We usually blame the ancient Mesopotamians for the invention of time-tracking devices. But as a recent discovery in Scotland has revealed, hunter-gatherers may have started using a rudimentary calendar over 10,000 years ago.
Agriculture, tool use, and cooking are often touted as the most significant innovations in the development of human societies. But few give credit to time-tracking and the capacity to conceptualize and measure time.
Indeed, without a formal approach to time itself, our ancestors could not anticipate future events with any kind of accuracy. Few activities could be scheduled, and by consequence, nothing significant could be co-ordinated on a mass scale. The development of a functional calendar, therefore, would seem to be of paramount importance.
Archaeologists credit Bronze Age Mesopotamians with inventing the first calendar (the “Mesolithic calendar”), an innovation that appeared about 5,000 years ago.
But as Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham now theorizes, hunter-gatherers who used to live in what is now northern Scotland may have developed a primitive — but effective — calendar that allowed them to accurately measure the passage of time.
Gaffney, an expert in landscape archaeology, says that a row of 12 pits found in a field near Crathes Castle in an Aberdeenshire field is in fact a calendar. Each pit, some of which are 2 meters across, tracks the lunar months. Essentially, the hunter-gatherers used it as a tally system.
Now, that might not sound like a big deal. But what makes this such a fascinating piece of time-tracking technology is that it aligns on the winter solstice to provide the hunter-gatherers with an annual "astronomic correction.”
The reason for this is that the lunar month isn’t in sync with the solar year. So, stone age people needed to come up with an annual correction to make up for the “drift” — and they were able to do so by taking an observation every year on another celestial event, the midwinter solstice, in order to set the clock back to zero. This could have very well been their “New Year.”
Each pit may have also been used to track the lunar month by mirroring the phases of the moon.
The row of pits is about 50 meters long and is arranged as an arc facing a v-shaped dip in the horizon (from where the sun rose on mid-winter’s day). There are 12.37 lunar months in one solar year, so each pit likely represented a specific month, while the entire arc represented the entire year.
Gaffney suspects that the calendar was in use for about 4,000 years — from around 8,000 BC (the early Mesolithic period) to around 4,000 BC (the early Neolithic).
What this tells anthropologists is that hunter-gatherer societies were more sophisticated than previously thought. Armed with a functional calendar, hunter-gatherers could schedule activities. They could anticipate the run of fish, for example, or the migration of certain animals. Shamans could have used it to give the impression that they were in “control” of the seasons.
And in all likelihood, the downstream effects of these new predictive powers could have led to considerable social changes. It may have even allowed for larger communities and new social dynamics.
"The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year and that this occurred nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East,” noted Gaffney in a statement. "In doing so, this illustrates one important step towards the formal construction of time and therefore history itself."
Read the entire study at the journal Internet Archaeology: "Time and a Place: A luni-solar 'time-reckoner' from 8th millennium BC Scotland."