The Anatomy of a Constellation
In a cave system at Lascaux, southern France, Paleolithic paintings span the walls, dating back 17,300. Within the rocky tapestry, a picture of two bulls is adorned with clusters of dots—Orion’s belt, Taurus, the Pleiades and the Hyades clusters… What is thought to be the first recorded representation of the stars. For as long as we’ve walked this Earth, humans have been looking up to the sky and finding meaning in the randomness. Nearly every culture on Earth created patterns in the stars and attributed their own mythical stories to them, giving birth to what we know as constellations. Though they look like neighbours from our vantage point, in reality the stars that make up constellations might be thousands of light years apart. They’re just a matter of perspective, but they serve an important purpose: helping us navigate our way across the vast sky. On a dark night you can see over a thousand stars, so by recognising patterns we can break the sky down and move among the stars more easily. Constellations become mnemonics. Because of the relative movements of the Earth and Sun, constellations are divided into two groups: circumpolar constellations, which are always in the sky, and seasonal constellations, which rise and set according to season. Constellations change groups depending on your latitude, hence why the different hemispheres see different stars. In the past, farmers would have known which constellations signalled the comings of certain seasons, and so knew when to plant and when to harvest. Sailors and explorers have also long since been dependent on stars for navigation, and different cultures have all had different uses for their own stars. But in 1929, the International Astronomical Union consolidated them, officially setting out “modern” constellation boundaries and defining the 88 ones we know today, pictured above.