. Fig. 5a). Comparing the plan of the cave ( Fig. 4) and a diagram of the solstitial positions of the sun (Fig. 6a), we realize the significance of the directions and orientations of the figures: one group moves toward the inner cave, in the direction of the south-east, that is, toward the winter solstice; the other group moves toward the exterior, that is, toward the north-west and the summer solstice. A battle between winter and summer is, indeed, a fitting theme for a composition devoted to spring. We gain further understanding of the ritual implications of such a battle of the seasons if we focus on the imaginary figure at the beginning of the frieze (Fig. 7a, to the left). The profile of this odd character matches the postures of two persons covered by a large hide in the manner of a Chinese dragon, as shown in our reconstruction (Fig. 7b), where the sagging belly is exposed as a skin hanging down loosely, the square head as a mask, and the horns as straight sticks. This masquerade figure is the force behind the contrary, obstructive move of the entire left-hand section of the frieze that opposes the progressive, beneficial move into summer pursued by the right-hand group; the former group goes against the direction prescribed by the cave’s seasonal program (cf. Fig. 4). Notice that the mischievous character uses his horns to drive the two left-most aurochs bulls inwards, while he with his chest, physically, pushes a file of horses–like a fox walks its young–also in the wrong direction, toward the south-east and winter (Fig. 7a). As the instigator of the move toward winter, the masked character is, de facto, a personification of winter, comparable to the fur-covered agents of winter familiar from much later rites of spring. His positive counterpart in the ritual battle is the group of male deer that spearheads the move, forwards/outwards, of the right-hand group of bulls (Fig. 8). They represent summer–the forces of growth–in the battle against winter, and we may find the equivalent of their large, wildly branching, antlers in the green branches often carried by the agents of summer in well-documented ceremonies that celebrate spring. Foremost among the deer is an all-red stag with surreal, flame-shaped red antlers (color photos in Aujoulat 2004, 66-67, 86-87); these are demonstrably superimposed on the nostrils of the foremost winter bull (Fig. 8, left), thereby showing that heat, the fiery breath of life, is infused into the bull so as to break the grip of the frost spirit (for stags and fire, see Chapter VI). In the same vein, the “winter spirit” at first succeeds in coaxing a file of all-black horses (meaning the winter-half of the year, cf. Chapter V). Eventually, he looses control, and the horses grow in size, they gain color, and they rise to the top of the sky (the dome), all signifying the sun’s growing strength with the advance of spring. The concept of a staged battle between seasons explains numerous elements of the frieze that are not accounted for by observation of the skies. Furthermore, the ritual theme explains why the artists chose to spell out the celestial identity of the aurochs bull in unusual, explicit detail, and why they did so by way of an image of unprecedented size: the colossal figure proclaimed the triumph of Taurus in spring, when this constellation announced the return of summer. With its cosmic nature, thus, spelled out and its sexualized power highlighted, this figure projects the unfolding of the revived year with everything in nature energized and pushing forward/upward. Indeed, the figure seems to be literally lifting off (cf. Fig. 2). The animated spectacle of the frieze of white bulls agrees well with the date of ca. 23,000 BP assigned to Lascaux, for in the following millennia, Taurus would increasingly become a sign of summer, and the description of a combat between winter and summer would become irrelevant.Conversely, in preceding millennia, Taurus would have been a winter constellation, emblematic of a season when the coming of spring could only be wishful thinking. Our charts of the skies of Lascaux may therefore be considered reliable points of reference, as we proceed to investigate the seasonal implications of other figures of aurochs bulls in the cave.

The microcosm of the cave

Lascaux has about fifteen images of aurochs bulls, and according to our thesis, they must all relate to Taurus,; each must reflect the situation of Taurus at the time of the year that is indicated by its specific location within the microcosm of the cave. While the artists made full use of the grand Rotunda and the five large bulls located there in order to celebrate the spectacle of Taurus in spring, the remaining nine aurochs bulls are in other sections of the cave that suggest different seasons. Determination of the seasonal associations of individual sections of the cave is, fortunately, possible without guesswork due to the consistent and logical set of references applied by the artists according to the actual, nature-given lay-out of the cave itself.The decoration of Lascaux reflects a world model in which the four solstitial positions (not our, more abstract cardinal directions) constituted the corners of the world (cf. Fig. 6a). The artists of Lascaux apparently illustrated precisely this concept, both on a bone point found in the Shaft, and in an engraving on a wall in the Nave (Fig. 6b and c). In agreement with the binary philosophy of the age (cf. Chapter X), this model allows for two complementary interpretations of the year: one divides the year into a summer-half, in which the days are longer than the nights, and a winter-half, in which the nights are longer than the days (cf. Fig. 5a); the other divides the year into a spring-half, during which days get ever longer, and a fall-half, during which days get ever shorter (cf. Fig. 5b).The longitudinal axis of Lascaux that runs north-to-south through the entire length of the cave (cf. Fig. 4) suggests a binary division of the year into a summer-half and a winter-half (as in Fig. 5a), north meaning summer and south meaning winter. Because the sun is farthest north in summer and farthest south in winter, this scheme fits the cave’s artistic program, which is dedicated to the story of the solar year as represented by the image of the horse (Lascaux has several hundred figures of horses) and which finds expression, notably, in the long file of horses moving through the Nave, aiming toward the north and summer. The physical cave space, itself, supports this theme, in so far as the wide, lofty rooms of the northern (outer) cave are compatible with the expansive quality of summer, while the cramped corridors and alcoves of the southern (inner) cave are confining and oppressive, in the likeness of winter. Indeed, the artists emphasized this contrast through the brightly painted panels of the outer cave that differ from the merely engraved (occasionally, darkly colored) images in the back. Incidentally, the artists marked off the boundary between the northern and southern divisions by designating a point close to the middle of the cave as the mid-point of the year and marking it by the symmetrical composition of a “winter bison,” heading south, and a “summer bison,” heading north (cf. Chapters III, VII).The alternative division of the year, into a spring-half and a fall-half (cf. Fig. 5b). applies to the cave’s two side-branches, the Axial Gallery and the Apse. The Axial Gallery is oriented along a line from the summer solstice sunset in north-west to the winter solstice sunrise in south-east (Fig. 4), and the decoration of the Gallery traces the year from mid-summer to mid-winter and then back, following the movement of the sun along the horizon; thus, the left-hand wall is to be read on entering, progressing from summer toward winter, while the right-hand wall is to be read on leaving, advancing from winter toward summer. The pronounced fall of the floor towards the back of the gallery accentuates the descent into winter, on entering, versus the ascent toward summer, on leaving. The Apse is oriented east-west and is read according to, basically, the same pattern (cf. Fig. 4): the left (southern) wall from summer to winter, followed by the right (northern) wall from winter to summer. Located at the end of the Apse, the Shaft incorporates winter, so that the visitor who descends into–and ascends from– the Shaft moves from the fall-half of the year (the left wall) to the spring-half (the right wall).

Taurus and the aurochs bulls beyond the Rotunda

In the Axial Gallery, a large, all black aurochs bull (Fig. 9) presents an astonishing contrast to the white bulls in the Rotunda. It is located in the downward-sloping gallery, just past the mid-point, not quite at the south-east end, which is the sphere of the winter solstice (Fig. 4). This figure therefore belongs to the end of summer, and its dark hue fits the appearance of Taurus at the end of the spring-half of the year, the lowest point in the constellation’s yearly cycle: after the summer solstice, when the constellation became invisible due to the conjunction with the sun (cf.Fig. 3B, f). A small yellow horse is juxtaposed with the large black figure, and considering the way this horse is tucked in, dovetail-wise, under the bull’s head (Fig. 9, to the left), it may well represent precisely the sun entering the zodiacal constellation Taurus. While the sun was in Taurus, the constellation remained obscured for more than a month, and it is likely that the disappearance of the constellation following its heliacal setting was symbolically equated with the extinction of its life. The black color is, of course, congruent with this reading,, just as a horizontal line drawn across the animal’s eye may signify death (Fig. 9).As is the case with the frieze of the Rotunda, the panel of the black bull is more than a projection of a specific, momentary observation; it is a dramatic scene in a narrative of conflict and change. The complex juxtaposition of figures reaches beyond the moment of Taurus’ disappearance, extending the time frame into the transformation, revival, and eventual return of Taurus. The constellation’s return to the sky in the early morning–its heliacal rising–which occurred in early fall ( Fig. 3B, g), is evoked by a multifaceted composition of considerable ingenuity: the bull’s black body is carefully superimposed on four yellow heads of bulls, so as to allow them to be partly visible through the black paint, making sure that their yellow horns clearly protrude above the back of the main figure (Fig. 9). This painterly device generates the effect of light emerging out of darkness, and even of new life sprouting forth from a dead body. Neither the black nor the yellow are the natural colors of the aurochs (no more so than the white of the bulls in the Rotunda), but the play of colors moves the narrative beyond the eclipse of Taurus (black), toward its reappearance (yellow). Taurus would not be re-established in the evening skies until midwinter (Fig. 3B, j), but its reappearance at dawn with the coming of fall was the first promise of its restoration.This promise of Taurus’ return–in fact, of he eventual return of spring–was fulfilled on the opposite wall of the gallery (which reads like a boustrophedon, from the back toward the outside). Here, the figure of a white bull is placed near the middle of the gallery, that is, half-way between winter and spring (Fig. 14), and even though only the head is shown, that is sufficient to evoke the display of the white bulls of spring in the the Rotunda. Obviously, this figure is a step toward the recovery of Taurus during late winter/early spring.The two panels in the Axial Gallery–the black-and-yellow bulls, and the white bull’s head–are the main images of aurochs bulls (and the only painted ones) outside the Rotunda. Farther inside the cave the role of the aurochs bull is greatly diminished, although the correspondence between figures and seasons remains valid. The Apse, with its jumble of engraved figures, contains three aurochs bulls, all on the northern wall and related to spring/summer ( Fig. 4). One is located in the back, near the Shaft, which indicates early spring (Fig. 11a); the other two are closer to the middle of the room and, thus, closer to summer (Fig. 11b). These are powerful figures that well match the appearance of Tarus in spring, though they represent a minor theme in the Apse. Finally, the head of an aurochs bull is engraved in the low ceiling of the Passage (Glory’s no. 160, ; Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, p. 213). Like the above-mentioned head of a white bull in the Axial Gallery, the bull’s head in the Passage seems to prepare the visitor for the return to the Rotunda and its show of Taurus in spring (cf. Fig. 4).In conclusion, all of the cave’s aurochs bulls seem to agree with the cosmic orientation and seasonal program of Lascaux. In particular, the description of the staged battle between winter and summer in the Rotunda confirms our assumption that the frieze of giant white bulls celebrated spring, just as the dramatic sequence of colors for the painted bulls in the Axial Gallery–from black, via yellow, to white–captures the transformations of Taurus, first from late summer to fall (on the left wall), then back to spring (on the right wall). It is hard to imagine alternative interpretations of these, totally artificial, features. The decoration captures the varied states of Taurus through the year, the extremes of defeat and glory of Taurus, from the all-black figure, low in the Axial Gallery to the monumental white one, high in the Rotunda, all of this in an orderly and meaningful fashion.

Evidence of a proto-zodiac in Lascaux

Taurus is a station on the path of the sun, and while one station does not make a zodiac, the example raises the suspicion that other signal constellations along the ecliptic were noticed as well. This hypothesis does by no means imply that the frieze of white bulls in the Rotunda may be considered a disguised, hermeneutic zodiac, as assumed by some astronomers with a pioneering interest in prehistoric arts. Given that one figure represents Taurus, they have theorized that surrounding figures (be it other bulls, or horses) represent neighboring constellations (Gemini, for example), and so forth, the length of the frieze. The approach invariably leads to arbitrary selections of accidental visual marks–an ear here, a muzzle there–that supposedly match specific stars. Accordingly, different authors see different segments of the zodiac in the frieze: from Taurus to Scorpius (Antequera Congregado [n.d.]); from Taurus to Sagittarius (Frank Edge, according to Lee [n.d.]); or, almost the entire zodiac (Jègues-Wolkiewiez 2000).The search for sky-maps agrees neither with the visual composition in the Rotunda nor with the files and structured panels elsewhere in Lascaux, and in order to avoid a fixation on maps of stars, we shall insist on three criteria: that aurochs bulls represent no other constellation than Taurus; that all aurochs bulls represent Taurus (explicitly, or implicitly); and, that no other animal species represent Taurus. Of course, this is what we find in the historical evidence, where for example, any image of a bull is a potential image of Taurus, but never of Pisces, just as images of fishes never represent Taurus; anything else would obfuscate the visual narrative and defy the very purpose of representing constellations by symbolic images. Palaeolithic cave art functions by way of a traditional iconography that grants defined roles to distinct motifs: the aurochs bull can not be both Taurus and Gemini; the solar horse can neither be Sagittarius at one place and Libra at another place (Jègues-Wolkiewiez 2011, 34, 45), nor can it be Leo at yet a third place (Rappenglück 1999, 165).The association with Taurus not withstanding, aurochs bulls were obviously used in a variety of contexts without apparent astronomical significance. In the course of Western art history (at least since early Antiquity), wild bulls, fishes or lions have figured with numerous symbolical implications, mostly without specifying their astronomical significance, but also without ever losing their specific association with Taurus, Pisces or Leo. The bull, for example, has figured as the vehicle of weather gods, as the impersonator of rain and rivers, as the voice of thunder, as the main sacrifice in ancestor cults, as the prime emblem of male fertility, as the model of combative energies (Attenborough 1987, for the Mediterranean evidence). All the while, the bull has retained its association with Taurus. Likewise, in the Rotunda of Lascaux, the aurochs bull is not only Taurus, but also the representative of a season, an image of the sky (cf. Chapter IV), and a sexualized, combative symbol. The frieze of the Rotunda is not a static map of the sky, but a dynamic narrative with wide-branching implications. Lascaux has no images of fishes, rams, crabs, or scorpions, but along with the aurochs bull, two more animals of the current zodiac are represented, namely the ibex and the lion, and the logical next step in our study will be to examine whether these two motifs also corresponded to the modern constellations, that is, to Capricornus and Leo. Evidence of their stellar identity will neither come from any obvious similarity between the actual stars and the images we are studying (the features that identify the Taurus in the Rotunda remains an exceptional find), nor can we count on external signs to spell out the celestial connotations. Occasionally, the Ice Age artists drew star-like signs next to an animal figure, as in the case of a six-pointed star that accompanies a lion in the ceiling of Gabillou (Gaussen 1964, nos. 31 and 21), probably designating that figure as Leo; or they added heads and horns of goats to geometric triangles in Palomera (Jorda Cerda 1968-69), possibly recalling the triangular shape of Capricornus. Such instances are, however, too rare to support our effort, and ultimately, we rely on context–on the relationship between the figures, and on the location of figures within the cave–in order to corroborate our hypothesis about the ibexes and lions of Lascaux: the figures must match the seasonal skies that are indicated by the cave’s decorative scheme. Taurus, Leo, and Capricornus may seem a minimal basis for keeping track of the year, but the principle of the zodiacal circle can be served by far fewer constellations than the present twelve. An embryonic zodiac would be functional, provided that it marked significant moments of the year and registered the changes of seasons. The three solar stations in question would, in fact, meet this minimal demand, because they are distributed in an optimal pattern: approximately 90̊ apart (cf. Fig. 12a), at intervals of roughly three months, or, a full season. This configuration also allows us to make sense of the mutual relationship between the three motifs. These three constellations could be used to signal several crucial episodes of the solar year (cf. Fig. 12b): Taurus’ prime exposure fell in spring, Leo’s in summer, and Capricornus’ in winter. In between them, they performed a perpetual drama in which the bull was the ultimate representative of the warm seasons, and the goat was its aid and herald, while the lion was the deadly adversary. In this drama, the solar year (the horse) was the object of contention. In the decoration of Lascaux, we may, then, expect to find the following key situations, each involving two or more motifs: in summer, the demise of Taurus concurrent with the peak performance of Leo (cf. Fig. 3A, e); in fall, the sun entering the station of Leo and Capricornus returning to the night sky (Fig. 3B, h); in winter, the prime exposure of Capricornus announcing the return of Taurus to the night sky (Fig. 3B, j).

Capricornus and Taurus in the Axial Gallery

The cave at large has numerous ibexes, most of which are only partial (heads alone) and many merely engraved. Thus, two figures in the Axial Gallery stand out as the only two ibexes that are both complete and painted. They show an all-black ibex confronting an all-yellow ibex (Fig. 13b). Located near the mouth of the Tunnel that terminates the gallery, they are painted on the right-hand wall, so that they, in the scheme of the cave, follow closely upon winter (cf. Fig. 4). The strict symmetry and the color contrast invite us to read the composition in terms of a dramatic shift of events, such as took place, indeed, in the appearances of Capricornus between the end of winter and the beginning of summer. The black ibex recalled the disappearance (visual extinction) of Capricornus prior to the spring equinox, when it became the station of the sun ( Fig. 3A, a). The yellow ibex mirrored the return of the constellation in late spring/early summer (cf. Fig. 3A, b, c). The artists’ attention to the yellow figure–the cave’s only large, complete, and brightly colored ibex–is understandable, for the return of Capricornus, appearing just before dawn (its heliacal rising), announced the rise of the rejuvenated spring sun.The horses that cluster around the two ibexes (Fig. 13b) spell out the above reading in full detail, as they connect the destiny of the solar year (that is, the life of the solar horse) to the passage of the sun through the spring-time station of Capricornus. One particularly revealing detail is the position of a small horse that seemingly grows out of–or, arises from–the body of the ibex, bluntly demonstrating how energy coming from the ibex/Capricornus is infused into the solar image. The meaning is clear, because this tiny, vertical horse with its front legs in the air is a direct replica of the large, vertical figure in the immediately preceding panel (Fig. 13a), the one that is shown emerging from the Tunnel at the end of the Gallery. Both figures, then, show the renewed–visibly rising–sun/year. They show only the forequarters, because the foremost half of the horse represents the first part of the year. As in the Vedic hymn quoted elsewhere (in Chapter V), the horse’s body is the year, and the front part of the body is the spring; its head is the dawn; its front legs signify spring and summer. These analogies are to be taken quite literally, even in exaggeration: amolng the horses attached to the yellow ibex is one that has huge front legs that, again, signify the renewed vigor of the advancing solar year (Fig. 13b).The horse/solar year is visibly empowered as it emerges from its union with Capricornus. This renewal of energies becomes apparent in the subsequent move of files of horses along the right-hand wall, toward the north-west and summer (Fig. 14). The movement unfolds in a straight-forward, directional narrative that spans the end of winter, early spring , and early summer. We first see the moment of the sun’s entrance into Capricornus depicted in the form of a horse’s head that is juxtaposed with the black ibex (Fig. 13b, and Fig. 14, to the extreme left). Next, the horse/sun passes through the constellation, as shown by the mentioned horse rising out of the yellow ibex, as well as by the ones continuing to the right of the ibex. In turn, the renewed momentum of the sun/year is carried forth by the file of horses beyond the panel of the ibexes (Fig. 14, middle and right).The above scenario might seem to exaggerate the significance of a minor station of the zodiac, considering that Capricornus is a much weaker, less eye-catching constellation than Taurus. Yet, the less forceful presence suited its supporting role as herald of Taurus: Capricornus at its peak merely prophesied the end of winter, but Taurus at its prime proclaimed the reality of spring. Consequently, as we follow the movement of the dark “winter” horses from the panel of the ibexes to the middle of the gallery, we arrive at the above-mentioned white bull’s head (Fig. 14, in the middle), at which point the horses gain greatly in size and vibrant color (recalling their light-colored summer coat); this change announces the move into early summer (Fig. 14, to the right). Capricornus, however, had no part in the development of the solar year past the spring, and so, the ibexes are left behind, in the far end of the gallery. In sum, the artistic plan of the Axial Gallery conveys the development of a good portion of the year, its decline (on the left wall) and revitalization (on the right wall); all, with contributions from just the two zodiacal constellations discussed so far.

