Some of the world's oldest cave paintings have shown how old people had relatively advanced knowledge of astronomy.
Artworks, in places throughout Europe, are not just images of wildlife, as previously thought. On the other hand, animal symbols represent star constellations in the night sky and are used to represent dates and highlight events as comets, explains the analysis.
They reveal that, perhaps as far back as 40,000 years ago, people traced time to use knowledge of how the stars of stars gradually change over thousands of years.
The results indicate that ancient people understood an effect caused by the gradual displacement of the Earth's axis of rotation. The discovery of this phenomenon, called the precession of the equinoxes, has previously been credited to the ancient Greeks.
Around the time that Neanderthals were extinct, and perhaps before humanity settled in Western Europe, people could define dates within 250 years, the study shows.
The results indicate that the astronomical insights of the old people were much larger than previously thought. Their knowledge may have helped navigate in the open sea, with consequences for our understanding of prehistoric human migration.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Kent studied details of Paleolithic and Neolithic art with animal symbols in places in Turkey, Spain, France and Germany.
They found all sites that used the same date for date retention based on sophisticated astronomy, even though the art was separated in time by tens of thousands of years.
Researchers prepared previous findings from a study of stone curves in one of these places – Gobekli Tepe in today's Turkey – interpreted as a memorial to a devastating comet strike around 11,000 BC. This strike believed to have initiated a mini-age called the younger Dryas period.
They also decoded what is probably the most famous ancient artwork – the Lascaux Shaft Scene in France. The work, which contains a dying man and several animals, can celebrate another comet battle around 15,200 BC, researchers suggest.
The team confirmed their results by comparing the age of many examples of cave art – known from the chemical dates used – with the positions of ancient stars predicted by sophisticated software.
The world's oldest sculpture, the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, from 38,000 BC, was also found to conform to this ancient magazine system.
This study was published in Athens Journal of History.
Dr Martin Sweatman, at the University of Edinburgh University of Technology, led the study, said: "Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky during the recent Ice Age. Intellectually, they were hardly different to us today.
"These findings support a theory of multiple impacts during human development and will probably revolutionize how prehistoric populations are seen."