Ancient Cave Markings Finally Decoded By Amateur Scientist–A Calendar of When Animals Mated 20,000 Years Ago

​Released by UCL – Credit M. Berenguer

An amateur scientist has decoded the meaning of cave markings used in Ice Age drawings—a communication system of early ‘writing’ dating back 14,000 years earlier than any previously known.

Ice Age hunter-gatherers were using mysterious markings alongside their drawings of animal prey to store and communicate “sophisticated” information about the behavior of species that were crucial to their survival at least 20,000 years ago.

And, the perplexing ancient code has apparently been unlocked not by an archaeologist but by a London-based furniture conservator who spent hours looking at images of cave paintings from the British Library, then teamed up with a few professors.

Ben Bacon then published his results in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

He explained that the marks, found in more than 600 images on cave walls across Europe, cannot be called “writing” in the sense of the pictographic and cuneiform systems from 3,400 BC onwards. Instead, it is a “proto-writing system” that pre-dates any others found from the Neolithic period.

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 did not know their specific meaning.

Mr. Bacon’s aim was to decode them, and in particular the inclusion of a ‘Y’ sign – formed by adding a diverging line to another.

It turns out, the number of marks associated with the animals were a record of which lunar month the species were mating.

Mr. Bacon hypothesized that the ‘Y’ sign stood for ‘giving birth’—and the work of the research team confirmed his theory to be correct.

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

“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,” said Bacon.

His success came while looking for repeating patterns.

“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.”

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Then, he reached out to friends and senior university academics, whose expertise were critical to proving his theory, including Professors Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge of Durham University who work in the field of visual paleo-psychology, studying the earliest development of human culture.

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

Public domain photo

“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.”

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Prof. Kentridge added, “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.”

Ben also enlisted University College London Professor Tony Freeth, who deciphered the function of the ancient Greek astronomical clock Antikithera.

“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,” said Freeth.

“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.

“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 Paleolithic peoples.

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“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.”

Bacon is now encouraged to continue the work and attempt to understand more of the symbols.

“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.

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“These people, separated from us by many millennia, are suddenly a lot closer.”

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