Researchers have discovered that cave paintings were used by Ice Age hunter-gatherers as a means of documenting important information about their surroundings.
Animal reproduction cycles and other information about wild animals were recorded using symbolic marks, which date back to approximately twenty thousand years ago. Interestingly, it was a furniture conservator, Ben Bacon, in the UK who discovered the first finding.
Before presenting his theory to academics, amateur independent researcher Ben Bacon spent numerous hours poring over various cave paintings and evaluating data.
In the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, he published an article with two professors, Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge, from Durham University. These professors were Bacon’s collaborators on the project.
Throughout Europe, caves have been discovered particularly with paintings of fish and bison. In addition to the images, scientists have discovered unexplained dots and various types of markings in over six hundred Ice Age images on cave walls and portable artifacts.
For a long time, archaeologists had assumed these symbols meant something, but nobody knew for sure until Bacon came along.
“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 the Greek text,” Bacon, who has an English degree, told BBC. “I amassed as much data as possible and began looking for repeating patterns.”
Understanding markings of the Ice Age writing system
A amateur archaeologist recently discovered an ice age European proto-writing system. Depicted here.
"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." pic.twitter.com/HuVpZJsqS5
— Nrken19 (@nrken19) January 6, 2023
When researchers counted the number of dots and lines in sequences across hundreds of cave paintings, they found that the maximum number of markings in any one series was thirteen. This is in keeping with the traditional lunar month, which has thirteen months.
We speculate these sequences are communicating information about the pertinent animal species in the form of months.
Mark sequences connected with various animals have been studied, and the results imply that there are relationships between the number of markings and the lunar months during which those animals are known to mate.
Researchers took this idea a step further and suggested that the presence of a “Y” sign, created by joining two slanted lines, indicated “giving birth.” This indicates that hunter-gatherers were keeping track of the mating seasons of various animals, perhaps to better coordinate their own movements and increase their chances of catching prey.
“To say that when Ben contacted us about his discovery was exciting is an understatement,” Pettitt told BBC. “I am glad I took it seriously. This is a fascinating study that has brought together researchers with expertise in archaeology and visual psychology to decode information first recorded thousands of years ago.”
A “proto-writing system,” as Pettitt and his colleagues call it, is a symbolic writing system that predates a fully developed one like a modern alphabet.
The results have encouraged researchers to keep digging in hopes of uncovering more signs that might help them determine what types of information our ancestors considered most important.