Capricornus in the Nave and in the Passage

A frieze of seven painted ibexes’ heads (Fig. 15) is, by its location in the northernmost end of the Nave, related to the transition from spring to summer ( cf. Fig. 4), This attribution is corroborated by the sexual theme on display directly below the frieze, where an agitated stallion is driving a mare. a scene that indicates late spring/early summer. The ibexes show striking color contrasts between the two distinct groups they form: one of four black heads, the other of three red heads. Again, these colors do not reflect nature, but they do recall the changing presence of Capricornus in spring. This is quite obvious in the case of the four black heads that all carry bright-red horns (Fig. 15). These black heads suggest Capricornus around the spring equinox, the time of its conjunction with the sun ( Fig. 3A, a), and as a logical pursuit of this reading, the all-red horns that top the four black heads announce the subsequent revival of Capricornus with the heliacal rising in late spring/early summer ( Fig. 3A, b and c). The color accent offers a graphically clear illustration of the first glimpse of the reappearing constellation (and recalls the horns of the four yellow bulls emerging from a black field in the Axial Gallery, cf. Fig. 9).The group of ibexes in the Nave differs from the above one in the Axial Gallery in so far as the former shows the figures in sequence (all pointed in the same direction), whereas the latter shows them in confrontation. Consequently, a feasible reading of the Nave’s group of three red heads may be that they show Capricornus in late winter, preceding the heliacal setting/rising, at a time when the constellation was still a noticeable presence (Fig. 3B, j). The narrative, thus, concur with events in the sky, but three other themes are, evidently, mixed in with the astronomical observations, namely: the association with the two horses; the grouping in three-versus-four; and the heads-only presentation of the ibexes. These themes reflect ideas about conceptual dualism, numerical symbolism, and, ritual practices; themes that do not negate the astronomical reading, but rather, enriches its scope, making sky-lore an integral part of contemporary world-view. We may briefly review the composition in this perspective.In the first place, we notice how the three red ibexes associate with the reddish stallion, while the four black ibexes are aligned with the black mare. The sexual distinction implied agrees with the numerical symbolism of three–uneven and male–and four–even and female ( Fig. 15). This is meaningful, as the number three addresses the world of male energies, including the sky, the sun, and fire (heat is implied by the color red), while the number four pertains to what is female and belongs to the earth and to darkness (cf. Chapter X). This numerical scheme is a variant on that of he Rotunda (Fig. 2), where the “winter” and “summer” bulls confront each other in groups of two bulls versus three bulls–two being even and exponential of winter, three being odd and related to summer. By the same principle, the red ibexes’ heads relate to Capricornus exposed in the sky, while the black ones denote, partly, the constellation’s descent into the earth/netherworld, and partially–by virtue of the red horns–their return into the sky (cf. Fig. 3A, b).The exclusive presentation of only heads of ibexes in the frieze is characteristic of all the ibexes found in the area of the cave around the confluence of the Nave, the Apse, and the Passage. In this section we count about fifteen images of ibexes that (almost) all consist only of heads without bodies. This artistic choice is hardly rooted in astronomical observation; rather, we may see the protomes as pertaining to a spring sacrifice of ibexes that involved decapitation; this rite was first recognized by Alexander Marshack (1972/1991, 173-79, 217). The aim of the ritual sacrifice was apparently to expedite the progress of spring (cf. Chapter VII); but the celestial identity of the ibex made an allusion to the astronomical cycle inevitable. Thus, the ritual act was imbued with cosmic implications due to the symbolical identity of animal and constellation: the spring sacrifice of an earthly goat was inherently connected with the spring-time death (heliacal setting) of the celestial goat. Consistent with these speculations, we find that the images of decapitated–sacrificed–ibexes are intimately associated with images of horses, plainly to show that the ritual offering served to advance the progress of the sun.We can, for sure, follow this mingling of sky-lore and ritual in repeated associations of horse and ibex (heads only) gathered around the northern end of the Nave. Following closely on the frieze of seven painted ibexes and continuing without delay from the Nave into the Passage, a number of vigorous horses are moving toward the north and summer (Glory’s nos. 181, 182, 188, 189; Aujoulat 2004, 143), they are indicative of the quickening of the sun in spring, and several of these horses are closely juxtaposed with ibex protomes (Fig. 16a, b). These configurations testify to the efficacy of the ibex sacrifice, while they, simultaneously, point to the celestial model, that is, the spring sun in Capricornus. This is reminiscent of the panel of the yellow ibex in the Axial Gallery, and like there, the horse-and-ibex images of the Passage (Fig. 16) are located close to the above-mentioned head of an aurochs bull, located on the way toward the Rotunda and the display of Taurus in spring.

Capricornus and Leo in the Chamber of Felines: the decline of the year

The remaining ibexes in Lascaux are closely associated with images of lions and pertain to a pronounced dichotomy that dictates the relationship between Capricornus and Leo, which are placed on opposite points of the ecliptic circle. This opposition helps us identify the role of the lion as Leo, as do the relationships of the cave’s lions to aurochs bulls and to horses, as well as the place of the lions in the topographical scheme of the cave.The main images of lions at Lascaux are gathered in the Chamber of Felines, which is located in the far southern part of the cave and is accessed through a “cat-hole” and a narrow tunnel (cf. Fig. 4). As a passage to the southernmost section of the cave, the Chamber of Felines relates to the fall, the threshold of winter (cf. Fig. 5a). In the era of Lascaux, Leo was the station of the sun at this time of the year (cf. Fig. 3B, h and i), and the sun in Leo is, indeed, shown with utmost clarity by the figure of a horse placed between two overpowering lions (Fig. 17), a scene that strikingly illustrates the ominous turn of the year, when the horse/sun was trapped in the constellation of the lion and became subject to its lethal power. The rendering of this horse, shown en face, is unique among the cave’s hundreds of horses; in fact, it is the only one not shown in profile, the single non-directional figure. Aimed neither right nor left, this particular horse is immobilized, its frontal pose a demonstration of paralysis. The arrested motion makes this figure a defining image of fall, when the sun has lost its strength and the progress of the year is brought to a halt. As a visual metaphor, the lion was the deadly force behind this negative turn, and its celestial manifestation was Leo, the beast of prey in the zodiac. The illustration of the sun in Leo in the Chamber of Felines is a strong argument for the lion as the image of the constellation Leo.By its secluded location, its restricted space, and its crude images, the Chamber of Felines is, in every respect, diametrically opposite to the spacious, vaulted Rotunda with its brilliant white bulls. The Chamber is roughly shaped, too small to hold more than one person, and too low for even standing upright. Correspondingly, the figures here are small and simply engraved; some are incomplete or, in the case of the lions, decidedly monstrous (like the two specimens shown in Fig. 17). The accumulation of six grotesque lions at this location made a fitting commentary on the end of the summer-half of the year–the beginning of which was, indeed, the very subject of the Rotunda. Correspondingly, we find no presence of aurochs bulls in he southern part of the cave, as is meaningful, given that Taurus was absent from the sky while Leo held sway (cf. Fig. 3B, f ).As for Leo and Capricornus, which are always on different sides of the sky, we can not fail to notice that the description of Leo as the station of the horse/sun in the Chamber of Felines is as deeply negative, as the description of the horse/sun in Capricornus (the yellow ibex) in the Axial Gallery is warmly positive. The roles of the two constellations are stark contrasts. and this plays out in the scene of the Chamber of Felines, as the immobilized horse among the lions eloquently describes the perils of the sun under the spell of Leo, whereas the adjacent figures presents a counter-force to the lions in the form of a group of ibexes (Fig. 17, to the left). The scene in its entirety is a fine match for events in the night sky around the fall equinox, when Leo and Capricornus were both present in the sky, with Leo about to enter into conjunction with the sun, and with Capricornus, newly reinstated in the evening sky (Fig. 3B, h). This symbolically charged configuration was possible because the exact antipode to Leo actually is, not Capricornus, but Aquarius (cf. Fig. 12a), to the effect that an observer could simultaneously (or in short sequence) watch Leo close to setting in the west, and Capricornus just emerging above the horizon in the east.Precisely the return of Capricornus to the evening sky in the fall may be illustrated by the black sign that brackets the ibexes (Fig. 17). A broad arc of black paint was placed on the wall before the ibexes were engraved, so that the tips of their horns literally cut through the black paint. The effect is reminiscent of the mentioned black ibexes with red horns in the Nave, and we may assume that the meaning is similar: the black arc represents the earth/netherworld (cf. Chapter III), which is pierced by the horns, as the male energy of the celestial goat breaks free of the retaining realm (cf. the position of Capricornus at the horizon, Fig. 3B, h). The three strokes on the side (Fig. 17) indicate the numerical three, again pointing to the active, sky-related, male principle. In the Chamber of Felines, the polar forces of Leo and Capricornus pull the year in opposite directions: the former threatening to imprison the sun in the depths of the earth; the latter struggling to break the bondage.

Leo, Capricornus, and Taurus in The Apse

The Apse is the one section of Lascaux that has representations of all three zodiacal motifs. A circular room, complete with a sky-like cupola and a crypt-like Shaft at the far end, the Apse embraces a wide portion of the year, and its decoration is–like that of the Axial Gallery–composed in accordance with a binary scheme, so that the southern wall reviews the fall-half of the year from late summer to winter, and the northern wall traces the spring-half from the end of winter to summer. In this scheme, winter falls in the back, the location of the Shaft, which is appropriately the most forbidding section of the cave (cf. Fig. 4). We shall trace the zodiacal motifs, moving from fall to winter on the southern wall (going east to west), followed by the move from spring to summer on the northern wall (going west to east).Half a dozen small images of lions are found in the Apse. They are all rather demonic figures and have been called imaginary creatures (Denis Vialou in Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, pp. 237, 238, 249, 278), but they are for sure lions, no less feline than the grotesque lions in the Chamber of Felines, and for comparison, very similar to the undisputed lions in the cave of Roucadour (Coussy 2005). The first, and largest, of the monstrous lions in the Apse (Glory’s no. 520; Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979) is engraved on the southern (fall) side of the Apse, where it closely precedes a description of the demise of the solar year in the form of a row of wounded horses , all panted black, all arranged in a step-wise descending line with the lowest one at floor level (Glory, nos. 422, 423, 429, 435). Clearly, this shows the decline of the sun and the year, and the configuration with the grim lion matches the fall season, with Leo as the ominous station of the sun. The situation is an obvious parallel to the paralyzed-horse-among-lions scene in the Chamber of Felines.Likewise reminiscent of the Chamber of Felines, the Apse shows the ibex/Capricornus assuming the role as the opponent of Leo in the fall (cf. Fig. 3B, h). An ibex (the first one in the Apse) is engraved above the just-mentioned black horses, and the particular design of this ibex’ horns (Fig. 18), which is unique in Lascaux, subtly signals a turn of events: the splayed perspective of the horns, one curved left, the other right, provides a heraldic symmetry (reiterated in reddish ocher, just below the engraved figure; Fig. 18, bottom) that graphically illustrates the balance between summer and winter around the time of the equinox. The fall equinox was the time when Capricornus returned to the night sky to thwart Leo’s seizure of the sun. These figures are placed near the middle of the southern wall, as is compatible with the time of the fall equinox Incidentally, the time around the fall equinox is also indicated by an engraving that is juxtaposed with the just-mentioned ibex and which shows two stags locking horns (Glory’s nos. 396 and 486). These two are the only ones among more than seventy stags in Lascaux to be shown engaged in the characteristic battles of male deer in the fall.; almost certainly, the artists placed them here as a seasonal indicator. To finish the display on the southern wall, we find, at the very end , directly above the Shaft, a group of ibexes (Fig. 19) that we, consequently, may relate to Capricornus as the main winter constellation (cf. Fig. 3B, i).Moving on to he northern wall of the Apse, though still at its innermost point, an ibex is shown jumping upwards as if ascending right out of the Shaft (Fig. 10a). With this image the artists moved forward, beyond winter (the Shaft), to late spring and to the heliacal rising of Capricornus. Again following the see-saw pattern that binds the two constellations together, an adjacent panel includes the figure of a lion in a descending pose (Fig. 10b). In compressed form, these figures project the setting of Leo at dawn, simultaneous with the rising of Capricornus (cf. Fig. 3A, b). Advancing along the northern wall we find, first, three handsome aurochs bulls (Fig. 11a and b), and then, a group of half-a-dozen ugly lions (Fig. 11c). This sequence of figures on approaching the middle of the northern wall, indicates the situation in early/mid summer, when Leo was advancing in the night sky, but Taurus still maintained its presence,. For a time, this created an apparent balance between the two antagonists around the center (meridian) of the evening sky ( Fig. 3A, d). Like the bulls, the lions are small compared with the (scores of) major figures of the Apse; the astronomical motifs are but a footnote (in the bottom range of the wall) that comments on the progression and renewal of the year that is displayed in the upper register’s hymn to renewal and growth projected by the main figures (stags, horses, aurochs cows, plants, bison).Mid-summer, with Leo at its peak, spelled the end of the spring-half of the year and the beginning of the fall-half, and the oddly contorted posture of one of the lions (Fig. 11c, in the center) illustrates this turn by a stunning graphic devise: the lion is twisted so strenuously that its body adopts the shape of an “S.” The figure is reminiscent of other, rather infrequent, images of animals turning their heads to look back, typically with reference to the solstices (like the horse at Pair-non-Pair, for example; cf. Chapter V). With the S-shaped lion, however, the artists of Lascaux anticipated the S-shaped animals (lions, goats, and others) in the much later, proto-historic, “animal style,” art; figures that graphically illustrate significant turning points of the zodiac (Christensen 2003-2004). This completes the list of zodiacal motifs in the Apse. Other images of aurochs and ibexes found here are either females or young ones (recognizable by their slender forms or short horns), not the powerful males of the zodiacal images. In spite of the amazing crowding of perhaps a thousand figures and signs in this small room, the zodiacal scheme remains recognizable as a kind of sub-text to the larger, dominant images. (For a zodiacal theme at the bottom of the Shaft, see Part Three, below).

The proto-zodiac in the artistic program of Lascaux

Within the artistic program of Lascaux, the three constellations considered above were signposts that marked the chapters in the story of the year. These zodiacal images may be considered the “skeleton” of the narrative, while the hundreds of horses that describe the course of the solar year, its advances and set-backs, so to speak, constitute the “flesh” of the decoration. The proto-zodiac served the overall unity of the decoration, as it contributed a sense of continuity to the narrative that unfolded across the three branches of the cave system (aligned with the Axial Gallery, the Nave, and the Apse), each pursuing a distinct sequence of seasonal events. As representatives of an august, seemingly eternal, celestial order, these stations of the zodiac made a coherent narrative both feasible and compelling.Astronomy was integral to the art of Lascaux, but the artists followed their own agenda and used their proto-zodiac in the service of an artistic program focused on the visual celebration of Taurus in spring, and on the up-beat phases of the cycle of the year. In theory, the artists could have chosen to emphasize summer and to give the lion a conspicuous role that would match the prominence of Leo in summer. However, they chose otherwise, not only featuring the brilliant aurochs bulls in the great hall, but also restricting the lions to remote and recessed sections–casting them as small and monstrous figures, at that. The story of the year as told at Lascaux is projected by means of astronomical observations, but the sunny version of that story and the bright ambience of the decoration result from artistic choices.

A parallel to Lascaux: astronomy at Gabillou

The decorations of Gabillou and Lascaux appear to be related. The two caves feature similar imagery, including the three motifs of the proto-zodiac; also, the solar horse is the prevalent motif in both caves. We may, therefore, expect Gabillou to display seasonal observations of the skies that are comparable to those at Lascaux. A bone object from Gabillou gives a C14-date of 17,180 +/- 170 BP, or 20,597 +/- 375 BP calibrated, which is about a thousand years younger than the above-mentioned bone from Lascaux. Two singular carbon-dates make for a tenuous comparison, and we may see this as an upper range, given the many, close motivic/stylistic similarities of the two sites. This compatibility has been noticed repeatedly (Gaussen 1964; Clottes 2003, Pétrognani and Sauvet 2012), and we may point out a few, specific instances of shared images hat suggest similar cosmological/seasonal symbolism. Subdivided rectangular signs are frequent in both caves, and a quite similar detail of their use is the piercing of the upper, central field both in Gabillou (Fig. 20a) and in Lascaux (Fig. 20b). Both sites have drawings of spears or arrows that double as phallic images (Fig. 20 f and g), and these ideograms–called “pseudo-arrows” (Gaussen 1964)–are employed in similar fashions; thus, the up-turned “pseudo-arrow” on a male horse in Gabillou (Fig. 20 f) recalls the upwards-directed arrows on a male horse at Lascaux (Fig. 20 e) It is hard to miss the similarity of a suite of juxtaposed images in Gabillou that includes an agitated stallion pursuing a mare, solar arrows, and a vegetation symbol on the body of a horse (Fig. 20 c, d, f) and a scene in Lascaux that likewise unites horses, the sun, sexuality, and vegetation (Fig. 20 e). Even the fantastic creatures of the two caves are similar, as evidenced by the long straight horns of some imaginary creatures in Gabillou that recall the stick-like horns of a (masked) character in Lascaux (Fig. 20 h and i).

The skies of Gabillou

The features shared by the two caves indicate that the time-gap between the decorations may have been less than indicated by the sparse chronology, but even if two decorations were separated by as much as a thousand years, the artists would, still, have lived under essentially the same skies, and our charts of the night-skies for Lascaux (optimal for roughly 22,000 – 23,000 BP) would remain relevant for Gabillou–even if the celestial markers of seasonal events may have arrived weeks later than in the age of Lascaux. Like Lascaux, Gabillou is primarily dedicated to the motif of the horse, so that the solar implications of scores of horses, present throughout the cave, allow us to test the zodiacal motifs–aurochs bull, ibex, and lion–against the progression of the solar year.Gabillou consists of only one, fairly straight gallery, and its direction, from entrance to end point, is north-west to south-east (Fig. 21), which matches the general direction of Lascaux’s log stretch (cf. Fig. 4). In Gabillou, again, this orientation accommodates the opposite solar positions of summer solstice and winter solstice, so that a visitor, returning from the end of the cave, partakes of a seasonal progression from winter to summer. The following discussion tracks successive scenes of this steady development from the back to the front (panels ” A” through “K,” marked off in the left-hand column of the map, Fig. 21), comparing them with the changing night-skies (indicated in the right-hand column ).

Panel “A.” The only lion in the inner cave ( Fig.22 a) is engraved on a protruding rock overhanging the descent into the low and narrow chamber at the very end of the cave, and the lion guarding the descent fits the alignment of the innermost space with the south-east, the lowest reach of the winter sun, held hostage in the station of Leo (cf. Fig. 3B i). Once past the guardian lion, we enter spring, and the first panel (“A”) is, correspondingly, dominated by a large aurochs bull (its sex revealed by its massive shoulders, Fig. 22 b). Among the largest figures in the cave, it conveys the prominence of Taurus in early spring, particularly on approaching the equinox, when the celestial bull commanded the night-sky (cf. the chart in Fig. 21). Two sets of figures, two ibexes and two horses, are subordinate to the large body of this figure, just as events in the spring skies happen under the auspices of Taurus. The two horses” (Fig. 22 b) are antithetical: they face in opposite directions,; one with its head lifted, the other one with its head lowered. Significantly. the horse that is directed outwards and upwards is reinforced with red ocher that covers its neck and head, denoting the warming of the sun in spring (the head of the horse represents the spring). The two horses reflect the transition of the year from the winter half to the summer half.Of the two ibexes, the innermost one was first engraved (like all of the cave’s figures) and then enhanced with black paint that covers its head (Fig. 22 b). This seems an apt representation of the extinction and disappearance of Capricornus around the time of the spring equinox when the constellation was over-powered by the sun (cf. Fig. 21). Furthermore, this ibex assumes a striking pose (rare in cave art) as it turns its head to look back, a gesture that recalls the Orpheus mythologem: death is the toll of looking back–the more so as that gesture makes the animal look back toward the descent and, thus, winter. To its right, another ibex strikes a quite different stance, as it moves forward and outward. Jointly, the two figures make a show of the shifting seasons around the spring equinox; the winter-half of the year lies behind, the summer-half ahead.The rectangular sign next to the first ibex (Fig. 22 b) commands attention because it–again, in a highly unusual gesture–is painted yellow. The color contrast of black (the ibex’ head) and yellow (the rectangle) is surely reminiscent of the black and yellow ibexes confronting each other in Lascaux, the more so, as both sets of figures are located in the south-eastern end of a gallery. Indeed, both scenes illustrate the transition between two halves of the year with special reference to the disappearance and reappearance of Capricornus. The shining yellow rectangle that is closely tied to the ibex (Fig. 22 b) may (though this remains hypothetical) allude to the constellation of the Pegasus Square that, while not on the ecliptic, rises in synchronization with Capricornus. In another perspective, the square may represent an altar and possibly relate to the above-mentioned sacrifice of an ibex in spring. These speculations aside, the sign is essentially an image of the four-cornered earth, and the yellow color signals the return of warmth and light in spring .

