Magdalenian Bone Calendars
A number of authors (e.g., Andre Leroi-Gourhan) have examined the possibility that Paleolithic engravings may have constituted a form of notation—certainly this is the case with the Azilian painted pebbles, but the name most associated with MagDalíenian bone calendars is that of Alexander Marshack of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Marshack determined that certain objects of art from the late Stone Age MagDalíenian, Solutrean, and Aurignacian periods of the Upper Paleolithic may have been not simply objets d’arts or hunting tallies but may have served as lunar calendars. The Upper Paleolithic period stretched from roughly 30,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, with some range of variation. This was during the height of the Würm glaciation, when much of the classic “cave art” is believed to have been produced.
Although polychromatic paintings of ice age animals found on cave walls (parietal art) in southwestern France and northern Spain, most notably those of Lascaux and Altamira, are the best-known examples of Upper Paleolithic art, portable art also exists from this time. Venus figurines often are displayed as examples of Upper Paleolithic portable art, but there also are objects of unknown use. Among these are pieces that Marshack claims represent calendars or seasonal notations. These are exemplified by a piece carved in the round on an antler. This carving, when rolled out on a flat matrix, represents reindeer, snakes, and salmon. The carvings show scratches that have been taken to be arrows. Marshack showed them to locals in the area where the piece was found, and they proclaimed the scratches to be farin sauvage, or wild wheat. Marshack determined that because of the antlers on the deer, the exposed genitalia on one of the snakes, the appearance of a hook on the jaw of a salmon on the carving, and the wild wheat in seed head, that the carving represented a short period of time in the spring when all of these factors co-occur.
Further, Marshack believed that he had found evidence of thousands of engraved and painted notational sequences from Spain to Russia and an actual lunar calendar showing phases of the moon carved into a piece of mammoth ivory from the Ukraine. For some, the most convincing evidence comes from a 10-centimeter-long ovaloid Aurignacian antler plaque from Blanchard, Dordogne. The Blanchard plaque shows 69 round and “paisley” pocks in a complex line that snakes back and forth across its flat surface. Marshack argues that when the pockmarks are microscopically examined, it is apparent that they were made over an extended time with multiple tool points and engraving pressures. The paisleys and circles correspond to the waxing, full, and waning moons over nearly two and a half months. The snakelike arrangement of the marks appeared to be the moon’s rising and setting positions to an observer facing south. Some of Marshack’s claims have been seconded in recent years by Francesco d’Errico by use of a scanning electron microscope. Although a number of people remain unconvinced by Marshack’s discoveries, it is undeniable that he has made a significant contribution to our understanding of Upper Paleolithic observational abilities.
Michael J. Simonton
See also Anthropology; Time, Prehistoric; Timepieces
Elkins, J. (1996). On the impossibility of close reading: The Case of Alexander Marschack. Current Anthropology, 37(2), 185-226.
Leroi-Gourhan, A. (1993). Gesture and speech (A. B. Berger, Trans.). Cambridge: MIT Press. (Original work published 1964)
Marschack, A. (1964). Lunar notation on Upper Paleolithic remains. Science, 146(3645), 743-745.
Marschack, A. (1972). Cognitive aspects of Upper Paleolithic engraving. Current Anthropology, 13(3-4), 445-477.
Marschack, A. (1991). The roots of civilization (rev. ed.). Mt. Kisko, NY: Moyer Bell. (Original work published 1972)