Symbols in cave paintings may show the oldest writing – Neo Scientist

Stone Age people seem to have recorded the reproductive habits of animals with signs on cave paintings. This means that they used an early form of writing.

Stone Age people living in Europe 20,000 years ago may have devised a simple form of writing to record the habits of the animals they hunted. This is evidenced by the study of mysterious symbols on artifacts and cave drawings that appeared in Cambridge Archaeological Journal. If confirmed, this would be the earliest known proto-writing; More than 10,000 years from the current record holder.

cave paintings

Cave paintings have been found on the walls of at least 400 caves in Europe, such as Lascaux and Chauvet in France and Altamira in Spain, dating back about 42,000 years. Homo sapiensgroups. In addition to the drawings of bison, deer, and horses, there are many graphic symbols, such as lines, crosses, dots, and asterisks. The importance of this has been debated for a long time.

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For example, a common motif is an image of an animal with a series of lines and dots on it or next to it. These symbols are also found on many wearable items, such as carved bones.

Ben Bacon, an independent researcher from London with an interest in early writing, decided to investigate these images. He compiled a database of images of animals and associated graphic symbols depicted on cave walls or wearable objects between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago. This is the period when most of these decorations were created. Then he looked for patterns in the data, first using spreadsheets, and then using statistical tools. “If you can find patterns, you can start working on meaning,” says Bacon.


Bacon noted that some styles were particularly popular. He found 606 pictures of animals in combination with a series of dots or lines. For example, horses usually had three markings, while mammoths had five. It also found 256 instances of these letters next to the Y symbol, which usually comes second in the sequence.

To find out what these patterns might mean, Bacon enlisted a team including archaeologists Paul Pettitt of Durham University in the UK and Tony Fritt of University College London, who had discovered previously unknown features of the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator.

One direction of research was how the patterns of the symbols corresponded to the reproductive habits of the species depicted, including deer, wild cattle, arachnids, mammoths, and horses. Think of things like the month in which animals mate and give birth.

Lunar calendar

Analysis shows that the signs form a lunar calendar starting at the beginning of spring, with each line or dot representing a month. The number of ticks in the sequence indicates the number of months after the onset of spring in a particular animal’s mating season, while the position of the Y sign indicates the month in which a young animal gives birth.

“This is exactly the kind of thing I would have expected Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to record,” Pettitt says. If there’s anything worth recording out of memory, it’s animals. Especially at times of the year when predators, crucial to hunters, congregate and engage in mating and childbirth. It makes perfect sense.

Remarkably stable

This calendar system seems to have been remarkably stable. It has been in use for at least 10,000 years in various regions, such as present-day Spain, France, and Central Europe. This allowed information to be passed down through several generations.

Uroch was painted in the Lascaux Caves, with four dots on his back. Photo: JoJan CC BY 4.0.

“It’s a very interesting theory,” says paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger. She says the next step will be to test this idea against a larger database of symbol sequences. Anthropologist Karenlee Aufferman of the University of Colorado Springs in the US believes the study is a step in the right direction, but she isn’t convinced that graphic signs constitute a calendar.

She says it’s harder than you think to know exactly what the Y mark or line is in cave paintings that are tens of thousands of years old. “I find defining what constitutes one of these symbols a bit problematic.”

If this calendar system is confirmed by further analysis, we must revise our understanding of the origin of writing. The first complete writing system, cuneiform, appeared around 3500 BC. This was preceded by an initial text dating back to clay counting stones that appeared about 10,000 years ago.

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