Panel “B.” Further evidence of spring awakening is found in a scene (Fig. 24 a, b) in which a vertical “pseudo-arrow” is the center, and its multiple meanings are on display: a phallic symbol that captures the sexual energies of spring; the male energies of he numerical three; a solar ray, pointing upwards. In the latter sense, it agrees with the vitality of the rearing horse (the two motifs, subsequently, combine into one, in panel “E”) signaling the recovery of horse/sun/year. Juxtaposed with the ibex (Fig. 24 b), it implies the position of the sun in Capricornus while hinting at the return of the constellation as it appears ahead of the rising sun (cf. Fig. 21).

Panel “C.” Still in the spring sector, this large panel contains the protome of an ibex (Fig. 23 a), which again recalls the ritual animation of the spring sun by the sacrifice of an ibex, a theme that, as discussed for Lascaux, pertained to the disappearance of Capricornus (heliacal setting around the equinox) and its subsequent reappearance (heliacal rising in early April). Concurrent with the awakening of the sun, nature’s life starts stirring, which accounts for the most striking feature of this panel, namely the proliferation of reindeer in association with the horse (Fig. 23 a, b, c). This is one motif that is not found in Lascaux, but its significance is clear: the reindeer evoke the north-bound migration of the species, a momentous event in the life of the hunters, and one of the earliest, reliable signs of spring. The emphatic movement of these figures establish a symbiotic relationship between the moving herds of reindeer and the movement of the sun, both north-bound in spring.

Panel “D.” Concluding the description of the spring season, this panel shows the head of a bear. As it exits a narrowing of the corridor, it suggests the emergence of bears from hibernation as another sure harbinger of spring. Across from this figure we also find an aurochs bull, which reminds us that Taurus remained emblematic of spring.

Panel “E.” Advancing into early summer, we find a panel of horses in diffuse order (some pointed outward, some inward, some upwards, some downwards), in which, however, the conclusive statement is carried by a robust male horse, shown rising upwards; it carries a “pseudo-arrow” that also points up (Fig. 20 f). Juxtaposed with this demonstration of male/solar powers finally asserting the coming of summer, we find two horses shown in a moment of pre-mating agitation, an aroused stallion driving a mare in heat (Fig 20 c). This points toward early summer, likely the beginning of May.

Panel “F.” A particularly tight spot (a “cat hole”) divides the cave into two, fairly even-sized, halves, the inner one dedicated to the end of winter, the outer one to the coming of summer (cf. Fig. 21). At this point we find a strong presentation of the horse/ibex theme mentioned in the context of Lascaux: heads of ibexes (alluding to a ritual decapitation) seemingly imparting energy to the horse on which they are superimposed ( Fig. 25). The heads may, here too, allude to a ritual sacrifice, which ritually re-enact the disappearance (heliacal setting) and subsequent return of Capricornus, fully returned to the sky at dawn in early summer. the largest of the ibexes here displays the powerful horns of an adult male, the dots on its horns indicating the knobs that count the years of growth; Fig. 25). Again, the antithetic composition embraces a seasonal dualism, as the old ibex (with large horns and beard) occupies the hindquarters of the horse, or, the winter part of the year, wile the young ibex (withs small horns) relates to the head of the horse, or, the spring part of the year. The symbolism is rooted in the zodiac, for Capricornus is at its peak in winter, but in spring/summer, its cycle starts all over again.

Panel “G.” That we have entered the summer-half of Gabillou is immediately clear from the decoration in the Chamber of Red Horses, named from some large figures of horses that are painted red. These include the largest horse in the cave (Fig. 20 d). The size and the warm color of this image speaks of the establishment of summer, as does a vegetation sign that is engraved on its body.

Panel “H.” Facing the just-mentioned panel in the Chamber of Red Horses, we find an aurochs bull that reflects the decline of Taurus in summer: its chest is marked with a demonstratively large wound from which blood flows profusely (Fig. 21). The episode refers to the beginning down-turn of Taurus, but the sun (horse) and the bull are still separate, as seen in the neighboring scene, not to be united till mid-summer.

Panel “I.” On the way out of the Chamber of Red Horses, we find a composition that again combines aurochs bull and horse, but now including the head of a lion that is the same size as the head of the bull (Fig. 26). This stacked composition of precariously-balanced figures–the proud bull and the snarling lion–reflected the sky around the middle of May, when Leo was gaining on Taurus, but an equilibrium was retained, as yet (cf. Fig. 21) The head of a young ibex in this panel (Fig. 26) may record the renewed presence of Capricornus with the advance of summer,

Panel “J.” The demise of Taurus around mid-summer is recorded in the last preserved section of the cave, where a large lion occupies the vaulted ceiling, while the head of an aurochs bull is seen on the wall just below. This bull is struck by a “pseudo-arrow”and is superimposed on the body of a (partly preserved) horse (Fig. 27). This scene is, thus, a true description of the spectacle in evenings around the solstice, when Taurus was absorbed by the sun (the horse) while Leo ruled the sky (Fig. 21).

Panel “K.” The destruction of the front of the cave prevents a definitive assessment of the end-phase of the seasonal narrative. Among the images preserved near the entrance is, however, the figure of a horse shown vigorously running toward the outside, that is, the north-west and summer solstice (Fig. 21).

Star-lore at Lascaux and Gabillou

As the artists of Gabillou arranged and combined images of the three zodiacal animals, they maintained a close agreement with the progression of the seasons (measured primarily by figures of horses, secondarily by reindeer), all of which unfolded according to the morphology and the cosmic orientation of the cave. Their consistency reveals a deliberate, programmatic approach, and it is not surprising to find that they intentionally pointed to the stellar implications of the decoration by engraving a six-pointed star in the middle of the vault in the front part of the cave, just preceding the first of the cave’s lions (Fig. 21, panel “J”). The similarities between the visual formulations at Lascaux and Gabillou are indisputable. Even as the two caves differ in specifics, the differences between the two decorative programs merely suggest that the proto-zodiac was perceived as a series of themes that were open to artistic interpretations, rather than as a codified template. Gabillou does not provide a grandiose image of Taurus in spring, like we find in Lascaux, but neither does Gabillou have a location like the Rotunda of Lascaux to accommodate a monumental display. External circumstances–probably a somewhat more severe climate–may also account for the large role of reindeer in Gabillou, as opposed to the proliferation of the less hardy red deer in Lascaux. This would feasibly explain Gabillou’s rather conflicted description of the coming of spring, as it differs from Lascaux’s reassuring view of the yearly cycle. Certainly, the presence of large lions in the summer-section of Gabillou (Fig. 21, panels “I” and “J”) reflects a different attitude from that of Lascaux, where the lions are hidden away in remote spaces that border on winter sections. A darker outlook may also explain the devious and monstrous beings (including the ones in Fig. 20 h) that occupy a panel in the very same section that features the reassuring scene of pre-mating horses. In any case, such differences did not detract from the fond of images with which the artists at both sites articulated the seasonal variations, drawing on the zodiacal motifs, on figures of horses, and on the cosmic orientation of each cave space. We can conclude that, more than twenty thousand years ago, observations of the sky were not just integral elements of myths, rituals, and world-view, but also structural elements in the decoration of cave sanctuaries.


Among the oldest dated caves, Chauvet is the one with the richest decoration and, therefore, the one that offers the best opportunity for testing very early evidence of the proto-zodiac. Radio carbon dates of paint samples from black figures in Hillaire Hall agree with dates for charcoal collected next to the natural altar (with a bear’s skull) to suggest a calibrated age of about 37,000 years (32,900 +/- 490 BP as the oldest C14 date). Hundreds of dates from the cave allow for a distinction between two phases of use, of which the oldest (37,000 – 33,500 BP, calibrated) corresponds with key figures discussed in the present study (Quiles et al. 2016). Although the process of decorating the sanctuary may have continued for thousands of years–with new images added and older ones revised–the cave’s seasonal program was most likely formulated at an early stage, and we may assume that a substantial number of images retain that original vision. In any case, our chart of the night skies around 37,000 BP (Fig. 28) are valid for an extended period between approximately 38,000 BP and 36,000 BP. Our preceding analyses of Chauvet (Chapters V, X) present the solar horse as the guiding motif that traces a seasonal progression from the depths of the cave to the front, from winter to summer; the discussion shall not be repeated here. In the present chapter, the focus is on the three zodiacal agents, Taurus, Capricornus, and Leo and their performance through the year. Around 37,000 BP (more precisely, between ca. 38,600 and 36,500 BP) the spring sun was in Leo, following Leo’s culmination around midwinter (Fig. 28a). Because of the location of the celestial north pole in that age, Leo would stand quite high in the night sky around the winter solstice, and in agreement with this situation, the innermost and deepest section of the cave, the remote Sacristy (Fig. 29, at a), contains two large figures of lions that completely dominate the few horses here. Furthermore, two of these horses–closely juxtaposed with one lion–are turned in opposite directions of each other as a visual illustration of the solar year turning around the moment of winter solstice. (Fig. 30). In the age of Chauvet, Taurus played a very reduced role, or was completely eliminated, in winter (Fig. 28a); correspondingly, we find the aurochs bull to be absent from the lower cave. True to its role as a summer sign, Capricornus is also absent here, except for a single ibex located in the Descending Gallery (Fig. 29, at h). This isolated figure, painted black and turned toward the interior (Clottes 2001, 127), may signal the brief presence of the constellation in the early morning skies of winter. In the much later age of Lascaux and Gabillou, the heliacal rising of Capricornus became a crucial harbinger of spring; but in the era of Chauvet, the sighting of the revived Capricornus did not carry comparable significance as it occurred when spring seemed far away. The supreme reign of Leo in the winter skies of Chauvet was spelled out in the panoramic frieze of the Inner Hall, the belly of the cave. Here about fifty lions surround the niche with the single–black and wounded–horse (Fig. 29, at d). To the right (Fig. 29, at c) is a large pride of hunting lions, aggressively rushing toward the niche; to the left (Fig. 29, at e) are four huge lions–the largest images in the inner cave. The wounded horse among the lions is a grim image of winter, but the dualistc approach to the circles of the year and the zodiac requires, logically, some sign of change precisely at the lowest point of the cycle, and this is, in fact, provided by the single, fragile figure of a reindeer that, though seemingly held in a strangle hold by four huge lions (Fig. 31), yet allows for a look toward the early spring migration of reindeer (the multiplication of the legs already suggest movement). Additionally, some touches of red paint–notably a halo of red dots above the reindeer (Fig. 31 )–predict a release from winter. Pursuing these associations, the artists painted the likeness of red outlines,”sandwiched” between black contours (Chauvet et al. 1996, 104) in the frieze’s last group of lions (Fig. 29, at f), which is composed of two large figures (Clottes 2001, 130-31) that, contrary to the many preceding lions, are directed inward, ending the surge of deadly beasts rushing out of the depths, a release of pressure that we may related to the downturn of Leo toward the end of winter (and its demise in spring, Fig. 28c). The portrayal of these two lions–a female rubbing her body against her larger, explicitly male, partner in a pre-mating gesture–agrees with the timing toward the end of winter (Clottes 2001, 132). Moving upwards through the Descending Gallery, the horses increase in size and number as is appropriate for images of the invigorated sun and the ascending year. To the contrary, corresponding to the decreasing presence of Leo with the approach of spring, only one lion remains in the gallery (an engraved figure; Clottes 2001, 123). In a manifestation of change, the escalating horses are accompanied by several representations of the large, hardy megaceros deer (Chauvet 1996, 94-5; Clottes 2001, 189), and on arriving in the upper cave, in Hillaire Hall, the first panel (Fig. 29, at j) features other species of deer that illustrate the stirring of life at the end of winter: reindeer preparing for their migration north, and red deer returning from their southern retreats (Fig. 32). Like the later artists of Gabillou (Fig. 23 a, b, c), the artists of Chauvet used the seasonal movements of deer to project the notion of change and revival. Significantly, the zodiacal imagery is an integral element of the panel of the deer, because it also contains the image of an aurochs bull (Fig. 32, on the left). This is the first representation of the species we come upon, and in spite of its modest appearance, its celestial model was Taurus in early spring, as it returned to the morning skies following its heliacal rising (Fig. 28 b and d). Chauvet (37,000 BP) is separated from Lascaux (23,000 BP) by approximately half of the 26,000-year long precessional cycle, to the effect that Taurus in the era of Chauvet was a fall sign–directly the opposite of Taurus as a spring sign in the era of Lascaux. The return of the aurochs bull/Taurus in spring as shown in the Chauvet scene is much less triumphant than the later display in the Rotunda of Lascaux; necessarily so, because the constellation’s brief appearance before dawn in the age of Chauvet was ephemeral, contrary to its domineering presence in the spring evening skies of Lascaux. The artists of Chauvet, therefore, were not in a position to cast Taurus as the overpowering, victorious image of spring, as was done by their distant successors at Lascaux; instead, the earlier artists managed to cast Taurus as a force for spring by focusing on the heliacal rising of the constellation–its “resurrection”–coincident with the very end of winter (Fig. 28 b).Advancing into the Hillaire Hall, the artists repeatedly return to this momentous event. Thus, one engraving in the Hall shows the bull/Taurus emerging from a niche in imitation of the heliacal rising (Fig. 33. ). Another engraving reminds us that the constellation stood close to the sun/horse at that same time of the year (Fig. 34). The complex panel of the first aurochs bull demonstrates graphically the conflicted transition from winter to spring, as it is organized by movements in opposite directions around a center, which is marked by two red deer crossing each other (Fig. 32, center). This episode illustrates a moment of changing seasons: the right-hand part of the composition shows three figures aiming back toward the Descending Gallery and winter, while the left-hand part shows six figures moving forth toward summer. The latter group includes the head of a large horse–the first sizable horse, to this point–which tells of the year advancing and of the sun gaining strength (the head of the horse signifies spring). In the same spirit, the aurochs, as the less hardy of the two oxen, sides with spring (left), while the more cold-tolerant bison sides with winter (right). While not flamboyant like its counterpart at Lascaux, the aurochs in question is, nevertheless, flanked by stags with branching antlers (Fig. 32, left) much like the advancement of the bull/Taurus in Lascaux is guided by flame-shaped antlers of deer (Fig. 8). At Chauvet, the tender red deer side with the aurochs and head for summer (Fig. 32, left), while the large, cold-loving reindeer sides with the hardy bison and aims back toward the Descending Gallery (Fig. 32, right). Still observing the sky at the end of the night, progress toward the culmination of Taurus in the morning sky of late spring is the subject of the main panel of Hillaire Hall (Fig. 29, at l). Here the heads of several bulls are juxtaposed with the forequarters of an entire troupe of advancing horses (Fig. 35b), the bulls are moving ahead of the horses, the way Taurus was actually seen emerging before the arrival of the sun. Correspondingly, events at sun-rise are indicated by the fact that only the forequarters of the horses are shown. With their massive necks, these aurochs bulls appear strong in spite of the fact that only heads (and vaguely outlined forequarters) are shown; we may, therefore, connect the figures with the time between the first emergence of Taurus and its culmination in the pre-dawn sky, that is, preceding the vernal equinox (Fig. 28 d). In any case, the panel proclaims the return and the beginning recovery of the constellation as crucial to the approach of spring. This is, for sure, a very different kind of spectacle than the overwhelming display in the Lascaux Rotunda, and yet, the Chauvet version manages to give an impressive illustration of Taurus and the coming of spring. This is achieved, not the least, by including the parallel development, as the solar horse gains momentum–the two species vie for the principal role in the panel. Capricornus, as well, comes to the fore in Hillaire Hall, notably in the group of engraved ibexes that precedes the aurochs bulls (Fig. 35a). Again, this configuration would recall the spectacle in the pre-dawn skies where Capricornus was the herald of Taurus, persistently so from the end of winter to the spring equinox (Fig. 28 b). Moreover, the composition cleverly anticipated the moment in late spring when Capricornus—its mission as guide of Taurus fulfilled–re-entered the evening skies (the cosmic rising, Fig. 28 c). This development was implicit in the artists’ decision to place the two groups–of aurochs and of ibexes–on either side of a sharply projecting edge of rock wall, so that the ibexes are actually drawn right in front of the bulls’ heads, even though the visitor can not see both at the same time (Chauvet et al. 1996, 57 and 62; Clottes 2001, 101 and 114). This disposition would accommodate a dramatic development: from Capricornus heralding the appearance of Taurus (Fig. 28 b ), to Capricornus emerging in the east simultaneously with Leo’s heliacal setting, as illustrated by the lion engraved under the group of rising ibexes (Fig. 35a ) , which renders quite well the situation shortly before the spring equinox (Fig. 28 c ). Thus, the scene embraces two distinct signs of the end of winter. Yet another ibex, engraved in the same area of the cave (Fig. 36), likewise stresses the concept of Capricornus rising. We also notice that one of the ibexes in the main panel (Fig. 35a) is wounded in the chest, and considering the relatively low number of wounded figures in Chauvet, this may well refer to the above-mentioned spring sacrifice of an ibex. The painted lions of Hillaire Hall are all crowded together in the large, walk-in-size niche of the main wall (Fig. 29, at k). In the age of Chauvet, this confinement was congruent with the reduced state of Leo in spring, a reading that agrees with the appearance of these images. One lion (Fig. 37, to the right) is placed vertically, head down, in imitation of the descent of Leo toward its heliacal setting at the vernal equinox (Fig. 28 c). Another lion (Fig. 37, to the left) has an all-black head, suggesting the apparent extinction during the conjunction with the sun. Jointly, the four lions of the niche perform a rotating motion that well captures the descent, disappearance, and eventual re-emergence of Leo as it took place from around the equinox into late spring. Red marks on the body of the central lion of the niche (Fig. 37) stand out against the all-black figures here, and a group of three red strokes, notably, suggest not only that the beast is wounded but also that the sun is inflicting the wounds, the numerical “three” implying the agency of the sun (cf. Chapter X). This reading is, of course, in agreement with the tight juxtapositions and super-impositions of lions and horses in the niche, all of which reflected the conjunction of Leo and the sun around the equinox. The artists added a concluding step by positioning an aurochs bull above the black-headed lion, on the left-hand edge of the niche (Fig. 37, to the left), a configuration that could be seen to match the superior position of Taurus at the heliacal rising of Leo (Fig. 28 d). Leaving Hillaire Hall, we move beyond spring and into early summer; that is, into the front half of the cave and into the domain of red images–notably, descriptions of bears and their revival from hibernation (cf. Chapters VII, X). Beyond the Threshold that separates the two cave-halves, the first panel (Fig. 29, at n) contains a black horse that is marked with a red hand print, apparently in a symbolic gesture to promote the warming of the sun, (Chauvet et al. 1996, 44) . In the following panel (Fig. 29, at o), multiple hand prints are connected with four figures of lions, and everything is painted red (Fig. 38). This is the last conspicuous presence of the lion motif (reading the cave from the inside toward the outside) and it is evidence of a drastic transformation from the grim, black lions that dominate the inner cave to these all-red ones that coexist with solar hand-prints and red dots. We may understand this shift as signifying a transition from winter to summer. The artists apparently saw the sun as emerging victorious from its vernal equinox encounter with Leo, and half a dozen red hand prints ritually affirmed that victory. Correspondingly, the warm red coloration of the beasts gives testimony to the mellowing effect imposed by the conquering sun. Keeping in mind the impact of the deadly black frieze of lions in the depths, far behind, the visitor perceived the promise implied by the red panel: from hence (until next winter) the lion’s fierce power is exorcised. The last figure of a lion, the only one to be found in the foremost part of the cave, is a black painted head in Brunel Hall (Fig. 29, at s), and next to it is a red line that apparently represents an arrow pointed at the lion (Fig. 39). Here, as in other instances discussed above, we can probably assume the equivalence of arrows and rays of the sun, and we may conclude that the panel shows Leo, the winter sign, sbdued by the sun during the summer. Several red figures of ibexes (Fig. 40 and Fig. 41) are unique to the front half of Chauvet, where they are evenly distributed (Fig. 29, at p, q, r). We may see them as representations of Capricornus in its most notable phase, from the beginning to the middle of summer (Fig. 28 e). The aurochs bull, to the contrary, is not represented beyond the Threshold, apparently as a consequence of the fact that Taurus did not return to the evening skies until mid-summer (Fig. 28 f), whereas the artistic program of Chauvet was dedicated to the development from winter through early summer.

