The Human Cosmos by Jo Marchant review – learn from the stars

From Palaeolithic paintings to astrophysics … a glittering history takes in explorers, aliens and a world vanishing from view

Twenty thousand years ago, in a cave in France, Palaeolithic humans painted a great bull with a collection of seven dots above his shoulder. Scholars are divided over the meaning of such paintings, but at the start of this book Jo Marchant makes a convincing and picturesque argument that the image is a remnant of a fairly sophisticated astronomy, in which the movement of stars informed human hunting: “a star calendar, with the Pleiades marking key moments in the life cycle of the aurochs bull”.

It’s the earliest of many stories in which the cosmos is intrinsically bound up with human behaviour, beliefs, art, science, discovery and understanding – a fundamental connection whose recent loss, Marchant argues, is bad news for humans today. The star myths we tell “are not just stories. They’re cultural memories passed through generations for thousands of years.”

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