While today humans may gaze at the night sky with a personal telescope (or if you’re the Chinese government, a telescope the size of 30 football fields), ancient stargazers were limited to a more au naturel approach. But this doesn’t mean they were just laying in a field looking at the stars — astronomers now believe that the long, narrow corridors of ancient tombs may have served as the first astronomical observing tools.
This hypothesis is based off one grouping of tombs, in particular, the Seven-Stone Antas in the Alentejo region of Portugal. Last week, academics from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David announced at the 2016 National Astronomy Meeting that they believe the ancient tombs not only housed the deceased of early humans, but also were designed to act as a prehistoric version of a telescope. The long, narrow corridors act like a single aperture, allowing the viewing of stars to be enhanced.
The orientation of the tombs suggest that they are in alignment with Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. The researchers believe this placement was on purpose — observing the sky within the tombs likely allowed the viewer to accurately time the first appearance of this star, which might have signaled to ancient communities when they needed to move their herds and flocks to summer grazing grounds.
The process of observing the star, the researchers propose, was likely situated as an ancient ritual where “the initiated would spend the night inside the tomb, with no natural light apart from that shining down the narrow entrance lined with the remains of the tribe’s ancestors,” they said in a press release.
This discovery has prompted the research team to now look into how the human eye — without the aid of a telescope — could see stars given the brightness and color of the sky. They now plan on simulating the conditions of the passage graves in a laboratory to test whether people could see rising stars in twilight conditions.
At the heart of this discovery is a reminder that the celestial night sky has played a large part in human lives for thousands of years.
“Whether these really were the reasons why the passage tombs were originally built is hard to say for sure,” researcher Dr. Fabio Silva said in an interview with The Guardian. “But this kind of ‘archaeoastronomy’ highlights the fact that human beings have always been fascinated by the stars and that sky-watching has had an important role in human society for millennia.”