Scorpius at Chauvet: the rhinoceros

The wealth of motifs in Chauvet may provide an opportunity to expand our repertory of just three zodiacal images. Specifically, we may speculate that the people of Chauvet recognized a fourth constellation that would provide the missing leg of a zodiacal quartet, one that might have offered the artists enhanced opportunities for portraying all four seasons. This objective points us in the direction of Scorpius, the zodiacal constellation that is located opposite to–that is, half a year from–Taurus, and which is distant by three months–that is, a full season–from Leo (cf. Fig. 42). Our familiar Scorpius is a late construction, in so far as Scorpius and Libra apparently formed a single constellation until the Romans composed the present scales (Libra) from the stars of the scorpion’s claws. The main stars of Libra still bear the names of the Northern Claw and the Southern Claw, and early star maps perpetually confused some stars of one constellation with some of the other (Allen 1963, 368). Of course, there are no scorpions in Ice Age art, so we must proceed without the advantage of an extant image to guide the search; instead we are forced to pursue the treacherous method of establishing a visual match between the actual constellation–the combined outlines of the historical Scorpius and Libra–and a fitting animal motif. Considering the extraordinary presence of the rhinoceros in Chauvet (about as frequent as the lion), the rhino is a feasible candidate for the original representation of the Scorpius/Libra constellation. Unfortunately, the rhinoceros disappeared from European arts and folklore with the end of the Ice Age, leaving us without continuous visual or narrative traditions that could help substantiate this hypothesis. Hence, our investigation must rely, in the first place, on formal similarity between the shape of the constellation and images of rhinos, and, in the second place, on circumstantial evidence derived from the artists’ use of the rhinoceros within the seasonal program of Chauvet. If we consider only those stars of Scorpius/Libra that are readily visible with normal eyesight (cf. Fig. 43), the main stars of our current Libra immediately stand out as a potential match for the large frontal horn of the rhinoceros. The similarity with a horn is not to be missed, and sometime in the past, Libra was indeed perceived as a “horn” (Cornu, a Latin name for sigma librae), although this assimilation had no bearing on traditions from the Ice Age. In any case, the artists of Chauvet gave full attention to the rhino’s frontal horn (Fig. 44, a through e), sometimes exaggerating it beyond any apparent need of artistic effect (for example, Fig. 44d), and in so doing they often achieved a fair match for the visual appearance of our Libra. The smaller horn of the rhino could be represented by several stars in Scorpius (cf. Fig. 44 a, b, e). A greater challenge for the artists would have been to make the constellation’s brightest star, Antares, into the rhino’s eye, which actually sits right behind the smaller horn; but somehow they apparently succeeded here, as well. The compatibility of Scorpius/Libra and images of rhinoceroses seems quite characteristic of Chauvet, and looking at some other caves of approximately the same age (Aurignacian), we find equally fitting figures. An example is the single rhino at Baume Latrone (Fig. 45a), which, significantly, carries the same, peculiarly rolled-up, ears as all the rhinos of Chauvet. Another example, an engraved rhinoceros in the Rumanian cave of Coliboaia (Fig. 45b) is similar to some of the Chauvet specimens (Fig. 44 b, d, e), notably in the shape of the frontal horn. This East European example is, in turn, quite close to a somewhat younger (Solutrean) image from Cussac (Fig. 45c). These figures may all be seen as imitating the stellar prototype. Our next step will, therefore, be to examine them in their topographical settings, relative to the three zodiacal motifs discussed above. While the artists of Chauvet mostly showed complete figures of rhinos, the two last-mentioned examples (Fig. 45 b and c) support our assumption, that the constellation, as seen in the sky, showed only the head and shoulder of the animal (as was the case with the projection of the celestial bull, Taurus). Even though Scorpius in the era of Chauvet culminated higher in the sky than in our present age, the lower portion of the constellation–the scorpion’s stinger, respectively, the body of the hypothesized rhino–would still be dragging along the horizon and often be out of sight. In any case, only the horns of the assumed rhino would reach the ecliptic, the pathway of the sun (cf. Fig. 43). We may speculate that the first appearance of the constellation in the evening sky after a period of absence was felt as a momentous event, the emerging horns casting an ominous spell. The physical setting of the Coliboaia image (Fig. 45b) may illustrate just this sight: the long horn, the short horn, and the eye rise above the horizon, which is represented by a fissure along the upper edge of a recessed area of wall-face. A chart of the skies showing the varied appearances of Scorpius/Libra in the age of Chauvet (Fig. 46) allows us to evaluate the performance of the hypothesized rhino constellation in relation to the seasonal patterns of, respectively, the aurochs bull/Taurus, the ibex/Capricornus, and the lion/Leo. While Leo was prominent in the evening skies throughout the winter (Fig. 46 a, b), Scorpius became noticeable only around mid-winter, but then remained strongly present until the beginning of summer (Fig. 46 c, e). Scorpius was, thus, destined to be perceived as an agent of perpetual winter, even a threat against the advent of summer. for it does not seem possible, even theoretically, to see the rhino as a pleasing sign. In this perspective, the emergence of Scorpius, the first appearance of its large horn (Libra) in the dead of winter (Fig. 46 a), would carry grave symbolic implications, and the sighting was prone to generate a strongly negative response. Evidence of precisely this experience abound in the back of the Inner Hall of Chauvet (Fig. 29, at b, c, and e). At the entrance to the Sacristy, one rhinoceros is shown in a strictly vertical position, its huge horn pointing straight up (Fig. 47a). This is a striking image, and it might have been synonymous with an ominous, verbal phrase (like “Scorpio rising” of later astrology, or more to the point, a “gate of horn”); in any case, the vertical rhino returns in absolutely identical form at the entrance to–or, exit from–the Descending Gallery (Fig. 47 e). Also in the very back, another rhino is painted in black, except for the horns that are red (Fig. 47b). As strokes of red paint also emanate from this animal’s nostrils and mouth, it is evident that the red color here signifies blood, and that this image captures a deadly apparition, a feared spectacle that might forebode a long winter, just as the spear in the animal’ side is an act of exorcism to dispel a bad omen (for the wider, conceptual implications, see Chapter IX). The sense of terror is more explicit, still, in the case of a rhinoceros located next to the niche of the wounded horse (Fig. 47c): this rhino’s body is painted mainly black and dark brown against the lighter rock wall, but an area of the wall-face around the forequarters is painted solid black, so that the engraved outline of head and shoulder stands out white against black, the eye eerily glowing in the dark (like Antares, the notorious red star that is the scorpion’s eye). Certainly, this laboriously achieved effect served to identify the figure as a shining constellation against the night sky, but again, the effect is threatening rather than comforting. Eventually, in the adjacent representation of an entire herd of rhinos, the artists expanded the theme to obtain an almost surreal vision of innumerable rhinos advancing like an armored phalanx, aggressively wielding their enormous horns (Fig. 47 d). At the top of the Descending Gallery, on entering Hillaire Hall (Fig. 29, at i), we find the mentioned replica of the vertical rhino from the opening of the Sacristy, far below, and it is hard to understand this exact repetition otherwise than as a reminder of the drearily extended ascendancy of Scorpius/Libra. This constellation was, indeed, quite long, and though it started its rise in the dead of winter, it did not pass its culmination until the time of the vernal equinox (Fig. 46, b to c). The just-mentioned images, as well as other rhinos painted on the walls of the Descending Gallery, all emphasize the animal’s obtrusive horn as a symbol of the tenacity of winter and its stubborn refuse to yield to summer. In Hillaire Hall, spring is finally set to prevail. Yet, we still find a number of black rhinoceroses here, the most conspicuous ones being two battling rhinos in the great panel of aurochs bulls and horses (Fig. 35 b, bottom right). These brutes, however, no longer dominate the ensemble, which, besides the aurochs and horses, also features a group of ibexes (Fig. 35 a) that pertain to the return of Capricornus in the evenings of late spring/early summer, when Scorpius was finally receding (Fig. 46, c e). Correspondingly, the massive aurochs bulls of the panel belong to spring/early summer, approaching Taurus’ culmination in the pre-dawn skies, an event that directly followed upon the setting of Scorpius/Libra (Fig. 46 c-d). This turn-around of the situation from early winter(Fig. 46a) constitutes a total reversal of the destinies of the two antipodes, Taurus and Scorpius, by early summer (Fig. 46 e). The moment is noticed in a curious detail of the great panel, as one aurochs’ horns demonstratively cross over the figure of a tiny rhino (Fig. 48). As we enter the front half of the cave (Fig. 29, at o) and advance into early summer, we find the remaining rhinos to be thoroughly transformed. Just like the lions here (Fig. 38), the rhinos are all painted red, and all seem to be under the spell of the prominent red hands at the center of the panel. At the bottom of the Panel of Red Hands, a large rhino is juxtaposed with a negative hand print (Fig. 49), forming a scene that visually conveyed the situation when the sun’s rays–the radiant fingers–obliterated Scorpius/Libra at the constellation’s heliacal setting, a turn of events that happened in early-to-mid summer (Fig. 46, e and f). At the top of this large panel–above the field of red hands–we find a file of rhinoceroses, including a nucleus of three figures that jointly constitute a peaceful family scene (Fig. 50): an adult male is leading, followed by a young one, carefully guided by an adult female’s frontal horn–a pleasant reversal of the blunt force of the rhino’s horns as displayed in the inner cave. To all appearances, the conjunction with the sun was believed to defeat or soften the aggressive drive of the rhinoceros/Scorpius., or maybe the sentiment was simply one of joy, that the sun and the year had survived and overcome the lengthy confrontation with the rhino-constellation. In the very front part of the cave, the rhino is absent, while the ibex becomes significant, and again, this reverses the situation in the lower cave, while recognizing Capricornus as the key sign of summer (Fig. 46 e).

Baume Latrone and the zodiacal quartet of Chauvet

The art of Baume Latrone is assembled in a single hall, and the images are, thus, fairly well dated by charcoal collected here. This suggests a calibrated age of approximately 37,000 years (C14 date of 32,740 +/- 530 BP; Azéma et al. 2012), which is to say that Baume Latrone was roughly contemporary with Chauvet. In fact, the two caves share numerous artistic conventions: the odd “butterfly” ears of the Chauvet rhinos are matched at Baume Latrone (Fig. 45 a), as are some peculiar designs of mammoths’ tusks (Fig. 55 a, and b; Fig. 56), and certain images of horses with bulbous muzzles (Fig. 51 b; Fig. 53 b). A rare lion with extended tongue in Chauvet (Fig. 51 a) is echoed by the central figure of the main panel of Baume Latrone (Fig. 52).

The same four motifs which the artists of Chauvet used to represent stations of the zodiac were also employed in Baume Latrone–albeit, on a smaller scale, with just one image for each motif. These images are gathered in the final chamber of the cave, which is the last section before the cave descends toward a pool of permanent water. This setting–virtually perched at the top of the terminal slope–is akin to the transitory situation of the Hillaire Hall of Chauvet, and we may, suitably, expect the zodiacal motifs to define the transition from winter to spring. In this sense, as a seasonal indicator, we may also understand the most striking feature of the main panel–the dramatic portrayals of seven mammoths. Notably, we find a drastic contrast between the dynamic movements of the three figures in the upper, left section (Fig. 52, top), and the immobility of the single mammoth in the lower, right section (Fig. 52, bottom); against the upper ones’ extraordinary mobility, the bottom one is totally motion-less, its legs and trunk straight, its body angular. We may understand the highly active mammoths, above, as indicating the general animation of nature with the beginning of spring, and conversely, the frozen stance, below, as associated with winter. This impression agrees with the orientations: the major figures at the top are aimed outwards, the one at the bottom faces the depths of the cave. The drastic shift from static to dynamic is the more surprising as the large pachyderms, generally, are emblematic of everything solid (epitomized by the mountains; cf. Chapter III). This transformation, however, finds a parallel in Chauvet, in a group of agitated mammoths in Hillaire Hall (Fig. 55 b). At both sites, we see extreme activity–jumping, flung-out trunks–and in both cases, the activity includes an element of confusion, as the animals cross each other (one of the designs in the Baume Latrone group, Fig. 52, top left, is a highly stylized mammoth turned right). In the Baume Latrone panel, the outward-directed movement clearly prevails, as the two large mammoths, (at the top) emphatically show the energies of spring overcoming the deadlock of winter. We may add, that the top section extends into the overarching ceiling, while the bottom sector is set off on a down-ward-inflected segment of the wall (Breuil 1952, 210).

The two zodiacal figures in the panel seem to confirm this view. The rhino is associated with the stilled mammoth in the low register, which agrees with the chilling presence of Scorpius/Libra in late winter through spring (not receding until late spring, cf. Fig. 46 b-e). In the era of Chauvet, Leo was the predominant winter-constellation, but the lion in the middle register of the large panel appears to indicate spring and the “death” of Leo at its heliacal setting (Fig. 46 c). The animal is seemingly wounded by two arrows, striking it from above, and three short lines engraved on its chest may suggest wounds (Fig. 52). The–sketchy, or poorly preserved–horse’s head above the lion (Fig. 52, center right) may likewise point to early spring, when Leo entered into conjunction with the sun. The configuration of lion, horse, and sign recalls the scene in the niche of Chauvet’s Hillaire Hall (Fig. 37).

Adjacent to the main panel of Baume Latrone, is a noticeable panel of red hand prints (Fig. 57) that, again, reminds us of the role of red hands in the transitional section at the Threshold of Chauvet. In the latter cave, the printing of the hands was (as discussed above) a ritual gesture that served to subdue the bestiality of the lions and rhinos. The effect is manifest in the transformation from black to red figures, as well as in the appearance of a rhinoceros family with a young one (cf. Fig. 50, and Fig. 38 ). Significantly, this family scene finds a counter-part in the family of mammoths in the central register of the Baume Latrone panel (Fig. 52): the curvaceous softness of the right-hand figure identifies it as the mother; the baby-round shape of the middle figure characterizes it as a baby (as does the lack of tusks); and, the solid shoulders of the left-hand, elongated figure shows it to be the father. Here, too, the domestic idyll suggests spring.

Other representations of zodiacal motifs complete the picture. Engraved in a panel to the right of the main wall, and thus, closer to the terminal descent, an aurochs bull and a horse are juxtaposed (Fig. 53, a, b). The configuration matched the time around the winter solstice, when Taurus was in conjunction with the sun (Fig. 46 b). On the other side of the large panel, a note of transition is struck by the figure of an ibex painted in red ocher (Fig. 54 a). The horns of this figure curve symmetrically in opposite directions, making a symbolic statement that characterized the quite precise moment of change from the waning half of the year to the waxing half (a device that we have seen used in Lascaux, relative to the fall equinox; Fig. 18 ). Just as the artists of Chauvet alluded to Capricornus as the herald of Taurus towards the end of winter (cf. Fig. 35a, b), the artists of Baume Latrone apparently related their red ibex to the time of Capricornus’ return to the evening skies with the approach of the spring equinox (Fig. 46 c). The imagery of Baume Latrone does, indeed, go on to describe the surge of the year into spring.

Spring is also the message of two red figures of bears that are painted next to the main wall (Fig. 54 b, c). They signal–like the red bears of Chauvet–the end of hibernation and the beginning of a warming trend. Notice how the prints of human hands (Fig. 57) are accompanied by a painted bear’s “paw print,” drawing an analogy between the activity of the cave bears and the human rituals, both advancing the coming of spring. This mythical relationship, actually, plays out across wide areas of the chamber’s walls and ceiling, which re covered with thousands of meandering finger flutings, co-existing with innumerable claw-marks left by hibernating bears. Still, the definitive proclamation of the change of seasons is articulated by the dynamic mammoths on the outer (left) side of the panel, and most of all by the large ones in the upper tier–one hears their trumpeting sounds, visualized by the twisting trunks, announcing the spring revival (Fig. 52).

Aldène and the skies of Chauvet

Charcoal collected in the cave of Aldène suggests a date close to the early phase of Chauvet (37,080 +/- 620 BP, calibrated; Ambert and Guendon 2005). The attribution is corroborated by shared artistic conventions, such as the “butterfly” ears of a rhinoceros (Fig. 58 e) and the close resemblance of the lions (notably, ears and muzzles) in the two caves. Of the four zodiacal motifs under consideration, Aldène has but two, and only in extreme concentration: two lions and one rhino. The entire decoration consists of half a dozen images that are arranged along the two walls of a short, narrow corridor (schematically rendered in Fig. 58). This location stands out as the section of the cave in which claw-marks by bears are most numerous and noticeable (as is the case in the decorated chamber of Baume-Latrone), and we may assume that the decoration responded to these concrete signs and reflected their symbolic association with the end of winter and the advance of spring. Indeed, the only colored figure among the engravings of the cave is a red bear (Fig. 58 b), an image we may compare to the mentioned red bears of Chauvet and Baume Latrone.

Applying our chart of the night skies (for the age of Chauvet) to Aldène, we find that the cave’s zodiacal images readily matched celestial events in early spring. The dominance of Leo in winter, which is evoked by the two lions on the right-hand wall, was brought to an end with the constellation’s heliacal setting shortly before the spring equinox (Fig. 46 c), an event that, actually, is indicated for each figure: in one case, by the juxtaposition with the solar horse, which is placed slightly behind and above one lion and suggests the conjunction of sun and Leo (Fig. 58 c and d); in the other case, this same event is implied by the superimposition of a circular sign–presumably the sun’s disk–directly on the other lion (Fig. 58 a). Conversely, the simultaneous culmination of Scorpius/Libra (Fig. 46 c) was acknowledged with the figure of a rhinoceros that dominates the opposing wall (Fig. 58 e). As lapidary as the astronomical statement of Aldène may appear, it nevertheless reflects the same complex system of the zodiac that is spelled out in much greater detail at Chauvet.


The rhinoceros became less frequent as a motif in the caves following the era of Chauvet, eventually to disappear from the very late Ice Age cave decorations. In Spain, the rhino never was a presence in the arts. In the classical cave sanctuaries of Magdalenian France, however, the rhino remained as the representative of Scorpius/Libra. Before reviewing its role in Magdalenian astronomy, we shall return to the Solutrean Lascaux–almost 15,000 years younger than Chauvet but about 5,000 years older than the major Magdalenian sites –and consider the evidence for the continued function of the rhino as the fourth station of a zodiacal quartet.

The rhinoceros of Lascaux

Among more than a thousand animal figures in Lascaux there is only one rhinoceros. We can, however, assume that this single figure (Fig. 59 a) was significant, because the artists went to considerable effort to paint it in the deep Shaft, at a place that was reached through a difficult descent (cf. Fig. 60 a, b). This extreme location makes this figure and the large aurochs bulls in the Rotunda appear as antipodes, with the former at the lowest and the latter at the highest point of the cave (Fig. 60 a, b). The polarity of the two motifs is the more obvious, even tangible, as the artists had to access the site of the rhino by means of a long rope, while, to the contrary, they had to build scaffolding to reach the elevated location of the bulls. This extreme contrast of low and high positions recalls the inherent polarity of Scorpius and Taurus, which are to be found at diametrically opposite points of the sky, one rising as the other one is setting. Generally, the image of Taurus in the Rotunda projects the renewal of life in spring, while the situation of the rhino as the western-most image of the entire cave entails an association with sunset and death. A chart of the skies through the year in the age of Lascaux (Fig. 61) shows that the contrasting performances of the two constellations corresponded with the seasonal extremes of summer and winter, as Taurus returned to the evening sky around the winter solstice, at the time of the year when Scorpius/Libra disappeared at its heliacal setting. Indeed, the location of the rhino figure in the Shaft assigns it to the region of winter, which is the season associated with the Shaft inside the geographical layout of the cave (cf. Fig. 4 ). More precisely, the heliacal setting of the rhinoceros constellation at mid-winter (Fig. 61 d ) is indicated by the inclusion of a horse–the only one in the Shaft–which is painted directly across from (within arm’s reach of-) the rhinoceros. Both figures are turned toward the west, and their all-black color adds to the notion of winter and death (Fig. 59 a,b, and Fig. 60 a, b). The lower-cave position and the dark hue of this particular horse makes it the most subdued representation among the hundreds of horses at Lascaux, and visibly the cave’s most apt representation of the winter sun at its lowest level.

We find no ibexes within the sparse decoration of he Shaft, but a group of ibexes ( Fig. 19 ) hug the narrow lip that overhangs the descent into the Shaft (Fig. 60 a, b). They are, thus, engraved almost directly above the rhinoceros, in a configuration that, in the age of Lascaux, imitated the elevated position of Capricornus in the night sky coincident with the heliacal setting of Scorpius/Libra (Fig. 61 d). In sum, the single rhinoceros of Lascaux, even in splendid isolation, fits the role of the Scorpius/Libra constellation.

