Ancient megalithic tombs found in Europe were probably the first astronomical observing tools used by humans 6,000 years ago before the invention of telescopes, according to British astronomers. The long, narrow entrance passages to these  prehistoric tombs enhanced the night sky.

As presented by the team at the National Astronomy Meeting last week in Nottingham, the prehistoric tombs could have been sacred and were used as rites of passage where the initiated would spend the night. The only light was from the sky shining down the entrance lined with their ancestors’ remains, which caused an effect that they believed was their ancestors giving them special powers.   Lead researcher Kieran Simcox, a student at Nottingham Trent University, adds that it is a surprise that no scientists have conducted research about this before.

The research team plans to test this theory to see how a narrow opening, like a doorway, affects a person’s perceptions of less brighter stars. They aim to see if these structures impact how the naked eye sees the sky despite its brightness and color.

prehistoric tombs

Prehistoric tombs. Credit: Royal Astronomical Society

“The orientations of the tombs may be in alignment with Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus,” says Fabio Silva, from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. “To accurately time the first appearance of this star in the season, it is vital to be able to detect stars during twilight.”

If this turns out true, the first sighting of a star after a long absence from the night sky could have been a seasonal marker, which also determined the start of animal migration to grazing grounds in the summer. Not everyone knew about this and those who spent the night at the tombs were the only ones who have this secret knowledge.

They plan to apply the concept to the Seven-Stone Antas in central Portugal. It is a passage grave estimated to be 6, 000 years old. More studies are still needed and more evidence should be gathered to confirm that these structures were actually the first astronomical tools used to watch the night sky