Early Human Experiences Of Eclipses

How long have members of our species witnessed eclipses and wondered at their origin and implications? This is not a question we can answer with assurance, but we can guess.

Sequences of marks scratched on animal bones dating back 30,000 years are suggestive of the changing phases of the Moon from one cycle to the next. Certainly the varying brightness of that orb as it waxes and wanes would be important if you were reliant upon it to find your way at night, as was all humankind for most of our history. The snuffing out of moonlight for several hours when it was expected to be full would be a matter of some concern to such people. That's what happens during a total lunar eclipse. The fact that the Moon turns the color of blood would also leave a strong impression, making observers speculate about the significance of such an episode.

Lunar eclipses occur at a rate of about 15 per decade, a little less than half being total (that is, the entire lunar disk is enveloped by the Earth's shadow). All inhabitants of the side of the planet facing the Moon would be able to witness it, as long as clouds do not intervene.

Even if a typical human back then lived for only 30 years, still some dozens of lunar eclipses would have been seen by each individual, and primeval societies must have been familiar with them. Remember that early humans did not live in cities with artificial lighting, so they were much more attuned to the sky, and dependent upon its cycles. Nowadays rural people are rather more aware of celestial events than city-dwellers, and in the past the average person's acquaintance with the firmament above was developed to a greater extent than it is today.

To ancient peoples a lunar eclipse would provoke some consternation, but a solar eclipse would be even more amazing, and worrying. Total solar eclipses intrinsically occur more often, but may be seen from only a restricted part of the globe because the track of the lunar shadow drawn across the ground is typically only 60 to 100 miles wide. Outside that track, the solar eclipse is partial, dimming the sunlight but not obstructing it altogether. In a typical decade there are seven or eight total solar eclipses, but you have to be in the right place at the right time to experience any of them. The zone of partiality may cover half of one side of our planet, but the startling totality track is much more restricted.

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