A primitive Ice Age writing system was apparently discovered by an amateur archaeologist, who concluded that the 20,000-year-old signs were a form of the lunar calendar.
The research indicates that cave drawings were not only a form of artistic expression, but were also used to record complex information about the timing of animals’ reproductive cycles.
Ben Bacon spent countless hours trying to decipher his “proto-writing” system, which is believed to predate other equivalent record-keeping systems by at least 10,000 years.
He said he approached a team of academics with his theory and they encouraged him to pursue it, despite him being “a little off the street person”.
Bacon teamed up with a team, which included two professors from Durham University and one from University College London, to publish a paper in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
Professor Paul Pettit, an archaeologist at Durham University, said he was “glad to have taken it seriously” when Bacon contacted him. “The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systematic almanac and markers to record information about key environmental events in that calendar,” he said.
Cave drawings have been found of species such as reindeer, fish and now extinct cattle called oxen and bison. Europe. Along with these images, chains of dots and other markings have been found in more than 600 Ice Age images on cave walls and portable objects across Europe. Archaeologists have long believed these signs had meaning but no one has deciphered them.
Bacon set out to decipher these codes, accessing previous research and photographs of cave art in the British Library and searching for recurring patterns, saying it was “surreal” to know what people were saying 20,000 years ago.
Using today’s equivalent animal birth cycles as a reference point, the team concluded that the number of marks associated with the Ice Age animals was a record number, by lunar month, for mating time. They believe that the inclusion of the “Y”, formed by adding one contrasting line to another, means “birth”.
“We are able to show that these people—who left a legacy of amazing art in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira—also left a record of early timekeeping that would eventually become common among our species,” Pettitt said.
Since signs are believed to record information digitally rather than speech, they are not considered “writing” in the sense of the pictographic and cuneiform systems that appeared in Sumer from 3400 BC onwards but are classified as a proto-writing system.
Bacon said the work made the people responsible for the drawings feel “suddenly a lot closer”. “As we delve deeper into their world, what we discover is that these ancient ancestors are a lot more like us than we previously thought,” he said.
The findings encouraged the team to research further into the meaning of other markings found in the cave drawings.
“What we hope, and preliminary work is promising, is that opening up more parts of the proto-writing system will allow us to gain an understanding of the information our ancestors valued,” Bacon said.
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