The artists’ express decision to include a token representation of the species (in fact, the only pachyderm represented) in the program for the cave suggests, however, that this image carried meaning even beyond its function as a seasonal marker in the sky, the more so as the other characters in the Shaft all carry broad cosmic implications. This is evident for the horse/sun and the bison/earth, but no less so for the central figures, the bird-headed anthropomorph and the bird on the staff (Fig. 62 a). The former has long been identified by some interpreters as the equivalent of our Cygnus, the Swan (cf. Rappenglück 1999, 118). This identification rests on the figure’s swan-like head, wing-like arms, and long, straight body. Cygnus is inseparable from the Milky Way (the hatched area in our Fig. 62 b ), and in composing the panel of the Shaft, the artists seemingly chose a brightly glistening, off-white area of the dark rock-face as the back-drop for the Cygnus image (see photos in Ruspoli 1986, 151, and Aujoulat 2004, 160-61). Finally. it is possible to see our current “Summer Triangle,” the three bright stars: Deneb (in Cygnus), Altair (in Aquila, the Eagle), and Vega (in Lyra), as represented by the eyes of the bird-headed man, the bird on the staff, and the bison (Fig. 62 a, b). In the age of Lascaux, this triangle was not a summer sign but rather a fall/winter sign, and the midwinter situation depicted in the Shaft would find its closest analogy in our August skies. Compared to the present era, however, Cygnus was closer to the celestial pole (then, in Cepheus) and, thus, more explicitly circumpolar; it was spinning around the celestial pole, the fixed point around which the world turns. The scene of the Shaft was, thus, bound up with the notion of the incessant rotation of the skies and, as such, expressive of the principle of cosmic order. This principle, which apparently was threatened by the rhino-constellation, was eventually safeguarded when Scorpius/Libra was defeated by the sun, that is, at the heliacal setting.

At the core of the scene, Cygnus and the staff with the bird (the ancestor of our Aquila) mirrored a distinct sight in the midwinter sky of Lascaux, ( Fig. 62 b). Approaching the winter solstice, Deneb (in Cygnus) and Altair (in Aquila) were closely aligned with the meridian, the wide arch across the sky that joins the terrestrial south, the zenith, the celestial north pole, and the terrestrial north. We can tell that the artists had precisely this situation in mind, because they placed the bird-staff in the center of the scene and made the staff vertical, to the effect that it would line up with the meridian, making the upright staff become, in effect, a manifestation of the imagined (conceptual/mythical) pole that stands at the center of the earth and supports the sky at the zenith (“Z” in Fig. 62 b). By the same token, the staff aligns with the (imagined) celestial axis, the inclined pole that goes from the center of the earth to the celestial pole (“P” in Fig. 62 b), that is, the axis around which the world turns. Significantly, this particular display in the skies concurred with the heliacal setting of Scorpius/Libra in the south-west (Fig. 62 b), so that the defeat of the sinister rhino constellation coincided with the display of the forces that uphold and move the world.

Aspects of cosmology at Lascaux is discussed elsewhere (Chapters IV, V, IX), but we may here consider the two staff-like signs in the Shaft and their part in the implementation of cosmic order. The pole with the bird on top (Fig. 62 a ) might be seen as part of the ritual paraphernalia of the bird-headed man, who–besides being Cygnus–appears to be a precursor for historic (Siberian) shamans. A key function of the shaman was the ability to travel–in the spirit–between earth and sky, and the staff in our scene recalls actual poles or staffs with effigies of birds, which the shaman–conceptually–might climb to reach the cosmic region of the sky (the same idea applied to the mythical image of the Milky Way as a bridge between earth and sky). The body of ethnographic comparisons relevant to Lascaux collected by M. Rappenglück (1999, 122-43; 174-87; 237-77) may be ambiguous about which of the two poles–to the zenith or to the celestial north pole–is implied, and they might be either–vertical gnomon and/or inclined world axis–depending on which system of projection is applied (idem 105, 184). Rappenglück’s identification of the vertical bird-staff as a slanted, rotational axis–and the leaning Cygnus figure as a vertical pole may rely on a questionable date (ca. 17,000 B.P.), namely to an age when the celestial north pole actually fell in Cygnus (idem, 208). To the mythical imagination, the two concepts were probably two sides of the same matter–a a towering support reaching from the center of the earth to the middle of the the sky.

Significant to our reading of the scene of the Shaft is, however, the image of the staff itself, which may be seen as a distinct sign with the particular meaning of “world axis.” As such, this motif also occurs elsewhere in the cave. One occurrence is in the Rotunda, where a comparable representation is juxtaposed with the largest of the bulls, the one rising obliquely toward the summit of the dome. Here, too, the sign takes the form of a straight, near-vertical line above he aurochs pointing straight toward the very top of the hall (Fig. 63). In this location, near the cupola of the dome, the sign is readily seen to depict the dual conceptual/mythical roles of supporting the heavens (cf. Chapter IV) and of fastening the north pole, thereby providing the pivot around which the skies rotate. Like the example in the Shaft, this staff has a cross at its lower end, which we may take to indicate that its base is set at the very center of the earth. Yet another example of such a staff with a cross at its base is found in the panel of the Shaft, to the right, at the bottom (Fig. 62 a), but in this case the staff is tilted, even fallen over. We may speculate, observing a certain logic, that this implies a collapse of the vertical order of creation, and that the shaman/Cygnus and the bird-staff illustrate the re-establishment of that order. It seems significant that the three just-mentioned renditions of the assumed world axis (Fig. 64 a, b, c) are variants of cosmogram that we find in other parts of Lascaux as well (cf. Fig. Fig. 6 a,b, c). One version, which is drawn on an artifact found in the Shaft (Fig. 64 d), shows a horizontal, four-cornered world-model with an emphasis on the center of the design, which must be the very point at which the world axis stands. We may, thus, see the two central lines of the design, not as indicating east and west, but as showing the world axis passing through the center–marked by the dot–extending upward (into the sky) and downward (into the earth).

The panel of the Shaft is among he few compositions in Ice Age art that are widely perceived as a narrative scene, and the general perception is of a tale of death and disaster, an impression that is hard to escape considering the ominous presence of the rhino and the disemboweled bison (Fig. 62 a). Seeing the slanted anthropomorph character as falling backwards and dying is, however, a misreading that obscures the celestial implications of the panel. Given that the bison is an image of the earth (cf. Chapter III), we may, indeed, understand the molested bison as a grim illustration of the ravages of winter, perhaps even the destruction of the created world. Juxtaposed with the mutilated bison/earth image, the slanted world-axis sign (below) enforces the vision of a collapse of the ordered world. Against this bleak prospect of winter and annihilation, the artists, nevertheless, posed the two central figures of the scene, the bird on the re-erected staff/world axis and the bird-headed man/Cygnus; combined they carry a message in support of the enduring order of the sky and the regular cycle of the year. With its proto-shamanistic connotations, the staff with the bird also suggests a ritual performance, and the ceremonial deposition of several very fine spear points of bone at the foot of the panel in the Shaft seemingly points in the same direction.

We may add that the numerical sign that unites “two” and “three” as six dots (“2” x “3”) next to the rhinoceros (Fig. 59 a) also carried a symbolic reference to the (re-)creation of the world (cf. Chapter X); it appears that this potent sign helps chase the sinister creature away.The elements of he scene in the Shaft jointly describe events in the night sky at a specific time of the year, but not by way of a sky-map, a snap-shot of a frozen moment in time. Rather, the scene is dramatic and is staged to enhance the narrative. Thus, the Cygnus/Milky Way/meridian group of images is shown as observed in the sky when looking south, whereas the fleeing rhino and the single black horse are moved to the western end of the space, both figures facing west, the direction of the sunset and the heliacal setting of Scorpius/Libra ( cf. Fig. 61 c, d, and Fig. 59 a, b). The imagery in the Apse deviates from the sanctuary’s prevailing repertory of horses, aurochs, and deer, but the specific astronomic theme of the Apse still contributes to the general symbolism of world renewal conveyed by the decoration at large.

The zodiacal quartet in Magdalenian caves

In the same geographical region as Lascaux but roughly five thousand years later, a group of large caves, including Font-de-Gaume and Combarelles, bear witness to the continued use of the rhinoceros as the image of Scorpius/Libra. These classical Magdalenian caves are related to each other through shared motifs–such as the triangular design of huts–and even though the artistic decoration of each site may have covered an extensive period of the Upper- to Middle Magdalenian age, the artists must have lived with essentially the same skies. The following discussion refers to charts of the skies (Fig. 65) that pertain to approximately 17,000 BP, assuming this to be the upper end of the likely range. This date responds to the oldest available Carbon 14 dating for Combarelles: 13,680 +/- 210 (Barrière 1997, 541), calibrated to 16,608 +/- 456. Combarelles also has a number of formulaic, pseudo-triangular, figures of women (the “headless women” of Bosinski 2011) that point to an age around 15,000 BP, which means that we must consider a time-frame of roughly two thousand years for this group of caves. Our charts accommodate the more recent phase of this time-span, because the events shown, though happening slightly later, still would fall within the indicated seasons. For example, stellar configurations around the winter solstice of 17,000 BP would typically occur about a month later, towards the end of winter by 15,000 BP.

Font-de-Gaume and the zodiacal quartet

The cave of Font-de-Gaume is dedicated to a terrestrial theme featuring bison and mammoths, with relatively few figures of horses and aurochs to evoke solar/celestial themes. The cave does, nevertheless, have a few images of each of our four astral motifs, which allow us to check the dominant, earthy narrative against the astronomical clock. This calendrical aspect of the cave’s program is the more obvious as the straight run of the main cave is oriented north-west/south-east (Fig. 66). Thus, the space itself lays out the highest and the lowest points on the pathway of the sun through the year, the inner-most section partaking of winter, the outermost one of summer. The very front of the cave (which extends beyond our map) may have lost a number of original images, but this loss will only peripherally disturb the following reading, in so far as we start in the back and move–spatially and temporally–towards the front.

The cave’s two images of rhinos are located close together near the end of the cave (at “2″ in Fig. 66), inside the tall but extremely narrow Terminal Fissure, which seems a fitting setting for the somber subject. This section is so tight that, towards the end, the artists had to move sideways and, in fact, execute the imagery with their faces virtually against the wall. Here we also find a lion and an aurochs bull as well as some horses, so that we have the opportunity to determine how well the decoration matches this cave-section’s alignment with the season of winter. The innermost figures (at “1″ in Fig. 66) show a group of horses facing a large lion (Fig. 67 b). As the horses are on the inside, and thus literally cornered and held captive by the lion, we are witnessing the lowest moment of the solar year, with the sun in Leo, dangerously close to definitive extinction, a situation that mirrored the midwinter night-skies around 17,000 BP (Fig. 65 d ). The perils of the sun in the grip of Leo are also clearly rendered by the two small horses that share the space with the lion and are subjected to the powers of the much larger feline (Fig. 67 b), a configuration that recalls the above-mentioned configuration of a lion and two smaller horses in Chauvet’s Sacristy (Fig. 30). This most threatening moment of the year was, however, the imminent turning point of the yearly cycle, and in keeping with the geographical orientation–south-east being the location of the rising sun at its lowest–the decoration also offers the vision of another sunrise following the longest night. Thus, the very last image in the cave, painted at the utmost place reachable, is a sign composed of red lines arranged in a fan-shape–the formalized image of a sunburst (Fig. 67 c). The crucial return of the sun, escaping death, is also predicted in the arrangement of the two horses’ heads directly under the lion (Fig. 67 b): their symmetry, one turned inward, the other outward, indicates a shift of direction. Eventually, located just beyond the lion (but still at “1″ in Fig. 66), a larger horse (Fig. 67 a), which is painted red and turned outward, suggests the escape from extinction and the return of the warmth of the sun. The two images of rhinoceroses in the Terminal Fissure (Fig. 67, d and e) likewise invite a comparison with Chauvet. In both caves the strong presence of rhinos in the inner sections (in each case associated with lions) tells about the spoils of winter. The superimposition of the horns on a bison at Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 67 e) also recalls the ravaged bison with the rhino in the Shaft of Lascaux (Fig. 62 a ). Different from the situation in Chauvet is, however, that the rhinos of Font-de-Gaume are painted in red, which visually tempers the threat they present; in Chauvet, red rhinos are not found in the inner–solidly black–cave. This difference appears to reflect the shifting skies: in the age of Chauvet, Scorpius/Libra was an oppressive presence throughout winter and spring;, whereas, in the skies of Font-de-Gaume, the constellation peaked around the winter solstice and then succumbed to the restored strength of the sun already by early spring (Fig. 65, d and a).

To complete the review of zodiacal images in the Terminal Fissure, we notice that the one aurochs bull found here (at “3″ in Fig. 66) is placed low on the wall (below the rhino and bison) and is painted solidly black (Fig. 67 f), which agrees with the absence–or greatly reduced presence–of Taurus in winter (cf. Fig. 65, c to d). This impression is enforced by the appearance of three more aurochs bulls located in the inner cave; these are all painted in dark hues (one shown in Fig. 68 a), and all are in the small Alcove of the Bison just outside the Terminal Fissure (at “4″ in Fig. 66). This tiny room is solidly covered with painted figures of bison, and the aurochs bulls in question are completely framed within– or only partly separate from–the all-dominant bodies of bison (Capitan et al. 1910, 84, 85, 87). In astronomical terms, all of this suggests that the bull/Taurus is absorbed in the bison/earth following its virtual disappearance from the sky with the heliacal setting (Fig. 65, c to d). As with the presence of the rhino in the back, the conflation of bison and aurochs bulls brings echoes of a cosmogony, recalling an episode from the first creation, preceding the separation of earth and sky (Chapter IV). Tracing the cave’s aurochs bulls into the foremost part of the Main Gallery (at “5″ in Fig. 66), we find two heads of bulls, now all in red (one is shown in Fig. 68 b), two figures that evoke the prominence of Taurus in summer (cf. Fig. 65 b). This season is, as mentioned, also indicated by the location in the north-western end of the Gallery, turned toward the setting sun of the summer solstice (cf. Fig. 66 ). Add to this, that the two red aurochs in question are painted very high up on the wall in the front section of the cave where the ceiling is extraordinarily high; they are, in fact, at a spot that could not have been reached without the use of scaffolding. In this position, the aurochs are elevated far above the solid line of bison and mammoths that trail the bottom level of both walls–in striking contrast to the just-mentioned aurochs bulls in the inner cave, which are submerged by overpowering figures of bison. Again, the astronomic theme, celebrating the triumph of spring/summer, parallels the implied cosmogony that details the elevation of the sky above the earth.

Font-de-Gaume is, on the whole, dedicated to the terrestrial forces of bison and mammoth, and the solar horse never achieves a status comparable to, for example, the horses in Lascaux or Gabillou. Still, we notice a few dynamic horses that are shown as exiting the Lateral Gallery and about to move into the Main Gallery. Significantly, these horses accompany a number of reindeer that are pursuing their spring migration, in an exodus which originates with the first of the reindeer in the far back of the Lateral Gallery (at “6″ in Fig. 66; Cleyet-Merle 2014, 37, 40, 41). This joint movement becomes manifest in the Crossing, and from there it continues on the walls of the Main Gallery, following the direction toward the outside world and summer. Thus, the two themes of the horse/sun and the aurochs/Taurus progress in tandem and accompanied by deer, following a formula that we have discussed above with respect to the older caves of Chauvet and Gabillou.

The ibexes of Font-de-Gaume are solely associated with the just-mentioned spring-time development; no ibexes are found in the Terminal Gallery and the inner part of the Main Gallery. This corresponds well with the fact that Capricornus played an insignificant role in fall and winter (Fig. 65, c, d). The innermost ibex (Fig. 69 a) is found in the back of the Lateral Gallery along with the first of the cave’s reindeer and a red painting of a bear (Fig. 69 b). This is the only image of a bear (in a cave that, however, is heavily marked by the claws of real, hibernating bears), and its red color indicates–again a convention that is familiar from caves of the Chuvet era–that it refers to the animal’s emergence from hibernation in early spring. In the world of Font-de-Gaume, this landmark event coincided with the north-bound migration of reindeer and, notably, with the ascent of Capricornus toward its highest location in the evening sky, which happened sometime before the equinox (Fig. 65 a). The second ibex (Fig. 69 c) is found in the Main Gallery, close to the entrance (at “7″ in Fig. 66), where it is placed high on the wall. This image, therefore, matched the appearance of Capricornus in late spring/early summer. Just one more zodiacal figure remains unmentioned, namely a tiny engraved lion (Cleyet-Merle 2014, 10) placed at floor level in the Main Gallery, close to the Crossing (at “8″ in Fig. 66). Although the artists’ reasons for including the figure elude us, its diminutive size matched the faint showing of Leo as the year moved into spring/summer (Fig. 65 ). Considering the fact that the decoration of Font-de-Gaume is dedicated to an earth-bound theme (bison and mammoth), the consistent performance of the peripheral celestial motifs is quite impressive, and we may conclude that Font-de-Gaume demonstrates the artists’ intentional use of the zodiacal quartet as a means of anchoring their narrative program–ideas about the creation of the earth and the origins of time–in the visible reality of the sky.


(in preparation)


Lunar notations on portable objects allowed Ice Age people to measure short expanses of time (Marshack 1972/1991), and as shown above (Parts One through Four), observations of the stars helped them track the seasons of the year. More complex techniques than these were needed to co-ordinate the vagaries of the moon and the sun, and thereby create a calendar that would be valid for an extended cycle of years. We have, however, no reason to assume that such a feat was beyond the capabilities of Upper Palaeolithic cultures. In fact, what is, to all appearances, an extended, luni-solar calendar is meticulously demonstrated in the decoration of the Tuc d’Audoubert cave; moreover, comparable schemes are to be found in other caves.

A tiny recess in Tuc d’Audoubert—tight for even a couple of visitors—contains an exceptional accumulation of close to a hundred uniform, engraved signs in an ensemble that gives the impression of a genuine calendrical notation (Fig. 1). Certainly, this display is a potential calendar for the following three reasons. In the first place, the signs are all shaped somewhat like the letter P (rarely, a back-ward P), so that they graphically suggest the appearance of the moon; each one is, so to speak, a half-moon on a stick. In the second place, these signs are divided into groups, even regular rows, each with a substantial number of steadily-repeated signs, enough so in fact, that if we assume each of these signs to actually stand for one month, then the Tuc composition will represent about eight years of annotated time; this may very well be meaningful considering that an eight-year, luni-solar calendar is a historically documented device known by its Greek name as the Octaëteris, (Hannah 2005, 35-41). Finally, the Tuc ensemble falls into three files of about thirty signs each, which may match the three segments of thirty-one months that are the essence of the Octaëteris and related luni-solar calendars. A review of basic calendrical principles and an examination of the evidence in Tuc and a few other caves will show that the eight-year calendar was, indeed, known to the Palaeolithic artists.

The core principle of a luni-solar calendar

Our modern (Gregorian) calendar operates with months that are regular, fixed divisions of the solar year, to the effect that the actual cycles of the moon (lunations) are rigorously disassociated from the calendar. Some contemporary cultures, as well as many older ones, have however, persisted in efforts to align the moon and the sun by creating a calendar that would bring them into sync. This goal has been a major challenge, particularly for prehistoric cultures that have sought to master time without the benefit of advanced arithmetic. At the root of the entire issue is the fact that twelve lunar months fall about eleven days short of a full solar year, or in other words, that there are about twelve-and-a-third lunations to one solar year. Consequently, if we start a new (solar) year coincident with a particular phase of the moon, we must turn one of the next few years into a year of thirteen months, in order to make another solar year begin close to that same chosen phase of the moon. The timing of this thirteenth month–the intercalation–is the crucial task. In a pre-literary and pre-arithmetical society, the best time for inserting the extra, intercalated month could not be determined by computation, only through a series of careful observations.

