Prehistoric Humans Might Have Used This 6,000-Year-Old Telescope

Friday, 01 July 2016 - 3:04PM
Friday, 01 July 2016 - 3:04PM
Prehistoric Humans Might Have Used This 6,000-Year-Old Telescope
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A team of scientists is undertaking an investigation of one of the world's oldest telescopes - and so far it's proving to be nothing like the highly sophisticated machinery of today.

Kieran Simcox, author of a recent study of these ancient telescopes, explains that this simple piece of "machinery" is more like a camera obscura. A camera obscura is a pinhole camera, created by cutting a small hole in a shade or a wall so that light can pass into a darkened room. This light projects an inverted image on the wall opposite the pinhole. 

But this particular telescope is different, since it is composed of a series of long passageways in an ancient Portugese monolithic tomb. The narrow entrance to the tombs creates an aperture (opening) of about 10 degrees. This size is just enough to restrict the view by naked eye - making it easier to observe the stars during pre-dawn and twilight hours. Stone structures known as dolmens that feature long, narrow entrances that act as apertures, essentially zooming in on stars and planets that wouldn't always be visible from the outside.

As a result, the team concluded that these structures could have been the first astronomical tools that prehistoric humans used to observe celestial phenomena, or "telescopes" that existed millennia before modern-day telescopes were invented. Simcox and his colleagues are exploring the precise conditions under which this might work, trying to determine whether they function through eye adaptation, or whether other factors, like the size of the aperture or the background color of the sky, play a role.

In the meantime, other researchers are suggesting that the tombs may have been used for ceremonial rites of passage. "Similar suggestions have been made for the ritual use of caves in the Neolithic of the Mediterranean," said Daniel Brown in an interview with the Atlantic. Brown and his colleagues are investigating whether stellar alignment was a key component of rituals in these ancient spaces. 

To further this astrological theory, these tombs in Portugal may have been focused on Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, says Brown and his colleagues. Aldebaran is recognizable as the twinkly reddish eye of the bull, and millennia after these dolmen were built, spacecrafts enabled humans to see it as it slipped behind Saturn's rings. Today, the star is visible in full clarity through massive telescopes on Earth. 

Via Astronomy Now
Image Credit: University of Wales Trinity Saint David/Nottingham Trent University