Ice Age drawings

A research team including two Durham University academics have decoded the meaning of markings seen in Ice Age drawings, and in doing so found evidence of early writing dating back at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought. (CREDIT: Durham University)

DURHAM, United Kingdom — Mysterious markings found on ancient cave drawings have finally been decoded by British scientists. They claim there’s now evidence of human “writing” dating back at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The new study reveals that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were using markings combined with paintings of their animal prey to store and communicate “sophisticated” information about the behavior of species crucial to their survival at least 20,000 years ago.

The researchers explain that as the marks — found in more than 600 images on cave walls and objects across Europe — record information numerically and reference a calendar rather than recording speech, they do not qualify as “writing” in the same sense of the pictographic and cuneiform systems of early civilizations in Sumer around 3400 BC.

Instead, the team refers to them as a “proto-writing system” — pre-dating other token-based systems that may have emerged during the Neolithic period by at least 10,000 years. The study, published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, was led by independent researcher Ben Bacon, and involved senior academics from Durham University and University College London (UCL).

Until now, archaeologists have known that the sequences of lines, dots, and other marks from the last Ice Age were storing some kind of information about species such as wild horses, deer, cattle, and mammoths — but they did not know their specific meaning.

A collection of ancient cave paintings featuring animals
Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (a) Aurochs: Lascaux, late period; (b) Aurochs: La Pasiega, late; (c) Horse: Chauvet, late (we differ in opinion with the Chauvet team, for whom it would be early); (d) Horse: Mayenne-Sciences, early; (e) Red Deer: Lascaux, late; (f) Salmon: Abri du Poisson, early; (g) Salmon (?): Pindal, late; (h) Mammoth: Pindal, early. (CREDIT: Cambridge Archaeological Journal)

Did early humans keep track of animal pregnancies?

Bacon was keen to decode those and, in particular, the inclusion of a “Y” sign – formed by adding a diverging line to another.

By using the birth cycles of equivalent animals today as a reference point, the researchers were able to work out that the number of marks associated with Ice Age animals were a record, by lunar month, of when they were mating. Bacon previously hypothesized that the “Y” sign stood for “giving birth” and the work of the team was able to confirm this theory.

Their work showed that the sequences record mating and birthing seasons and found a “statistically significant” correlation between the numbers of marks the position of the “Y” sign and the months in which modern animals’ mate and birth respectively.

“The meaning of the markings within these drawings has always intrigued me so I set about trying to decode them, using a similar approach that others took to understanding an early form of Greek text,” Bacon says, according to a statement from SWNS.

“Using information and imagery of cave art available via the British Library and on the internet, I amassed as much data as possible and began looking for repeating patterns. As the study progressed, I reached out to friends and senior university academics, whose expertise were critical to proving my theory. It was surreal to sit in the British Library and slowly work out what people 20,000 years ago were saying but the hours of hard work were certainly worth it.”

‘Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systematic calendar’

Professors Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge, of Durham University, have worked together developing the field of visual paleopsychology — the scientific investigation of the psychology that underpins the earliest development of human visual culture.

“To say that when Ben contacted us about his discovery was exciting is an understatement. I am glad I took it seriously,” Prof. Pettitt says, according to SWNS.

“This is a fascinating study that has brought together independent and professional researchers with expertise in archaeology and visual psychology, to decode information first recorded thousands of years ago. The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systematic calendar and marks to record information about major ecological events within that calendar. In turn we’re able to show that these people – who left a legacy of spectacular art in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira – also left a record of early timekeeping that would eventually become commonplace among our species.”

“The implications are that Ice Age hunter-gatherers didn’t simply live in their present, but recorded memories of the time when past events had occurred and used these to anticipate when similar events would occur in the future, an ability that memory researchers call mental time-travel,” Prof. Kentridge adds.

Today’s calendars have no connection to lunar months

UCL Professor Tony Freeth, who led research that enabled the function of the ancient Greek astronomical clock Antikithera mechanism to be deciphered, was also part of the team.

“I was stunned when Ben came to me with his underlying idea that the numbers of spots or lines on the animals represented the lunar month of key events in the animals’ life cycles,” Prof. Freeth tells SWNS.

Lunar calendars are difficult because there are just under 12-and-a-half lunar months in a year, so they do not fit neatly into a year. As a result, our own modern calendar has all but lost any link to actual lunar months,” the researcher continues.

“In the Antikythera Mechanism, they used a sophisticated 19-year mathematical calendar to resolve the incompatibility of the year and the lunar month – impossible for Palaeolithic peoples. Their calendar had to be much simpler. It also had to be a ‘meteorological calendar’ – tied to changes in temperature, not astronomical events such as the equinoxes. With these principles in mind, Ben and I slowly devised a calendar which helped to explain why the system that Ben had uncovered was so universal across wide geography and extraordinary time-scales.”

The team have shown that, despite the difficulties, researchers can crack the meaning of at least some of the ancient symbols.

“That’s encouraged us to continue our work and to attempt to understand more of the symbols, and their cognitive bases,” Bacon concludes.

“What we are hoping, and the initial work is promising, is that unlocking more parts of the proto-writing system will allow us to gain an understanding of what information our ancestors valued. As we probe deeper into their world what we are discovering is that these ancient ancestors are a lot more like us than we had previously thought. These people, separated from us by many millennia, are suddenly a lot closer.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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3 Comments

  1. Max Smart says:

    Brilliant work by Ben Bacon. For those who read the article, note that there are errors in the graphs (figures 3, 4 & 5). In the graphs the y-axes (the frequency of the number of dots) are to the wrong scale in many of the graphs. E.g. in Fig 4, the graph for Birds, where n=21, has a frequency scale up to 90. The graph thus shows that, out of the 21 cases, 70 showed 2 dots/marks, and 29 showed 3 marks. These frequencies are clearly inconsistent with n. This kind of y-axis error occurs in much of Fig 4 and Fig 5. Also in most of the graphs the frequency total does not sum to n, even when the y-axis is ostensibly correct. The graphs need to be corrected. Despite these numerical errors, the graphs are visually representative of the trends. Great work, guys. The article is available online only: ‘An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar’ published online by Cambridge University Press on 5th January 2023. I expect that others have noticed these errors, and they will be corrected soon.

  2. Validoo says:

    It is amazing that they preferred to go for lunar calendar and not the solar which we use now.
    I wonder if using the lunar calendar by Muslims and the first Jewish Nation was just by luck or for a reason.

    1. T says:

      Moon changes are easily observed and cycles short enough to track closely on a daily basis, perhaps?