Ben Bacon, a furniture conservator out of London, took it upon himself to figure out the meaning behind 20,000-year-old markings in caves in Europe.
“As we probe deeper into their world, what we are discovering is that these ancient ancestors are a lot more like us than we had previously thought,” Bacon said.
Researchers have been aware of markings that appear beside paintings in caves, with some looking like dots, but they didn’t now what they meant. Over 600 Ice Age drawings on walls of caves and other items throughout Europe have had the patterns next to them, but until now, the markings were a mystery.
Bacon examined the inscriptions next to the paintings and tried to figure out the “proto-writing” system, which is reportedly considered to have come before other similar recording practices by at least 10,000 years. “Proto-writing” systems refer to written communication that consists of symbols.
Bacon thought that the markings could be referencing a lunar calendar. He took his ideas to a research team and they told him that he should keep going with his efforts. He worked with a group of professors and published a paper in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
“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,” Professor Paul Pettitt said, noting that he was “glad he took it seriously” when Bacon reached out to him.
The team discovered that the dots next to the drawings were a note of their mating timelines recorded using the lunar month.
“We’re able to show that these people — who left a legacy of spectacular art in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira — also left a record of early timekeeping that would eventually become commonplace among our species,” Pettitt said.
They also believe that a “Y” shape indicated “birthing.”
“What we are hoping, and the initial work is promising, is that unlocking more parts of the proto-writing system will allow us to gain an understanding of what information our ancestors valued,” Bacon said.
“The ability to assign abstract signs to phenomena in the world—animals, numbers, parturition, cyclical phases of the moon—and subsequently to use these signs as representations of external reality in a material form that could be used to record past events and predict future events was a profound intellectual achievement,” the study noted.
Not everyone is on board with the findings and the discovery that the dots were written in order to keep track of animals’ mating practices.
Melanie Chang, a paleoanthropologist at Portland State University who did not participate in the study, told Live Science over email that she agrees with the study that “Upper Palaeolithic people had the cognitive capacity to write and to keep records of time.”
But, she said, their “hypotheses are not well-supported by their results, and they also do not address alternative interpretations of the marks they analyzed.”