To clarify the process, let us assume the coincidence of New Year (theoretically, at winter solstice) and a new moon (as in our Fig. 2). We realize quickly that an intercalation at the end of year one (Fig. 2 a) would merely aggravate the discrepancy by making the following lunation start almost twenty days after completion of the solar year. After the second year (Fig. 2 b), we recognize that the gap between the cycles of moon and sun will have grown to the point where inserting an extra month merely would shift the problem around, from the moon being ahead of the sun to its being behind by a good week; this, obviously, does not make for a functional calendar. With the third year, however, the original excess of roughly one third of a month will have grown quite close to a full month, so that an additional, intercalated, month becomes an option—and yet, not a quite satisfying one. It would not take long to realize that an intercalated month every third year (that is, every thirty-sixth month) is a poor formula, as we can tell by comparing the number of days in three solar years with the number of days in thirty-seven lunar months (3 x 365.25 = 1,095.75 days for the sun; 37 x 29.53 = 1,092.61 days for the moon), which leaves the alignment of sun and moon off by three-to-four days. Just two such three-year cycles would be off by about a week, which certainly would constitute a useless calendar, even for a hunter-gatherer culture. If we, however, were to pay attention to the sun/moon relationship at every solstice—winter and summer, both—we would come to realize that a satisfying solution is possible by a slight adjustment to the three-year scheme: by applying the intercalation after two-and-a-half years instead of after fully three years. At this point (Fig. 2 c), the sixth month of the third year has finished about twenty-eight days ahead of the solar half-year (summer solstice, in our demonstration), and the extra month–the one following the regular sixth–will make the next new moon–the one of the regular seventh–arrive just one or two days late.

This improvement is not, by itself, a superlative solution, but because the sun now is ahead of the moon, it so happens, as an empirical fact, that after eight years of inserting an extra month every two-and-a-half years (that is, after ninety-six regular and three intercalated months), the gap in the alignment of moon and sun will be reduced to just one whole day (8 x 365.25 = 2,921.9 days for the sun; 99 x 29.53 = 2,923.47 days for the moon)—certainly a satisfying fit. In a Palaeolithic context, this realization could, for sure, not be reached by arithmetic (as done above), but it could be achieved through a cognitive process of observation, namely, by carefully watching and memorizing the state of the moon around the solstices. Pursuing this regime, three intercalated months were generated per eight-year cycle, and they would fall at regular intervals of two-and-a-half years ( Fig. 3). In other words, the process would follow an easily memorable scheme of one intercalation every thirty months (or, every five half-years). After the third intercalation, at seven-and-a-half years (Fig. 3), the procedure could formally end with year eight, and then resume all over.

While the importance of half-years in this calendrical scheme may seem arbitrary to a modern view, it was a self-evident approach within the dualistic frame-work of the cave artists’ thinking; it was a feature of the binary mind-set that was basic to Upper Palaeolithic philosophy (cf. Chapter X). Not just the month, but also the year was perceived as a manifestation of dual forces, subject to the complementary forces of waxing and waning; the year was divided into a rising half from winter solstice to summer solstice and, vice versa, a falling half from summer solstice to winter solstice (as implied by the oscillating time-line in our Fig. 3). The half-year was, thus, a self-evident unit of time, and one that, apparently facilitated discovery of the calendrical principle.

The complete eight-year calendar in Tuc d’Audoubert

The ninety-nine months consumed by the eight-year calendrical cycle (that is, 3 x 31 months, plus the remaining 6, cf. Fig. 3) is, already at first sight, a fair match for the approximately one hundred P-shaped signs in the apse and rotunda of Tuc. In the following analysis, we shall call this type of sign a “month” sign, and we shall identify the location as the Chapel of Months. A definitive and exact count of all the “month” signs in the Chapel may not be feasible, given that a few remain hard to read (and could be accidental marks), but this uncertainty is of marginal significance, as the artists, to all appearances, were less concerned with the sum total of the marks than with the smaller, more manageable sums of the three individual files. Even so, the irregular rhythm in certain stretches of the rows seems to reflect a real struggle to keep count of the many, repetitive signs. An ability to count does not necessarily translate into proficiency with large numbers.

More persuasive than the exact number, anyhow, is the division into three files that each contains (nearly, or perhaps, exactly) thirty-one “month” signs. This lay-out certainly suggests a graphic projection of the three identical segments of thirty-plus-one months at the core of the eight-year calendar (Fig. 3). Each of the three series has individual features, as one wall (Fig. 1 A) has signs that are smaller and more tightly spaced than those on the opposite wall (Fig. 1 B), while the file in the dome (Fig. 1 C) differs from both in being circular. That each one, nevertheless, has just around thirty signs seems intentional; apparently, they were individually counted out. The artists consistently engraved the vertical stems first, then went back to add the rounded buckles, and as a help in counting, they possibly marked off segments of six “month” signs at a time (replicating a half-year); in any case, we find instances of six signs forming homogeneous sub-sets (Figs. 4, 5, and Fig. 6).

The effort to organize the many signs is most evident in the file on the right-hand wall of the short gallery (Fig. 1 A; notice that the perspective view in this figure is from below, so that right and left appear reversed relative to the entrance, at F). In this file, most of the “month” signs are more closely spaced and more uniformly drawn than in the other two series. They march along the wall like a parade of soldiers. Apparently, the artist marked off the parallel stems for two, perhaps three, segments of six signs each (as indicated by brackets in Fig. 4). In the following segment (Fig. 4, left), the size and spacing of signs was more generous, though perhaps too much so, to the effect that the constraining wall space at the end of the gallery forced the artist to open a second line in the lower register in order to finish the section; the four signs here are messy and somewhat uncertain.

On the right-hand wall (Fig. 1 B) the line-up is more complex, as the file here starts at a point where the barrel vault joins the circular dome (Fig. 1, center). Thus, the sequence begins with a segment of six signs, which occupies the arch that is suspended between the rotunda and the apse. Consequently, the several “month” signs that make the transition from the vault to the wall have tilted stems (Fig. 5). There follows two sets of six signs, which account for most of the file on the wall itself. These signs become very large toward the end, and (as in file A) this leaves little room for the terminal segment, once again resulting in some unruly signs in the lower tier (Fig. 5, bottom right).

The third series (Fig. 1 C) is arranged around the single horse at the top of the dome, and the first six signs match the length of this figure (Fig. 6); in fact, the very first sign directly touches the horse’s mane, connecting the sequence of months with the prime image of the solar year (on the implied symbolism of the horse, see Chapter V). After two more sets of six, the top row ends with three “month” signs, then jumps down to finish off with a parallel row of ten. The termination of this second line (Fig. 6, bottom right) is not well preserved, and published versions deviate in details. A recent study renders the last six signs as parallel stems without buckles (Bégouën et al. 2009, 150), although a perspective rendition by G. Tosello (idem, 148) suggests that some buckles remain visible. A. Marshack, who first copied the composition in the dome, showed actual buckles on several of these stems (1972/1991, 394). Regardless of these uncertainties, a count of thirty-one signs for the file is defensible.

While our summary rendition (Fig. 7) makes clear the structure of the ensemble in the Chapel of Months, it remains a schematic plan that hardly conveys the unity of the whole or the coherence achieved, as the straight walls of the apse smoothly continue the lower walls of the rotunda, and the barrel vault seamlessly joins the dome. The artists did not complete the full, eight-year count of months, skipping the final six months that follow the third-and-last intercalation ( cf. Fig. 3). Still, we may speculate that the six “month” signs to be found in secluded niches, off the main ensemble (Fig. 1 D and E) might stand for those neglected ones. In any case, the Tuc calendar was not intended as a functional tool designed to time actual events. By design, its aim was ritualistic: to celebrate the governing principle of the grand cycle of years, namely, the rule of three intercalations, thirty months apart. A more concise pronouncement of precisely this concept is to be seen in the formal group of three identical “month” signs, located in a niche, off the rotunda (Fig. 1 D). This triad has the air of an august statement, pronouncing the inherent powers of the numerical three in the realm of time; they present the three intercalated months as emblematic of the calendar at large. The same lapidary formulation re-occurs elsewhere in the cave (see Fig. 9a ), and a terse variation is found in Tuc’s twin-cave, Trois-Frêres, where three strokes–the numerical three–accompany a P-sign (Fig. 18 b ).

The lunar notation from Taï

At this point, we may pause to look for evidence of a real-life application of the governing principle of our calendar. Fortunately we have a highly instructive example of this practice in the form of a bone plate, heavily marked with day-to-day notations of lunar phases for a total of about three and a half years. This extraordinarily complex artifact from Taï (in the Rhône valley) meticulously registers more than a thousand daily observations; it occupied A. Marshack for decades and is discussed in detail in The Roots of Civilization (1972/1991, 81-86), as well as in an analytic paper (Marshack 1991). We shall not here reproduce the artifact in excruciating detail, but substitute instead a bare-bones, schematic rendition that summarizes Marshack’s reading (Fig. 8).

Guided by horizontal lines (Fig. 8, A through I), the tiny, daily marks tick along with remarkable regularity, back and forth across the plate; along the way, their spacing and shape give occasional cues to shifting phases of the moon. What sets this item apart from similar (often extensive) lunar notations are the bracket-like frames at the end of some lines (Fig. 8, to the right). Marshack explains these angular detours as a graphic means of keeping the turns of the lines (at the margins) coincident with the solstices, making sure that the beginnings and ends of lines correspond to the alternating solstices of winter and summer, visually projecting the rhythmic “swings” or “turns” of the year. These solar events are marked in our rendition by the symbol of a radiant circle.

Like our formal time-line above (Fig. 2), the Taï design faithfully registers the gap between solar positions and lunations as this grows with each half-year, and it was precisely this growing gap that forced the maker of the calendar to insert the two brackets. The first one (beginning at e, Fig. 8) helped placing the solstice at the one-and-a-half year point (at f, Fig. 8 ), keeping it from shifting toward the middle of the following line (i.e., line F, Fig. 8). At the end of the next line (G in Fig. 8 ) the moon has run a full month ahead of the sun, so that the solstice at the two-and-a-half year point would have moved almost to the middle of the following line (H in Fig. 8 ) if more than a month’s worth of marks had not been detoured through the second bracket—including the thirty-first month (i to j, Fig. 8). This device kept the “turn” at the solstice fixed at the end of the line, and incidentally, it also returned the calendar (within a day or so) to the moon/sun configuration that was the original point of departure (i.e. point a, Fig. 8 ). This thirty-first month (marked x and graphically set off in our rendition, Fig. 8 ) is precisely the one that we, with the Octaëteris in mind, would consider an “extra,” or, intercalated month; this is the one that brings the moon/sun relationship back to year zero. Marshack does not identify this “added” month as an intercalation, because he is tracing the ongoing daily notations, adopting the point of view of a daily observer, who is engulfed in the flow of time and is not intent on pulling a particular month out of the ceaseless march of months. The two brackets, however, reveal that the maker of the Taï calendar was, indeed, cognizant, not only of the growing gap between moon and sun, but also of the extraordinary role of the thirty-first month—knowingly set apart and treated as an interpolation.

Only if the twelve, complete lunar months of a solar year are identified individually–by twelve names or numbers–can an observer define the lunar year as a distinct entity and keep it separate from the solar year, and only then is it possible to conceive the idea of a break in the constant, never-ending flow of lunations, and thus, to accomplish the virtual re-arrangement of time that is accomplished by an “extra,” intercalated month. That Upper Palaeolithic people actually assigned individual names to the twelve months of the year is, however, a quite safe assumption. Based on our knowledge of later archaic cultures, we may even assume that those names would match the appropriate seasons. This is the practice we know, for example, from the Omaha tribe of the North-American prairies (Fletcher 1911, 111); to wit: “when the snow drifts into the tents” (Jan.); “when geese come home” (Feb.); “little frog moon” (March); “the buffaloes bellow” (July); “the deer rut” (Oct.); “little brown bears are born” (Dec.). Other tribes related the months more specifically to the sun’s cycle, as in some Chumash month names (Hudson and Underhay, 1978, 126-29): “month when the sun’s brilliance begins” (Dec.); “month of spring” (March); “month when things are divided in half” (June). The Chumash word for the lunar year means “Twelve” (idem, 126).

Assuming that European Ice Age hunters tracked the progression of the year in like manner, we can explain why the maker of the Taï plate perceived the second bracketed month as an intercalation. Noticing that six distinct (that is, named or numbered) months had just passed, when the first half of the third year came to an end (at i, Fig. 8 ), and recognizing that the solstice was still a good month away, the Taï observer realized that this was, indeed, the point, where adding an “extra” (that is, nameless) month could fill the perceived gap before the next named month, which was the regular seventh of the year. By placing the entire thirty-first month of the system in a bracket, off to the side—graphically identifying it as an addition—the observer demonstrated awareness of the basic rule of an intercalation every thirty months. Marshack’s skepticism of pre-counted, “arithmetic,” groupings of numbers would preclude the acceptance of sets of numbers as high as thirty. We can, however, not explain the Taï calendar-maker’s ability to fairly predict the number of days remaining from the end of the thirtieth month to the solstice without assuming a precise count; this feat took more than just eyeballing the horizon-position of the sun.

The second Octaëteris at Tuc d’Audoubert

Returning to Tuc d’Audoubert, we find a second, more schematic but perfectly recognizable, version of the eight-year calendar in the Chamber of Heel-Prints in the farthest section of the cave (Fig. 24 i). This Chamber is notable for its perfectly smooth and level floor of fine-grained clay, a phenomenon that the artists may have associated with the creation of the earth (cf. Chapter III), for which reason they seemingly avoided leaving foot-prints on the virgin surface, instead walking on their heels. Anyhow, the designs on this clay surface include a group of three “month” signs (Fig. 9 a, left) that—like the mentioned group of three in the Chapel of the Months (Fig. 1 D)—may signify the three intercalated months of the eight-year calendar. Their presence alerts us to the possibility that the unusual, almost nine feet long, serpentine design next to the three “month” signs (Fig. 9a, right) might illustrate the Octaëteris as well. Indeed, we find that this image—so different from the files of “month” signs in the Chapel of Months—is a schematic rendition of the eight-year calendar that is conceptually close to our serpentine diagram presented above (Fig. 3).

The two segments of the sinuous design in Tuc (Fig. 9a) trace, respectively, five and three undulations, for a total of eight, a lay-out that graphically matches the unfolding of eight years, advancing through eight waves, whereby each undulation is a fitting image of the waxing and waning halves of a year. The longer segment of five oscillations/years is closed with a loop (Fig. 9 a, to the right), just as the first five years of the calendar constitute a rounded-off unit, one that ends with a completed year. Subsequently, the segment of three waves/three years completes the full cycle at eight years (Fig. 3). This division into a five-year segment and a three-year segment (Fig. 9 a) is not at odds with the three two-and-a-half-year segments that structures the large Octaëteris scheme in the Chapel of Months. As far as the full eight-year cycle is concerned, the choice to delay the third-and-last intercalation (ideally, after seven-and-a-half years) for the six remaining months of the full eight-year cycle will produce the same end-result (Fig. 3). In the Chapel (Fig. 1), the three files of “month” signs illustrate the core principle of three intercalations spaced two-and-a-half years apart, but the Chamber of Heel-Prints tells us that the Magdalenians who decorated Tuc d’Audoubert were able to distinguish between the conceptual principle of the calendar and feasible, alternate applications.

Luni-solar calendars known from historical times rely on the same principle of intercalation as discussed above, while they use varied combinations of two-year and three-year segments. Thus, the Jewish calendar places the three intercalations of its first eight years (out of a nineteen-year cycle) at respectively year three, six, and eight; that is, spaced by three, three, and two years. In any case, it seems significant that intercalations at two-and-a-half-year intervals was used in Celtic Europe even in historical times, as documented by the Coligny calendar, an object that uses Roman numbers and letters but is written in a Celtic (Gaulish) language with Celtic names for days, months, and festivals. A large metal plate with holes for a movable peg, it provides for a full five-year count of days, and its operating principle for aligning lunar and solar cycles is precisely the one outlined above, as it provides for two intercalated months, each placed after two-and-a-half years. It thus embraces two units of thirty-one months (thirty, plus one intercalation) for a total of sixty-two months. Significantly, this calendar, though postdating the Roman conquest, still divides months and years, both, into two distinct halves, each with its appropriate designations for waxing and waning (Olmsted 1992). In this, the Celts were the distinct heirs of the Upper Palaeolithic tribes of western Europe.

The Octaëteris beyond the Pyrenees

The eight-year calendar—though nowhere as prodigious as in Tuc d’Audoubert—is not restricted to caves of the Pyrenees, nor is it rigorously tied to the use of P-shaped signs to signify “month.” Nevertheless, this particular sign, when occurring in other areas (notably in Northern Spain) does appear to imply familiarity with the eight-year calendar. In particular, a group of three P-type “month” signs (like those in Tuc’s Chapel of Months and Chamber of Heel-Prints) seemingly represent the three intercalated months that are the signature element of the Octaëteris. We find just this short-hand representation of our calendar in the Spanish cave of Armintxe, in a panel of engravings that features a noticeable group of three “month” signs among dozens of animal figures (Fig. 26). It is a fair assumption that the artists of Armintxe were familiar with the Octaëteris of the Pyreneean caves, especially since the Armintxe ensemble includes a couple of lions, an extraordinarily rare motif in Spanish caves, but one that is represented both in Tuc and in its twin-cave, Trois-Frères.

The calendar of the Castillo cave

A more explicit presentation of the eight-year calendar, one that substitutes painted dots for P-shaped “month” signs, is found in the Cantabrian cave of Castillo. Composed of about two hundred red dots, this odd, vaguely cross-like design carries several numerical sub-sets that are relevant to calendar-making, but the outstanding element consists of three long, parallel lines of dots, each of which counts just above thirty dots (Fig. 10). The total number in these three files is ninety-nine (possibly one hundred), which is remarkably close to the ninety-nine months of a complete eight-year cycle (3 x 31, plus 6; cf. Fig. 3). Unlike the large Tuc calendar, which is composed of signs that visibly advertise their relationship to the moon, the Castillo design is made up of dots, that is to say, the most elementary of marks, able to represent–and count–virtually anything. While this versatility may complicate the task of the modern interpreter, it granted the ancient artists some flexibility, as the generic marks might allude equally to days, months, and years. In the Castillo design they appear to do all of that.

The Castillo design is painted on a low ceiling in the back of a niche, where the artists would have to lie on their backs (Fig. 25 a, and b). In this setting, the highly irregular space available for the large sign certainly influenced its over-all shape. We can, however, be rather sure that the first element to be painted was–not the three curved lines of the prospective Octaëteris–but the long, straight line of sixteen dots (Fig. 10 a), because the three straight lines to the right (Fig. 10 b, c, and d) are composed of dots that, three-by-three, parallel that first line (at least initially, as indicated by stippled lines in Fig. 11 a). On the left, the three very long lines (Fig. 10 e, f, and g) were also added after the line of sixteen dots, as they all curve downward to avoid interference. Proceeding accordingly, we first notice that the three straight lines on the right project numbers—twelve, thirteen, and fourteen (Fig 11 a)—that, while they do not directly pertain to the Octaëteris, are relevant if read as additions to the sixteen of the initial line. Adding them, successively, we get the numbers twenty-eight, twenty-nine, and thirty. Of these, the twenty-eight may relate to the gap between lunar and solar years and, specifically, to the number of days retrieved through an intercalation, which is either twenty-seven or twenty-eight (cf. Fig. 2 c). The second and third of these sums—twenty-nine and thirty—represent the days per month that must be used in alternation for any lunar calendar to be functional. These three numbers are, thus, prerequisite knowledge for operating the Octaëteris, and they logically precede the lay-out of the actual eight-year scheme on the left.

The just-mentioned numbers were, no doubt, recognized as essential to the operation of calendars. The actual length of a month is close to twenty-nine-and-a-half days, and a patient observer making daily notations of the moon (like the maker of the above calendar from Taï) will realize, over time, that the months alternate between twenty-nine and thirty days. This knowledge—and speculations about its significance—appears to be the topic of some numerical sequences both in decorated caves and on artifacts. For example, Pasiega (another cave in the Castillo mountain) shows two parallel lines of nine and six dots along with three curved lines of fourteen (twice) and fifteen dots (Fig. 12 a). In various combinations, these provide twenty-eight, twenty-nine, and thirty dots just like the Castillo design. In the same vein, a decorated antler from Abri Mège (Fig. 12 b) has two lines of respectively fourteen and fifteen marks (sickle-shaped to evoke the moon) which are turned in opposite directions to recall the waning and waxing halves of the month. The object may be understood as a compact calendar stick: the fifteen on one side and the fourteen on the other side may be counted in a circular move—including a framing line at one end—as alternating twenty-nine and thirty day months. Bear in mind that, in a preliterate society, even such elementary knowledge could only be maintained by oral tradition aided by visual, mnemonic cues. Probably in the spirit of reinforcing the basics of calendar-making and of retaining fundamental concepts, the Castillo artists included such basic numbers as part of their larger design.

