Humans had a sophisticated calendrical system thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to new research.
The discovery is based on a detailed analysis of data from an archaeological site in northern Scotland – a row of ancient pits which archaeologists believe is the world’s oldest calendar. It is almost five thousand years older than its nearest rival – an ancient calendar from Bronze Age Mesopotamia.
Created by Stone Age Britons some 10,000 years ago, archaeologists believe that the complex of pits was designed to represent the months of the year and the lunar phases of the month. They believe it also allowed the observation of the mid-winter sunrise – in effect the birth of the new year – so that the lunar calendar could be annually re-calibrated to bring it back into line with the solar year.
Remarkably the monument was in use for some 4,000 years – from around 8,000BC (the early Mesolithic period) to around 4,000BC (the early Neolithic).
The pits were periodically re-cut – probably dozens of times, possibly hundreds of times – over those four millennia. It is therefore impossible to know whether or not they originally held timber posts or standing stones after they were first dug 10,000 years ago. However variations in the depths of the pits suggest that the arc had a complex design - with each lunar month potentially divided into three roughly ten day ‘weeks’ – representing the waxing moon, the gibbous/full moon and the waning moon.
The 50 metre long row of 12 main pits was arranged as an arc facing a v-shaped dip in the horizon out of which the sun rose on mid-winter’s day. There are 12.37 lunar cycles (lunar months) in a solar year – and the archaeologists believe that each pit represented a particular month, with the entire arc representing a year.
The 12 pits may also have played a second role by representing the lunar month. Mirroring the phases of the moon, the waxing and the waning of which takes 29 and half days, the succession of pits, arranged in a shallow arc (perhaps symbolizing the movement of the moon across the sky), starts small and shallow at one end, grows in diameter and depth towards the middle of the arc and then wanes in size at the other end.
In its role as an annual calendar (covering 12 months – one for each pit), a pattern of alternating pit depths suggests that adjacent months may have been paired in some way, potentially reflecting some sort of dualistic cosmological belief system – known in the ethnographic and historical record in many parts of the world, but not previously detected archaeologically from the Stone Age.
Keeping track of time would have been of immense economic and spiritual use to the hunter gatherer communities of the Mesolithic period. Their calendar would have helped them to pinpoint the precise time that animal herds could be expected to migrate or the most likely time that salmon might begin to run.
But Stone Age communal leaders – potentially including Shamans – may also have used the calendar to give themselves the appearance of being able to predict or control the seasons or the behaviour of the moon and the sun.
The site – at Warren Field, Crathes, Aberdeenshire – was excavated in 2004 by the National Trust for Scotland, but the data was only analysed in detail over the past six months using the specially written software which permitted an interactive exploration of the relationship between the 12 pits, the local topography and the movements of the moon and the sun.
The analysis has been carried out by a team of specialists led by Professor Vincent Gaffney of the University of Birmingham.
“The research demonstrates that Stone Age society 10,000 years ago was much more sophisticated than we had previously suspected. The site has implications for the way we understand how Mesolithic society developed in economic, social and cosmological terms, ” said Professor Gaffney.
“The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year and that this occurred nearly 5000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East. In doing so, this illustrates one important step towards the formal construction of time and therefore history itself,” he said.