Found after 10,000 years: the world’s first calendar

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence