It is said that not everything that glitters is gold, but does this also apply to figurines carved into mammoth ivory fragments during the Ice Age? The Ach Valley tusk fragment that bears the image of an upright human figure is a case in point. Does the figure represent the constellation Orion, which would make it the oldest known star map with an age of about 32,000 years, or is the fragment merely a testament to the skill of the carver, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the stars?
The image above shows the front and back of a carved fragment of mammoth ivory measuring 38 mm x 14 mm x 4 mm that was discovered in 1979 inside the Geißenklösterle cave in the Swabian Alps of south-western Germany. The cave is just one of a complex system of caves that were all inhabited during the Upper Palaeolithic epoch that lasted from about 50,000 to about 10,000 years ago.
Excavations of the Geißenklösterle cave revealed six distinct layers that correspond to six different periods of habitation by separate cultures, one of which was the Aurignacian culture, about which nothing is known beyond the fact its people lived in the cave about 32,000 years ago, and that they were master carvers of mammoth ivory. Excavations of the cave subsequently brought to light the small carving that has become known as the “Adorant” due to its posture that could be interpreted as conveying adoration/worship. Some researchers have, however, interpreted the figure’s posture as either being aggressive or defensive.
One independent researcher, Dr Michael A. Rappenglück, formerly of the University of Munich, believes that among the thousands of stone tools, weapons, ivory flutes, and decorative items carved from stone and ivory recovered from the Geißenklösterle cave over many years, the figure on the ivory fragment represents the constellation Orion, which effectively, makes the ivory fragment a star map.
NOTE: In the interest of fairness, it must be pointed out that Dr Michael A. Rappenglück is well respected in academic circles, and that he has a solid grounding in both astronomy, and the history of astronomy. In fact, Dr Rappenglück holds an advanced degree in the History of Astronomy from the University of Munich, and he has served as the President of the Society of Archaeaoastronomy in Germany.
The Case for an Orion Star Map
It is not difficult to discern the figure of a human carved into the ivory, but the question about whether or not the figure represents the human-like figure of Orion the Hunter, is less easy to decide.
According to research published by Dr Rappenglück, the figure must be Orion, since the slim waist of the figure corresponds to the Belt of Orion, and the sword he sees hanging from the waist of the figure is easy to see in the real constellation. Moreover, Dr Rappenglück is at some pains to point out that the figurines’ left leg is somewhat shorter than the right leg, just as it is in the constellation. Therefore, the figure on the ivory fragment is Orion the Hunter.
In addition, since some of the stars in Orion have moved significantly over the past thirty centuries, and no longer corresponded to the positions of all the “stars” in the figurine, Dr Rappenglück used advanced planetarium software to “wind back” Orion’s’ stars to where they would have been at the time the figurine was carved. The result was that the stars in the “rewound” Orion exactly matched the shape and configuration of the ivory figurine, which begs the following question: Is the figure really an ancient map of the constellation Orion?
The Case Against an Orion Star Map
It may well be that the carved figure represents the constellation Orion, but the problem is that we have no way of knowing whether or not the Aurignacian culture, or for that matter, any other Upper Palaeolithic culture that inhabited this particular region, actually recognized patterns in the sky in the same way that subsequent cultures did.
In fact, we have no way of knowing anything about the Aurignacian culture, beyond what can be inferred from the thousands of artefacts they left behind, so let us look at what these artefacts tell us about their creators-
– They were expert carvers
The artefacts recovered from the Geißenklösterle cave include finely carved flutes, harpoons with barbs, pendants, beads, ivory and stone spear points, arrow points, clubs, knives, scrapers, and other everyday tools one would expect to find in site as old as this. However, researchers also found hundreds of small, carved figurines of mammoths, bears, and other animals. One such example is shown below:
This figurine of a bison shows some simple bas-relief in addition to faint detail like horns and a beard, despite the fact that it measures only 25.5 mm × 14.5 mm × 6 mm, which is comparable to the dimensions of the human-like figure of the putative Orion star map. The original carving is housed in the Württemberg Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.
While the existence of this particular carving does not prove anything beyond the fact that it shows exquisite workmanship, it is significant that neither Dr Rappenglück, nor any other archeaoastronomers have suggested that the figure represents the constellation Taurus, or any other constellation.
Of course, this does not prove that the Orion carving is not a star map, but the point is that only one artefact from among the thousands recovered from the cave is taken to represent a constellation. By all accounts, this is rather strange considering the sheer amount of artefacts that could also be taken as star maps, or representations of the objects/patterns in the night sky.
– No swords have been recovered
Dr Rappenglück claims that the Orion carving clearly shows a sword hanging from its waist. However, the shape of a sword hanging from Orion’s Belt is not readily apparent, and can only be “seen” when it is imagined, as every amateur astronomer knows. Therefore, since nothing that even resembles a sword has ever been recovered from the cave complex in the Ach River valley, it is difficult to see how an ancient artisan could have, or would have, incised the shape of a sword into the ivory when he had no knowledge of swords.
– Star maps are generally complex
While many researchers, including Marcel Boudouin (France), Henri Breuil (France, early work at Lascaux), Amandus Weiss (Switzerland), Heino Eelsalu (Estonia), and Marie König (Germany), have identified artefacts that may well be ancient star maps or representations of the heavens, these objects all differ from the Orion carving in one major respect.
There are too many examples of possible ancient star maps to list here, but these objects almost invariably include several objects, or elements that place the whole in some sort of perspective. This aspect of these objects implies (if it does not prove) that their creators saw the night sky as a whole, and that they may have understood the relationships the depicted objects had relative to each other. This is not the case with the Orion carving; it shows only the figure of a man-like being, and nothing else with which to place it into context with its surroundings in the sky.
It must be borne in mind that the Orion carving bears marks and incisions on its edges, which proves that it did not break off from a larger section that could perhaps have indicated other celestial objects relative to Orion.
– Dr Rappenglück’s claims is not supported by mainstream academia
Despite a diligent search, no professional astronomer or historian seems to have published anything anywhere that supports the idea that the Orion carving is indeed a representation of Orion. However, what most researchers do agree on is the fact that nobody can tell for sure what the figure represents, beyond the fact that it may be the first, and therefore, the oldest known representation of a human being.
However, Orion is one of the most easily recognized constellations in the entire night sky, and it would have been even more conspicuous under the dark skies of 32,000 years ago. Therefore, it may be reasonable to assume that the sight of a human-like figure looming over the world had impressed at least one ancient artisan sufficiently to reproduce the star pattern in mammoth ivory.
One more thing…
The reverse side of the Orion carving is dotted with 86 notches, which Dr Rappenglück claims is a “birth calendar”. According to Dr Rappenglück, if one subtracts 86 from the number of days in a year (365), one arrives at the average human gestation period, which is around 279 days, or nine months, give or take a few days either way.
Nevertheless, this implies that the Aurignacian culture could count, that they knew how many days there were in year, and that they understood and practiced basic arithmetic. Moreover, Dr Rappenglück also claims that the 86 notches on the carving also represent the number of days that one of Orion’s principal stars, Betelgeuse, is visible, thus forming a link between the sky gods and human fertility.