The next addition to the Castillo design was the eight-year calendar proper (Fig. 10 e, f, and g). The first line of this segment (Fig. 10 c) started at the outer end (at the limit of available space), but after twenty-six dots, the artist realized that the file would infringe on the above-mentioned, original line (Fig. 10 a) and decided, instead, to place the last five dots below–and parallel with–the main file, achieving the total of thirty-one (Fig.11 b). The second line of the segment (Fig. 10 f ) again started at the extreme left and ran parallel with the one above, keeping an even curve until the thirty-first dot. The third line (Fig. 10 g) followed the same trajectory, before turning downward in a move that possibly disrupted the artist’s counting, as the file apparently ended up with an uncertain total: thirty-two marks or thirty-one? Close scrutiny suggests that the artist lost count at a stretch of tiny, tightly spaced, dots that are hard to read (see the insert, Fig. 10: are there two or three dots between the two well-defined ones?) In any case, six dots were added to the bottom of the design (Fig. 10 h and Fig. 11 b), concluding the eight-year calendar with the six months that remained after the third intercalation (cf. Fig. 3).

Eventually the “cross” was filled in with three lines of dots that visibly adapt to the remaining spaces (Fig. 11 c). The first two (Fig. 10 j and k) have, respectively, seventeen and twelve dots, of which the first number may combine with the sixteen of the very first line to represent the thirty-three days that the mon would gain over the sun in three years, if the calendar keeper failed to insert the leap month half-a-year before. The second line probably stands for the twelve months of the ideal, regular year. The eight dots of the third, and last, line (Fig. 10 i) may well represent the years of the grand cycle itself. These last additions mainly served to fill in the vertical, trunk-like part of the design, whereas the two, branch-like elements remain the significant parts—notably, the long, curved limb that provides a complete manifestation of the Octaëteris.

Pindal: “month” signs and dots combined

The cave of Pindal stands out among several other Spanish cave sanctuaries with P-shaped signs, in so far as six large, red specimens are the salient features of the complex, main panel. They accompany a field of ninety-some red dots—enough for a potential eight-year calendar (Fig. 13 a). A definitive count may not be feasible, considering that a few marks seem poorly preserved or ill-defined. A recent monograph on Pindal (González-Pumeriega Solís 2011, 60) settles on ninety-four dots (twenty along the top, plus seventy-four in the center), but accompanying photos suggest that some of these marks are debatable (idem, 132-34). Whatever choices we make, the count remains close to the ninety-three-month sum (3 x 31) for the three subsets of the Octaëteris. In fact, the dots may be perceived as arranged in three segments, albeit, in a rather loose manner, which mainly is defined by features of the wall-face itself. Thus, a ridge along the top guides two horizontal files (C in Fig. 13 a), while a rough spot, cutting into the concave area below, divides the field of dots into two distinct sections (A and B in Fig. 13 a).

Of the two segments in the concave space, the right-hand one (A, in Fig. 13 a) occupies an evenly curved surface that allows for a fairly organized rendition of about thirty dots; this is also the most regular looking of the three. The orderly alignments of the dots follow an imaginary grid that, apparently, was determined by the first five dots, both vertically and horizontally (cf. Fig 14 a). Spatial constraints in the lower part of the niche (see Fig. 13 a) limited the artist to five vertical rows, rather than the six that would have facilitated the thirty-count (5 x 6 months). Instead, each of the first two verticals has a sixth dot inserted between rows, near the bottom (Fig. 14 b). For each of the remaining three verticals, the sixth dot was, however, placed on the side of the grid, to the right (Fig. 14 c). Probably by oversight, the artist skipped one obvious, regular spot for a dot (marked by an x in Fig. 14 c), and we may still assume that it was included in the total count. In short, the sum for this section may well be thirty-one.

The segment to the left (B in Fig. 13 a) is even less rigorous, no doubt because it occupies a more uneven surface. Again, the underlying grid was outlined by a horizontal and a vertical line of dots, although less assuredly so. Thus, the horizontal at the top has five dots, while the first vertical has only three clearly-defined dots due to the disrupting roughness of the wall-face (two faint, questionable dots are marked x in Fig. 15 a). Subsequently, the second and third verticals each have six dots (Fig. 15 b), but the acute curvature and narrowing of the supporting wall, toward the left, made it increasingly hard for the artist to maintain the impression of a grid. Thus, the fourth and fifth verticals are harder to trace toward the bottom (Fig. 15 b, lower left) as the positions of the dots become fuzzy. Obviously, one dot (circled in Fig. 15 b) was placed out of alignment, no doubt because the artist no longer could distinguish verticals and horizontals. From this point we are, in fact, dealing with diagonals, and we can no longer keep the numbers of dots straight. Moreover, two dots placed well outside the grid (circled in Figs. 15 a, and c) seem to be discarded marks (cave painters had no erasers). At best, we can conclude that the dots in this segment number at least thirty-one, possibly more.

In the upper segment (C in Fig. 13 a), the main element is a line of fifteen red dots or short strokes that trace the upper border of the niche, reaching from the head of the bison on the left to the tail of the bison on the right. A parallel line of seven dots above and a group of three below make for a sum of twenty-five marks (Fig. 16 a). To these, we may add the six “month” signs to the right (below the bison, Fig. 13 a) for a total of thirty-one. Complicating this reading, the isolated stroke at the very top (Fig. 16 a ) may, or may not, be included in the counting. Still, the total for the segment is a close count for such a motley collection of lunar notations.

Though symmetrically framed by the two large bison figures (Fig. 16 b, and c), the Pindal ensemble is, admittedly, an incongruous calendar. We notice, however, that several other features of the cave’s great wall also hint at the Octaëteris. These include three (faded) black “month” signs (Fig. 13 c) along with three engraved circles that suggest three “moons” (Fig. 13 d); both groups suggest the three intercalated months at the heart of the Octaëteris. A bison, that is part of the central composition (Fig. 13 a, to the left) is closely associated with two rows of red dots, including one of eight dots, which may signal the eight years of the cycle (Fig. 13 b). This same bison was engraved before the red dots were painted, and some of the dots in the upper section are superimposed on the animal’s horns (Fig. 16 b), a gesture that calls attention to the familiar, near-universal lunar symbolism of horns, which confirms the role of the dots as “month” signs. Possibly as another hint at the signature three “month” signs of the Octaëteris, the horns of the right-hand bison are marked with three red dots (Fig. 16 a, upper right).

Rudimentary versions of the Octaëteris: Gabillou and Lascaux

Knowledge of the luni-solar calendar was not confined to the Pyrenees and northern Spain. As mentioned above, the calendrical Taï plate comes from eastern France. We also find evidence of the eight-year scheme—though simplified, compared with the full display in Tuc d’Audoubert—in some caves of south-central France. We shall here consider a rather plain version in Gabillou, Dordogne.

In this sanctuary, a long horizontal line of short, uniform strokes stands out as a unique feature among numerous engraved figures and signs (Fig. 17 a). The standard publication on Gabillou (Gaussen 1964) lists the number of strokes as sixty-three; but of these, one short stroke looks merely accidental (marked x in Fig. 17 a), and the authors G. and H. Bosinski actually count sixty-two in their revision of the cave (2003, 63). The line of strokes show no meaningful division into segments, but we may detect evidence of counting by six (perhaps, twelve), even though this too is debatable. In any case, the sixty-two strokes instantly resonate with the thirty-one month segments of the Octaëteris, not as two such units (totalling 62), which would seem meaningless, but rather as one unit in which each month is counted as two halves, a waxing and a waning half. This would be in agreement with the general, binary principle of Upper Palaeolithic thought (cf. chapter X).

Gabillou provides ample evidence of a dualistic understanding of lunations, notably in the form of a handful of bison figures that are pictured with symmetrical, crescent-shaped horns (in so-called “twisted perspective”), one horn signifying the waxing moon, the other horn the waning moon (Fig. 17 b, c, and d). In one instance (Fig. 17 c), three deeply-scored strokes across the horn of such a bison figure may well refer to the three intercalated moons of the Octaëteris (without ruling out other feasible associations of the numerical three).

Considering the many artistic conventions common to Gabillou and Lascaux, we may not be surprised to find comparable formulations of the Octaëteris in these two caves. Engraved in the Apse of Lascaux, we actually find a gathering of two kinds of signs that both are unique to the large cave, but which resonate with Octaëteris designs in the Pyrenees and Cantabria. In the first place, we find two long, parallel lines of dot-like marks (each formed by several diminutive, scratched strokes). Each line contains close to a hundred marks (Leroi-Gourhan & Allain 1979, Plate XIV). A. Glory, who traced the tangled web of engravings in the Apse, ventured a count of ninety-four for the top line and, presumably, about the same for the bottom one (idem, 262). This is, certainly, quite close to the ninety-three months for the three essential segments of the Octaëteris. Unfortunately, Glory’s rendition (idem, Plate XIV) shows a significant number of these dots as crowded so tightly that a definitive count may be impossible. With the Gabillou scheme in mind, we may speculate that the artists of Lascaux, too, perceived the calendar to be composed of half-months, so that their two parallel lines represent one cycle of dual, waxing-and-waning, months, rather than two entire cycles of the eight-year calendar. Also in the Apse, engraved above the two long lines of dots, we find a group of three P-shaped “month” signs of the type familiar from sanctuaries of the Pyrenees (idem, Pl. XIV, and p. 364). Significantly, these are the only signs of this kind in all of Lascaux, so that their close proximity to the two files of dots adds credibility to the notion that the ensemble illustrates the Octaëteris.

The origins and subsequent diffusion of the Octaëteris remain to be explored, but the three “month” signs of Lascaux may point to the sanctuaries of the Pyrenees as the ultimate source for the Dordogne artists’ knowledge of the eight-year calendar. Actually, some sanctuaries close to Tuc d’Audoubert contain calendrical designs that are possible models for those in Gabillou and Lascaux. Thus, the Gallery of Dots in Trois-Frères features parallel lines of black and red dots with an estimated count of one hundred and eighty-seven (R. Bégouën et al. 2012, 98). As in Lascaux, the suggested count is about twice the number of months of an eight-year cycle (2 x 93 = 186), and again like Lascaux, the doubling of files may suggest a grand cycle measured by half-months.

Features of The Octaëteris

The above analyses and conclusions obtain a certain degree of factual solidity because they are based on engraved or painted marks that are available in substantial numbers. This level of objectivity is all the more firm as the topic of the Octaëteris is easily circumscribed and the mechanics of the calendar are, in themselves, rather trivial. If we, however, want to investigate the underlying causes for the Palaeolithic artists’ fascination with these apparently mundane calendrical principles, we enter an elusive field of study, in which our observations may be more selective and our conclusions more subjective. Such a study is, however, warranted, because we are bound to acknowledge that no simple theory of plain, utilitarian motivations could explain the illustrations of calendars located deep inside caves, removed from any every-day, practical purposes. Like much else in the cave sanctuaries, they functioned as ritual acts and embraced a complex web of ideas and beliefs. The calendrical theme was different only in its focus on the harmony of sun and moon and special only in its ambition to periodically re-adjust the grand cycle of time. This concern with balance not withstanding, we can tell that the artists cared deeply about the outcome of their calendrical endeavors, and that they, far from being neutral or disengaged, strongly preferred images that project regeneration and growth over ones that signal retreat and decline, although both aspects are integral and equal parts of any cycle of time. Without a doubt, waxing-type (P-shaped) “month” signs vastly outnumber waning-type (reverse P-shaped) ones. Let us reiterate that the P-signs are conventional representations of the first quarter moon (always to the left of the sun, and thus, convex to the right, as shown in Fig. 18 g), and as such, they carry a clear message of revival and new growth. In the Chapel of Months at Tuc (Fig. 1), the ninety-nine months are (with one, perhaps two, exceptions) represented by new and growing moons.

<h4class=”wp-block-heading”>A preference for the waxing moon

Some insight into the artists’ predilection may be gathered from a distinct motif that marks off the numbers of days associated with phases of the growing moon. Specific to a small (but impressive) group of caves in the Pyrenees, this motif consists of a P-type sign in juxtaposition with one or two lines of numerical dots (Fig. 18 a-e, and Fig. 19 b ). As the “month” signs are of the waxing category, we shall read these groups accordingly: when just one line is included, that one counts the days from new moon to first quarter (six to eight days); when a second line is included, that one adds the number of days from first quarter to full moon ( seven to nine days). For example, an engraving in the Chamber of Heel-Prints in Tuc (Fig. 18 a) has six dots for the first quarter and nine for the second quarter. A sign in Trois-Frères (Fig. 18 b) has a line of three paired marks plus a group of three, which allows for optional readings of six and nine (while not excluding the numerical three, as mentioned above). In Portel (Fig. 18 c) we find six dots plus seven. Niaux has several panels that present the theme, including one with a line of seven dots (Fig. 18 d), and another one that features two “month” signs and composite lines of dots with, respectively, six tiny dots and nine large ones (Fig. 18 e). A third, more complex panel has two opposite “month” signs, with the “waxing” one (Fig. 19 b, to the right) accompanied by a horizontal row of fifteen dots (Fig. 19 b, at the bottom), and this row (framed by a fish-like design) is sub-divided into seven and eight dots. We may add that the above-mentioned group of six red “month” signs in Pindal is associated with lines of six and eight dots (Fig. 13 a, and b).

All this attention to the first quarter moon (initially) and the full moon (eventually) is comprehensible if we contemplate the appearance of the first, faint sight of the new crescent moon, briefly spotted around sunset, low in the sky, thin, and pale in the vicinity of the sun (cf. Fig. 18 f), and if we, then, compare that shallow look to the self-assured appearance of the first quarter moon, already high in the sky at sunset (cf. Fig. 18 g). In this context, it is worth recalling that the Celts of the Roman era (according to Pliny’s Natural History) celebrated the beginning of their month at the first quarter, expressly because the moon by then had regained its strength (Olmsted 1992). For the Palaeolithic artists, the sun and the moon were more than cosmic clockworks, and the luni-solar calendar–besides being the solution to a logistic puzzle–addressed principles of broad and vital significance. The very fact that the artists of Tuc and elsewhere articulated the Octaëteris by way of moon-shaped “month” signs suggests that their calendar affected all those aspects of life that were believed to be ruled by the moon. Principally, that encompassed everything related to fertility and growth (cf. Chapter VIII). Indeed, if we review the just-mentioned theme of “month” signs accompanied by rows of dots, we find that the numbers of dots may refer equally well to the rhythms of human (and animal) fertility as to phases of the moon. Thus, the nine dots in the Tuc example (Fig. 18 a) may number the nine months of an average human pregnancy, while also counting the days of growth from the new moon to the full moon (6 + 9 = 15), and the same applies to the nine dots of the Trois-Frères example (Fig. 18 b) as well as the nine in the Niaux case (Fig. 18 e, top right)–the swelling of the female womb readily compares with the increasing fullness of the moon.

In this perspective, the six large P-shaped “month” signs in the Pindal calendar (Fig. 13 a) seem to invite an anthropomorphic reading as stylized women. Thus, we may see the buckles of the first five signs as women’s breasts, whereas the sixth, noticeably different, buckle rather suggests an extended stomach. Bear in mind that this last sign marks the end of a segment of the Octaëteris, so that the implication of a pregnancy casts the calendrical process of calibration as a beneficial, life-generating act. Upper Palaeolithic peoples may well have spoken of this association using the same term as present-day practitioners of the Jewish calendar for whom a year with an intercalated month is a “pregnant” year. In this sense, the full-bellied Portel sign (Fig. 18 c) may well relate to both the thirteen days of optimal fertility in the menstrual cycle, and to a “pregnant” year—of thirteen months. The renewal and waxing of the moon was the template for the renewal and growth of life.

The year of twelve months

Contrary to the count of days for the phases of the moon, which–in the absence of universal standards–varied according to the individual artist’s judgment, the number of twelve lunar months per solar year was a given; it was the scheme that the luni-solar calendar aimed to maintain. With its regimen of intercalations, the Octaëteris efficiently served this purpose, and the artists acknowledged the achievement by inserting the numerical twelve into their calendrical compositions. In the Chamber of Heel-Prints of Tuc d’Audoubert, the artists represented the numerical twelve through a branching sign that is directly superimposed on the undulating image of the Octaëteris (Fig. 9 a, and b). This plant-like sign resembles a stem, lined on each side with twelve curled leaves that evoke twelve opposing crescents and readily recall the waxing and waning halves of twelve months. By itself, this sign evokes the yearly cycle of vegetal growth; in combination with the Octaëteris (Fig. 9 a), it identifies the latter as the force that sustains the regular year of twelve complete lunations. In the Castillo cave, as well, the numerical twelve is an integral component of the Octaëteris (Fig. 11 a, and c), and adjacent to this cross-like design we, furthermore, find several large, complex ideograms (Fig. 25 c, and d) that cleverly unite representations of the solar and lunar years while often embracing the numerical twelve. These signs suggest, simultaneously, the rectangular diagram of the four solar quarters, and the horn-like points of the lunar sickle. Both examples shown here (Fig. 25 c, and d) are divided into an expanding and a contracting half-year, each with a vertical bar that is sub-divided into six spaces, to the effect that each ideogram embraces the numerical twelve in the form of two integral sets of six months each. (This group of signs, and similar specimens in Altamira, are discussed in Chapter X).

Even without elaborate and explicit illustrations of the Octaëteris, the artists could hint at the calendrical subtext of their images by arranging a dozen lunar marks in a sequence that visually emulates the seasonal rhythm of the solar year. Thus, a series of twelve, binary, “month” signs in Lascaux (Fig. 20 b) are arranged in a falling half and a rising half so as to match the descending and ascending halves of the solar year. The same pattern was adopted for the twelve dots that accompany a P-shaped “month” sign in Bédeilhac (Fig. 22 a). More specific still, an object from La Vache (Fig. 22 b) has its four groups of crescent-shaped lines laid out in imitation of the four seasons, each with three months, each month with a waxing and a waning half. Such formulations might, however, distract us from the artists’ concern with the extended calendar that sustains the orderly schemes. If we reduce these illustration to mere factual statements (such as: “there are twelve months to a year”) we underestimate the artists’ intellectually and emotionally engaged exploration of the nature of time.

The Octaëteris and the solar horse

The above discussion of calendrical imagery is centered on representations of the moon, but the sun is present in equal measure; logically so, as the Octaëteris serves to harmonize the lunar year with the solar year. In distinction to the above-mentioned lunar images (“month” signs or dots), which are abstractions, representations of the sun are typically figurative, namely images of the horse, the preeminent solar motif of cave art (cf. Chapter V). We have seen a striking example of this convention in the Chapel of Months at Tuc d’Audoubert, where the horse in the rotunda–the single figurative presence here–is the focal point, the pivot around which the spectacle of the “month” signs unfolds (this horse is not included in our Fig. 1 ,but it is shown in the detail, Fig. 6). This strong exposure of the horse is the more remarkable as the bison, by and large, is the predominant motif of Tuc. In another sector of the cave, the Chamber of Vertical Bison, the association of a horse and the numerical twelve (i.e., twelve parallel lines) articulates the connection of calendar and sun, while a cloud of “month” signs around the horse speaks to the sun/moon symbiosis (Fig. 23 ). Trois-Frères contains an engraved horse that is inseparable from a file of twelve P-shaped “month” signs (Fig. 20 a), and again, this is a composition for which we may reasonably subsume a relationship with the eight-year calendar in Tuc, the twin-cave of Trois-Frères. A quite similar arrangement in Lascaux shows twelve binary “month” symbols extended across the body of a horse–that is, made to match the length of the solar year (Fig. 20 b). This configuration of “month” signs and horse is associated with the above-mentioned version of the Octaëteris, in the Apse of Lascaux, as the figure of the horse is located at the entrance to that small chamber. Reminiscent of the just-mentioned compositions, the cave of Pestillac (which is also in south-central France, far from the Pyrenees) shows a vigorous horse that is engraved in the ceiling, not far from a file of twelve lunar signs that are engraved on the wall below (Fig. 21 a, and b). We may speculate that in Pestillac, as in the above scene from Trois-Frères, the Octaëteris is the subsumed background knowledge.

