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the drawings from the ceiling of Altamira cave in Santillana Del Mar, Cantabria, Spain
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Do Cave Paintings From 20,000 Years Ago Show Symbolic Writing?

In an article in the Cambridge Archeological Journal, researchers say they’ve deciphered the dots and Y’s among the animal paintings

London-based wood carving conservator Ben Bacon has, with academic colleagues, shaken up Ice Age paleontology by demonstrating that the marks on the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of animals found across Europe could be interpreted as a lunar calendar timing their reproductive cycles:

Prof Paul Pettitt, of Durham University, said he was “glad he took it seriously” when Mr Bacon contacted him.

“The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systemic calendar and marks to record information about major ecological events within that calendar.”

News, “Londoner solves 20,000-year Ice Age drawings mystery” at BBC (January 5, 2023) The paper is open access.

Bacon had spent many hours both on the internet and in the British Library, studying the paintings, looking for repetitive numerical patterns — something we would expect to find more often in a calendar than in other types of record-keeping. A collaboration between Bacon, two Durham University profs and one from University College London then working out birth cycles for similar animals today. Thus, the BBC reports, “they deduced that the number of marks on the cave paintings was a record, by lunar month, of the animals’ mating seasons.”

Of the 800 sequences of dots analyzed, no sequence contained more than 13 dots, which suggested to the researchers the 13 months of the lunar year. They also “ found strong correlations between the number of marks and the lunar months in which the specific animal is known to mate.” (LiveScience) The frequent “Y” sign was, they believe, connected to giving birth:

After conducting a statistical analysis of the database, Bacon and his colleagues were amazed to find that their lunar calendar seems to hold up well with the patterns.

“Overall, there is a remarkable degree of correlation between the numbers of lines/dots in sequences with and without Y and the position of Y and the mating and birthing behaviors of our analytical taxa,” the researchers said in the study. “Our data do not explain everything, but even taking imprecision and regional variability into account, the degree of support for our hypothesis is striking.”

Becky Ferreira, “A Total Amateur May Have Just Rewritten Human History With Bombshell Discovery” at VICE (January 5, 2023)

Other researchers are not convinced, however:

Melanie Chang, a paleoanthropologist at Portland State University who was not involved in the study, told Live Science in an email that she agrees with the researchers’ assessment that “Upper Palaeolithic people had the cognitive capacity to write and to keep records of time.” However, she cautioned that the researchers’ “hypotheses are not well-supported by their results, and they also do not address alternative interpretations of the marks they analyzed.”

Kristina Killgrove, “20,000-year-old cave painting ‘dots’ are the earliest written language, study claims. But not everyone agrees.” at LiveScience (December 5, 2022)

No doubt the paleontology community will be debating the exact significance of the marks for some time. For now, the big news is the fact that such ancient humans were apparently communicating via symbolic record-keeping as well as art ten thousands or more years earlier than we have thought:

It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of this discovery, assuming it passes muster in the wider archaeological community. It would rewrite the origins of, well, writing, which is one of the most important developments in human history. Moreover, if these tantalizing symbols represent an early calendar, they offer a glimpse of how these hunter-gatherers synchronized their lives with the natural cycles of animals and the Moon.

In short, if the new hypothesis is accurate, it shows that our Paleolithic ancestors “were almost certainly as cognitively advanced as we are” and “that they are fully modern humans,” Bacon told Motherboard. It also means “that their society achieved great art, use of numbers, and writing” and “that reading more of their writing system may allow us to gain an insight into their beliefs and cultural values,” he concluded.

Becky Ferreira, “A Total Amateur May Have Just Rewritten Human History With Bombshell Discovery” at VICE (January 5, 2023)

The researchers, who plan further publications in this area, are careful to call their find “proto-writing” rather than “writing” because it simply marks seasonal patterns. If they or others were to find inscriptions or apparent histories, that would be an even more significant development.

The find certainly challenges the idea that human consciousness underwent a long, slow evolution in recent millennia. It was mainly the technology that evolved, it seems.

You may also wish to read: Why is Neanderthal art considered controversial? It makes sense that whenever humans started to wonder about life, we started to create art that helps us think about it. Science writer Michael Marshall reports that some researchers are accused of banning others from taking samples that would prove a Neanderthal was the artist.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Do Cave Paintings From 20,000 Years Ago Show Symbolic Writing?