20,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings were a Proto-Writing System

The cave paintings such as the ones found in Lascaux and Pech Merle in southwest France, and the El Castillo Cave in Spain, are well known for their remarkable cave paintings. Now, the artwork is being considered as more than just early painting; researchers believe the paintings are an early proto-writing system, dating back at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought. 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).

For a long time, archeologists have recognized that the sequences of lines, dots and other marks found among the pictures of animals in more than 600 images on cave walls meant something. The study concludes that the Ice Age hunters used the paintings to record and share information about the behavior of the species represented. By using the birth cycles of equivalent animals as a reference point, the team could worked out that the number of marks associated with each animal species was a record, by lunar month, of when they were mating and that the “Y” sign in the markings represented giving birth.

Looking at the total number of marks — either dots or lines — found in sequences across hundreds of caves, the researchers discovered that none of the series contained more than 13 marks, consistent with the 13 lunar months in each year.

“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.

“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.”

Ben Bacon

The results of the study indicate 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 — a record of early time keeping that would eventually become commonplace.

“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 Robert Kentridge, Durham Universit

Looking at the total number of marks — either dots or lines — found in sequences across hundreds of caves, the researchers discovered that none of the series contained more than 13 marks, consistent with the 13 lunar months in each year.

Not all academics agree on the findings especially the meaning of the Y shapes, but it’s fascinating to think that these marks, left so long ago, can provide insights into what our ancient answers thought and cared about.

5 thoughts on “20,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings were a Proto-Writing System

  1. I’m a bit skeptical. Not that the ice age folks couldn’t count or keep track, but, as in the picture in your post, of the horse and the aurochs, there are 26 dots. Yes, that’s two years, if you take the 13 months per lunar year. And though I’m not an astronomer, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a ‘lunar year’.
    Do the dots mean something? I sort of doubt it. There’s an excellent book discussing the ice age paintings from all over, titled “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” by R. Dale Guthrie that is very good
    On pages 272 and 273 he shows many instances of red dots, most are more than 13. He posits that the dots are drawings of blood trails, and in some cases, the dots are shown dripping from the noses emanate from the noses of the prey animals.
    I don’t doubt that the ice age artists were telling a story in their art. (in many cases, Guthrie proposes after doing analysis of hand prints that most of the work was done by teenage boys. As graffiti!

    1. I love the idea proposed by the research, but there are definitely skeptics out there. I’ll have to look at the book you suggested. I remember visiting one of the minor caves in France many, many years ago and just being blown away by the cave paintings. Coud they be graffiti? Boys will be boys, even in the Ice Age.

  2. Guthrie is a PhD and a director of the University of Alaska Natural History Museum. (Oh, it’s tremendous museum, full of Ice Age fossils and even a few dinosaurs.) Guthrie did the science, measured adult human hands, teen aged hands, male and female and came to the conclusion that the hands you see in the ice age paintings were from young male humans. Although it’s been found that Neanderthals did some artwork, too, but their work was mostly in the form of carvings.

    Can you tell this particular line of inquiry is a passion of mine? Yes. Ice Age anything, I’m always learning more. I would love to see the Lascaux caves, but you can’t go into the real cave anymore. Human exhalations are destroying the paintings-carbon dioxide is encouragin mold and fungal growth on the paintins.

    . So the French made a complete replica of the Caves, probably right down to the darn stalagmites (that you Might hit your head on, that’s how I know the diff between -mites and -tites.

    Guthrie also posited that the extremely accurate paintings of the animals were done by: carving the animal in ivory or whatever, putting it on a rock and a couple of torches in front of it. So that the shadow was thrown on the wall and the boys drew the outlines that way.
    Not that I’m dismissing their artistic ability. THey knew their animals and drew them true to life. It’s how we know that the ”’Irish Elk” (not an elk at all, actually, Megalocerus giganteus was a gigantic fallow deer.) had a hump over it’s withers (probably to provide muscle attachments for those enormous antlers,) and that cave lions Panthera atrox, were maneless.

    My favorite one is the ‘red mare’. It’s the classic Lascaux painting, if you’re going to see only one in the literature or online, that’s the one.There’s so much information in that one. She has a spear in her tailhead, poor thing. Two or three darts (not arrows, ‘darts’, thrown with an atlatl) passing her. ON her right is a dragonfly. She’s obviously pregnant. And behind her is a drawing of a …structure, like a mat, that I theorize was used by the hunters to drive the mare into ambush. THe native americans did that, used mats to hide behind until they could get close enough to the animal to shoot it.

    IF there was a time machine, I’d use it to go back to the Ice Age, (and the cretaceous, and the Cambrian, oh, hell, I’d go all over the time. 😉

  3. I’ve just learned from an alert Alaskan that there are TWO natural History museums in Alaska. The one I’m referring to is in Fairbanks. The other, which seems to provide more dinosaurs than ice age mammals, is in Juneau. I’ve only been to the one in Fairbanks.
    It’s definitely worth the trip to see them both.

  4. Even more wrong…the other museum is in Anchorage. Duh, my mind is definitely not working this morning. I have a good excuse, it’s 21° this morning. Brrr. And I’m not even in Alaska!

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