The motif of the horse introduces an element of physicality into the otherwise theory-based calendrical scheme; the horses move the subject beyond dry, abstract numbers. This added dimension is, for example, evident in the mobility and vitality of the just-mentioned horse in Trois-Frères (Fig. 20 a), remarkably so in the stallion’s huge, erect sex organ, which is associated with one waxing-type “month” sign–two symbols of growth and fertility pointedly connected. In this image, everything goes together to pronounce the successful renewal of the year: the horse’s dynamic movement; the surge of the twelve waxing-type “month” signs; and, the sexual display. Keeping in mind that the foremost part of the solar horse represents the spring half of the year (cf. Chapter V), we must read the twelve waxing-type “moons” aligned with the horse’s front legs and forequarters to signify the joint renewal of a lunar year and a solar year. Based on similarity with the Chapel of Months in the adjacent cave of Tuc ( Fig. 6 ) we may conjure that what the Trois-Frères scene implies is neither that the solar horse empowers the moon, nor that the “months” animate the sun, but that the Octaëteris is, itself, the driving force.

Dramatically enhancing the significance of the forequarters, the motif of a horse in a vertically rising position–a variation on the above theme–enhances descriptions of the advancing new year. In particular, the vertical ascent may relate to the spring awakening of the very first year in a restored grand cycle of years. This reading is certainly pertinent in the just-mentioned panel of Tuc d’Audoubert (Fig. 23 ), where the vertical horse is part of a scene that is replete with references to the Octaëteris. The same reasoning applies to Pindal, where the main wall, with its conspicuous Octaëteris design, includes both a red-painted head of a horse (Fig. 13 a, to the right) and an engraved horse that is placed high on the wall and in a vertical position (Fig. 13 e). Thus, the celebration of a new eight-year cycle, which is the main theme, finds expression in the energies of a new year. The blessings brought by that new year are, indeed, manifest in the flamboyant group of large, red “month” signs, notably, in the “pregnant” one in the front of the line (Fig. 13 a).

In the single gallery of Gabillou, the cave’s lapidary version of the Octaëteris (Fig. 17 a) is engraved vis-ȧ-vis the image of a vertical horse (Gaussen 1964; no. 84), just as several other ascending horses occur at different points of the cave. Among these, we find one (Fig. 17 f) that carries a large phallic sign on its body (reminiscent of the Trois-Frères stallion, Fig. 20 a). Again, this demonstrates the new vitality of a rising year, which the artists apparently attributed to the knowing application of the calendar. The restoration of time affects the solar and lunar years, jointly, and the artists of Gabillou articulated this symbiosis through yet another special treatment of the solar horse theme, namely, by depicting some of the cave’s horse figures with eyes that are curiously moon-shaped. Thus, a red-painted horse with a large “full-moon” eye (Fig. 17 e) is juxtaposed with the engraved calendar. Another appearance of the motif occurs in a panel that manages to gather all of the following: lunar horns, quarter moon sign, phallic sign, and, the moon-eyed horse (Fig. 17 d).

Due to our focus on the luni-solar calendar, the above illustrations relate solely to representations of the moon and the sun;, while ignoring other, associated images; yet, the cosmic harmony sustained by the Octaëteris had repercussions throughout creation and was reflected in a variety of images pertaining to the progression of the seasons (cf. Chapter VII), For an example of this aspect of calendrical imagery, consider the head of a reindeer in Tuc d’Audoubert’s Chamber of Vertical Bison (Fig. 23). It looms large in a panel that also includes a vertical horse, a series of twelve marks, and numerous lunar signsWe can hardly ignore the connection between this deer and the calendrical sub-text, the more so as the deer, too, is surrounded by “month” signs, one of which is demonstratively superimposed on the deer’s antlers, combining two symbols that both spell “growth.” The sequence of growth/loss/re-growth of antlers relates readily to calendrical cycles, and deer–or just their antlers–are also elements of the above panels of Trois-Frères, Castillo, Pindal, Gabillou, and Lascaux (though ignored in our illustrations), as well as on the staff from Abri Mège ( Fig. 12 b).

Atrophy: the waning of the luni-solar cycle

Given that a down-turning phase is inherently part of any time cycle, a study of the Palaeolithic Octaëteris must include some consideration of its negative side, even though the artists of that age clearly preferred themes of up-swing over themes of down-turn. We may suspect that this devotion to renewal, growth, and cosmic harmony covers a latent fear of decline and atrophy. The preference for waxing-type, P-shaped “month” signs notwithstanding, we may not ignore a few, discreetly used, waning-type, reverse-P signs, just as the assertive, vertically ascending horses in cave decorations typically find their gloomy, descending counterparts.

The large, cross-like Octaëteris in Castillo (Fig. 10) is part of an ensemble that bluntly acknowledges the two sides of the matter, both the demolition of orderly time and its re-creation. The setting for this complex whole is a narrow and rough corridor in the lower part of the cave (Fig. 25 a, and b) where a collection of cosmograms and calendrical signs comment on two images of horses. The latter are, by themselves, a study in contrasts. The first horse (at y in Fig. 25 b) is turned toward the depths of the mountain, and everything about this figure relates to the fall/winter half of the year: the animal is mortally wounded, its head hangs low, the figure is placed at floor level, and even the long ears droop dramatically. By contrast, the second horse (at z in Fig. 25 b) clearly represents the revived year: it faces outward, and is elevated to the top of the wall, just below the ceiling. A number of associated ideograms effectively convey the larger story; notably, the striking red sign that is inserted between the two figures (Fig. 25 c). As mentioned above, this sign articulates the inter-locked patterns of sun and moon, and by its pivotal position, it pronounces the destinies of the flanking horses: their disappearance-and-return, death-and-revival. This large sign states in condensed form what the Octaëteris in the back of the niche (at w in Fig. 25 b) demonstrates in full: the fundamental principle behind the yearly cycle.

Just as the P-shaped signs convey the growth-potential and vital powers of the waxing moon, so the reversed-P signs portend the negative connotations of decay and death associated with the waning moon. We see this distinction in Trois-Frères, where the stallion with the twelve P-shaped “month” signs carries one backward-P sign on its rear quarters (Fig. 20 a), which is entirely meaningful, because the horse embodies the solar year; consequently, the waxing-type “months” belong with the forequarters, which represent the new year, while the waning-type “month” sign belongs with the hindquarters, which are symbolic of the old year. For sure, the artist’s propensity for the aspect of renewal shows itself in the way the thirteen P-signs in the ensemble out-weigh the single reversed-P sign; but even so, the aspect of decline was recognized as one side of creation. In Tuc d’Audoubert, where the overwhelming display of waxing-type “month” signs reveals the enthusiasm directed at a new dispensation of energies, the waning-type “month” signs have their moments as well. Twice we find them placed at the hindquarters of horses, as in the Trois -Frères scene (Fig. 24 a and e), and once, they form a group of their own in a secluded spot (Fig. 24 d ). In other caves, as well, waning-type “month” signs are relegated to remote areas, as is the case in Niaux, where some panels that bluntly confront the two types of signs are located in the inner sections of the sanctuary, even at the very end (Fig. 19 c). Another inner-cave panel in Niaux combines two “month” signs, one of each type, with several features that suggest a calendrical design (Fig. 19 b). All of this suggests that, for the artists, moments of decline and crisis were best–perhaps most safely–displayed far from the sphere of ordinary life outside the cave depths.

On closer inspection, elements of the just-mentioned panel in Niaux (Fig. 19 b) appear to directly address the down-side of the eight-year cycle through the unique motif of a centered circle, which the panel presents twice, once with eleven dots, and once with fifteen dots (Fig. 19 b). With the Octaëteris in mind, the numerical eleven right away evokes the gap of eleven days that separates the lunar and solar years, and which constitutes the very problem at the root of the luni-solar calendar (cf. Fig. 2 a). That this was, indeed, the point of reference for the circle of eleven dots, appears to be confirmed by yet another panel in the inner section of Niaux, in which three lines of dots, each numbering eleven, are grouped in splendid isolation (Fig. 19 a). The arrangement in two parallel, curved lines and a third, straight one, may illustrate the principle of the Octaëteris, whereby two consecutive years jointly account for a luni-solar discrepancy of twenty-two days (2 x 11); a gap that would increase to thirty-three days (3 x 11) if not intercepted by an intercalation in the third year (cf. Fig. 2 c). In this reading, the two curbed lines show the lunar excess of the two first, unregulated years, and the straight line stands for the third, regulated year. Support for this view may be found in the odd articulation of this straight line, in which one dot is placed in isolation, precisely at the middle (Fig. 19 a , to the left). According to the two-and-a-half year convention for intercalations (every thirty months, as seen in the Chapel of Tuc and elsewhere), the extra month is inserted at the mid-point of the third year, to the effect that only five or six days–not the full eleven for the year–are recovered with the intercalation. The division of the straight line appears to be the artist’s attempt to visualize the arithmetic of the procedure, and to explain the total number of days–twenty-seven or twenty-eight–retrieved by the intercalation-every-thirtieth-month formula (cf. Fig. 2 c ).

Returning to Niaux’s circle of eleven dots (Fig. 19 b) and assuming that it refers to the obstructive eleven-day gap, we are led by the same line of thinking to, again, see the panel’s twenty-seven dots in straight lines (as different from those in circles) as a reference to the days recovered by an intercalation. Beyond that, this panel teaches us more about the artists’ understanding of the Octaëteris, namely that the number eleven had ominous connotations for Palaeolithic numerologists. As the measure of the obtrusive gap that perpetually separates the lunar and solar cycles, the numerical eleven was inherently a symbol of loss and deficiency, and thus, a carrier of negative sentiments. This assumption finds support in two features of the panel. In the first place, the contrast between the two circles of dots on either side of the panel (Fig. 19 b) posits the numerical eleven against the numerical fifteen, and because the latter number certainly conveyed positive connotations—to the full moon, pregnancy, growth, completion—it makes for a strong counterpoint to the negative eleven. In the second place, the central grid of twelve dots appears to be an intentional contrast to the circle of eleven (the grid is evidently shaped to accommodate the adjacent circle), so that the felicitous twelve–the ideal number of months per year–opposes the nefarious eleven, the number that frustrates efforts to achieve that ideal. In keeping with those numerical contrasts, the panel’s two “month” signs are also intentional opposites–one a waxing-type P sign, the other a waning-type reverse-P sign. Thus, both the numerical signs and the “month” signs embrace the duality of expansion and contraction; both reflect the workings of the Octaëteris. We may add that a third panel in Niaux (Fig. 18 e) again sets the ominous eleven (the large dots, above) against the reassuring fifteen (the 6 + 9, below).

Chaos: the perils of time

Palaeolithic artists were reluctant to show the down-turns and low points of calendrical cycles, because–we may speculate–they feared a primordial, time-less chaos that they imagined to exist beyond the limits of the orderly, created world (cf. Chapter IX). Evidently, the grand calendar was understood as guarding that order, and failure to maintain its cycle was perceived as a potential risk of returning to the primordial abyss, casting time into oblivion. Quite likely, the artists’ vision of a world-before-creation was somewhat nebulous, yet, they had means of illustrating two key concepts: they could show chaos by way of intentionally confused and shapeless designs; and, they could show the threat to order through gruesome, imaginary creatures. We find applications of both conventions in connection with the Octaëteris.

We can tell that anxiety about the time-less world-before-creation was on the minds of the artists who decorated Tuc’s Chapel of Months, because their visual celebration of structured time (cf. Fig. 1) was preceded by a phase of work during which the walls of the rotunda and apse were covered with randomly meandering lines of the type known by the colloquial term “macaroni.” These ambling lines (drawn with a three- or four-pronged tool) swirl around aimlessly, occasionally crossing each other without, however, generating regular patterns or meaningful shapes (Bégouën et al. 2009, 150; for clarity, these meanders are omitted from our Fig. 1). Thus, the orderly rows of “month” signs literally override the unruly flutings, to the effect that the artistic process, itself, imitates events at the creation of the world; we witness structured time arising out of timeless chaos. Another panel of shapeless “macaroni” is found in the cave’s Gallery of Bison Sculptures, the gallery that takes the visitor farthest into the mountain. At the beginning of this trajectory, a panel of nothing but fluted meanders alerts the visitor to the realm of primeval forces, apparently an ominous presence in the depths of the mountain (Fig. 24 h). Beyond the macaronis, at the innermost point–in a zone that, perhaps, was perceived as the inter-face between two realms–we find the serpentine Octaëteris design (Fig. 24 j). Here, artistic design seemingly joins cave topography to capture the moment of creation and, in particular, the very beginning of time as a structural element of world order. This belief in the calendar as the bulwark against chaos was, no doubt, widely shared, and we find a quite similar encounter of chaos and calendar in the main panel of Armintxe, in northern Spain (Fig. 26). Here a number of large, winding meanders confront three “month” signs that, almost certainly, stand for the Octaëteris. The three calendrical signs suggest a powerful spell—thrice cast—that conquers the forces of chaos. These features of Armintxe are highly reminiscent of the Chapel of Months in Tuc d’Audoubert.

The primordial monsters that we occasionally find on the periphery of calendrical designs pose an open threat to the accustomed regularity of time and space, an antagonism that is projected by the otherworldly forms of these beings (cf. Chapters VIII, and IX). On entering the Gallery of Bison Sculptures in Tuc (Fig. 24 g), a tight passage brings the visitor face-to-face with at least half-a-dozen sinister, imaginary beings (Bégouën et al. 2009, 227). Their location, close to the just-mentioned meanders (Fig. 24 h) is clearly intentional and indicative of their character. A review of caves with illustrations of eight-year calendars shows that Gabillou, too, features a notorious ensemble of fantastic creatures (Gaussen 1964, Pl. 59), that the Apse of Lascaux has a handful of lion-like monsters (Leroi-Gourhan and Alain, 1979, Pl. VII-VIII), and, that the prospective calendar in Trois-Frères’ Gallery of Dots is watched over by a red-eyed, reptilian monster (Bégouën et al. 2014, 96). Indeed, time itself was understood as having been snatched from the jaws of chaos; strong adversaries were perpetually threatening to return the world to a state of confusion and bring time to an end.

The Octaëteris at the core of Tuc d’Audoubert

The artists of Tuc took an exceptional interest in the calendar, and we may want to know how this obsession with ideas about time fits into the over-all program for the cave’s decoration. The predominant motif in Tuc is, for sure, the bison, and correspondingly, the creation of the earth is a major theme (cf. Chapter III). The story of time may, however, rival that theme as the cave’s main topic, considering the fact that signs representing time are found in every corner of the cave. In addition, the horses of Tuc–though less numerous than the bison–remain a strong presence, enough so as to allow identification of a narrative about the solar year and the seasons, a story that we can trace, like a thread through the bulk of the decoration. Though we shall discuss only a handful of horses in Tuc, these select examples are spaced sequentially through the cave, so that they may capture the unfolding of a cycle of time.While focused on the horse/sun theme, this narrative is perpetually connected with the parallel story of the moon, because many of the cave’s “month” signs adhere tightly to figures of horses (cf. Fig. 1, and Fig. 23), establishing the relationship between lunar and solar years, hence giving testimony to the workings of the Octaëteris.

The lay-out of the cave is largely determined by the course of the river Volp, and the galleries are entered only via the bed of its subterranean stream (Fig. 24). The Volp flows through the cave in the direction south-east to north-west, and the narrative responds to the cosmic alignments of this trajectory, beginning at the farthest south-eastern point of the cave which is the direction of the (rising) sun at midwinter, and culminating in the farthest north-western sector which is the direction of the (setting) summer solstice sun. Indeed, the main image in the first (innermost) decorated chamber perfectly matches mid-winter, the dead point of the year, as it shows a horse (Fig. 24 a) that is tilted down-ward, with its head low (overhanging a steep drop to the river), and its body marked by large projectiles and wounds. This, obviously, represents the demise of the solar year, but not just that, for the lunar year is also negatively affected, as shown by the waning-type “month” sign that accompanies the horse. This sign is of the last-quarter, reversed-P type, and it is unmistakably associated with the winter-bound hind-quarters of the horse (like the comparable specimen in Trois-Frères, Fig. 20 a). More than just the hardship of winter, the configuration illustrates the mutual decline of the lunar and solar years, destitute of their prodigious harmony. This describes a moment of crisis for the calendar.

Winter solstice marks the end of the waning half of the year and, simultaneously, the beginning of the waxing half, for the lowest point of the year is precisely the moment when the cycle must turn over, unless time shall grind to a halt. Indeed, a first, faint move toward recovery is noticed in the back of the south-eastern chamber. Here, inside a niche, we find the cave’s first right-turned “month” sign (Fig. 24 b), albeit a waxing-type sign that remains ensnared in the coils of a meandering scroll. This shapeless “macaroni” shows the lingering presence of primordial chaos, and the superimposition evokes the (time-less) abyss, from which emerging time struggles to escape.

From the southern-most chamber, the visitor follows the river–and thus, the progression of the year–to reach the next decorated section, closer to the main cave. The outstanding figure here is, again, a horse, but now, one that is painted all red (Fig. 24 c). This is the only significant figure in the cave to be painted red, and the warm, red wash tells of the advancement of the year past the cold of winter. The solar year is manifestly turning, heading into recovery. The luni-solar calendar, however, remains non-functional, bereft of the power to keep sun and moon in sync, as evinced by the group of “month” signs located in a niche close by the red horse (Fig. 24 d). Numbering eight, these signs certainly refer to the eight-year calendar (each probably signifying the first month of a year), but the striking fact about them is that all eight are of the “waning” type. Considering the almost total predominance of “waxing” signs everywhere else in the cave, this unique group of backward-P signs unequivocally states that an eight-year grand cycle is spent, its renewal in limbo.

The renewal of the calendar is, indeed, the main topic farther on, in the northern-most part of the cave, and principally, the re-instatement of the Octaëteris is the celebrated event in the Chapel of Months (Fig. 24 f). The solar horse at the peak of the Chapel’s dome shows the sun regaining its powers, pushed ahead by the avalanche of “waxing” moons, or vice-versa, pulling along the files of “month” signs; the two views can hardly be separated in the context of the lunar-solar calendar. Subsequently, the Chamber of Vertical Bison shows the full effect of the reconstructed calendar as reflected in the restored harmony of solar and lunar years. Situated at the extreme north-western point of the cave (Fig. 24, e), this chamber is aligned with the summer sun and, thus, naturally selected as the location for the display of the mentioned, vertical horse rising in a cloud of waxing-type “month” signs (with a single waning-type one, tellingly placed below its rump). This is a triumphant image of the solar year in its prime. The new dispensation of vital energies is also proclaimed by the large reindeer that figures prominently in the composition (Fig. 23). Having arrived at this point, we can not miss the contrast between the ascending, summer-bound horse here, and the descending, winter-bound figure in the inner chamber (Fig. 24 a)–the former, surrounded by signs of growth, the latter marked by deadly wounds.

So far, we have followed the main axis of Tuc, tracing the Volp in pursuit of a cogent narrative of sun, moon, and calendar. The cave has, however, another, extremely long extension, the Gallery of Bison Sculptures, which follows its own path into the depths of the mountain (Fig. 24 g, to j). The entrance to this gallery is abrupt, even dangerous, and it is at this point that we find the mentioned group of monsters as well as the last of the horses, which is to say that we witness the demise of the solar year. The final horse is caught between two large monsters (Bégouen et al. 2009, 230), and travelling on from here, we move ever closer to the final dissolution of time.

More than a thousand feet beyond the above-mentioned panels of monsters and meandering scrolls (Fig. 24 g, and h), the gallery terminates in the chamber of the famous bison sculptures (Fig. 24 j). As discussed elsewhere (cf. Chapter III), these two clay models of bison allude to the creation of the earth, and adjacent to them, in the tiny Chamber of Heel-Prints (Fig. 24 i), we find the cave’s innermost rendition of the Octaëteris with its allusion to the creation of time. At this point, the artists were so far beyond the limits of the ordinary, known world that they very well might have felt close to an early, unsettled stage in the creation of the world, at the threshold of a realm that once bore witness to the origins of space and time. As they drew the ciphers of the calendar on the ageless surface of an untouched floor of clay, they may not have distinguished between the primordial revelation of structured time and their own ritual re-enactment of that original event. The serpentine form of the design here (Fig. 24 i) is congenial with the idea that the calendar originated at a moment, when time crystallized out of the timeless flow of a watery abyss. Within the decorative program of the cave, there is logic to the fact that this humble, fluid beginning precedes the full-scale, rigidly organized, display in the Chapel of Months. Travelling back to the outer cave, the artists were–again–moving forward in time, returning to the world of (re-)established spatial and temporal order.