Story of the Bear
Work in progress on the introductory panels in the Grotte Chauvet tells me that we can expect to find a story or stories of hunting in the cave. I think that one of the stories may be familiar.
In the Salle du Crâne, there is an installation about which there is very little published information. However, the shape should be recognisable to any amateur astronomer. It is the bowl of the big dipper, as seen in the evening of an autumn sky. A diagram of the installation’s shape can be seen on the right.
The next image on the right is the Big Dipper in the night sky above the horizon. The view is from Chauvet looking due north (0 degrees) with the field of view set to 52 degrees (45 degrees is comparable to the unaided eye). I chose the date of September 19, 2013 because it was the date of the Mid Autumn Festival, which celebrates the brightest full moon of the year. I set the time at 23:36 UTC, which is my estimate of solar midnight for Chauvet (Marseille plus four minutes¹).
It struck me that γ Ursae Majoris (Phecda) appears to be aligned with north, so I tested the data for the solar equinox. The solar equinox for 2013 was the 25 September by which time the sun had moved 3 degrees², and midnight no longer gave the perfect alignment between γ Ursae Majoris and north. I therefore think that the measurement was always done when the azimuth of the mid autumn sunset was at 272 degrees. Above right is the same view for 1993 when the sunset was at 272 degrees on 20 September³. Unfortunately, I don’t have any data for earlier years.
The link between north and midnight is interesting. The Polish word for north is północna, which means on midnight.
I have enlarged and labelled the diagram of the installation, so that you can see how the stars can be used to determine both solar midnight and north when the sunset is at 272 degrees.
In China one of the names for γ Ursae Majoris is Tiān Jī 天璣. My improvisation of an archaic version of the character jī (below) tells us in a beautifully succinct manner how γ Ursae Majoris was used to determine midnight. The ceremonial jade was probably a sighting-tube.
The question that I have for the astronomers is: Is it possible to date the installation? The stars portrayed in the installation may have moved over time. It would be interesting to plot their positions around 32,000 years ago⁴, and compare those positions with the positions in the installation.
In the image on the right, I have superimposed the arrows from the diagram (orange lines) on the horizon view from 2013. The gradient of the line between α Ursae Majoris and β Ursae Majoris appears to be different, but the accuracy of all of the data needs to be verified by someone who has access to the original installation in the cave.
I like the Finnish association of the Big Dipper with the name Otava. Otava is a very old name for a net that was strung across a weir to catch salmon. In Chauvet the bear has its head in the net, and I can imagine it gorging itself on salmon.
However, in order for the story to survive for thousands of years, I think that we need to add a little action. One action story that seems to be quite a good fit comes from the Algonquin. Key aspects of the story, as told by Kathy Miles⁵, are:
There is a bear that is making a nuisance of itself by raiding a village; stealing food and damaging property.
The people appoint the best hunters from across the whole world. The bear runs away from the hunters. The chase goes on for a very long time, and eventually moves to the sky. Note that the Big Dipper is visible in much of the Northern Hemisphere throughout the night and throughout the year (the whole world). It rotates around the North Star, giving the impression that the hunters (handle) are chasing the bear (bowl).
In the autumn a hunter succeeds in wounding the bear with an arrow. Blood drips down from the wound, and colours the leaves red. The arrow is a symbolic link to the underlying astronomy. It has an angular shape, and when fired it connects two points with a straight line.
The story of the blood dripping down may explain why in ancient China black was associated with the direction north and red with the direction south, and also why the Grotte Chauvet appears to be colour coded with black and red.
Diagrams of the installation: Lynn Fawcett, January 2014: After Image: Grotte Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc. Carte de localisation des structures anthropiques actuellement identifiées: Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Jean-Michel Geneste, Bruno David, Margaret Katherine, R.g. Gunn et Ray l. Whear, 2012: Apports de la géomorphologie dans l’aménagement et la construction sociale de sites préhistoriques. Exemples de la grotte Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc (France) et de Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australie): Figure 2: Paleo, Revue d’Archéologie Préhistorique, numéro 23, p. 85-104: http://paleo.revues.org/docannexe/image/2291/img-2.jpg: Accessed: 12 January 2014
Views of the horizon looking north for an observer at the Grotte Chauvet: Coordinates: 44°23'N 4°24'E: Dates as given in the text: Your Sky by John Walker: http://www.fourmilab.ch/yoursky/: Accessed: January 2014
Archaic version of the character jī (improvised to facilitate annotation): Lynn Fawcett, January 2014: After image: Character jī: Reference number: L02405: Richard Sears, 2013: Chinese Etymology: The history of Chinese characters: http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx?submitButton1=Etymology&characterInput=%E7%92%A3: Accessed: 13 January 2014
1., 2. and 3. Data for the azimuth of the sunset, and the basis for the calculation of solar time from Time and Date: Sunrise and Sunset in Marseille: 2013: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy.html?n=330&month=9&year=2013&obj=sun&afl=-1&day=1: and 1993: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy.html?n=330&month=9&year=1993&obj=sun&afl=-1&day=1: Accessed: 13 January 2014
4. Carbon 14 dating of samples of charcoal taken from the ground in the Salle du Crâne: Hélène Valladas, 2004: FIGURE 8. Résultats des datations carbone 14 réalisées dans la grotte Chauvet: La datation directe des peintures préhistoriques par la méthode du carbone 14 en spectrométrie de masse par accélérateur, p. 11: http://e2phy.in2p3.fr/2004/actes/Valladas.pdf: Accessed: 16 January 2014
5. Kathy Miles, 2007: The Many Faces of the Big Dipper: StarrySkies.com: http://starryskies.com/articles/2007/10/big-dip.php: Accessed: 13 January 2014