Cave drawings made by European hunter-gatherers during the Ice Age were more than just artistic expressions. The 20,000-year-old markings were also a primitive writing system that recorded detailed information about the lives of animals and a kind of lunar calendar, new research shows.
Ben Bacon, a furniture conservator and amateur archaeologist, made the initial discovery of a “proto-writing system” of these ancient markings found in more than 600 images from the Ice Age across Europe. After Bacon spent hours trying to decode the dots, shapes, and other markings—next to depictions of animals like reindeer, wild horses, fish, and an extinct kind of cattle—he collaborated with a team of experts and independent researchers.
University College London honorary professor Tony Freeth was one of the experts Bacon consulted about his theory and became a research partner. “I was stunned when Ben came to me with his underlying idea that the numbers of spots or lines on the animals represented the lunar month of key events in the animals’ life-cycles,” Freeth told the BBC.
The research team compared the birth cycles of modern versions of the animals with the number of marks to determine that they referenced a lunar calendar and tracked reproductive cycles. This discovery predates other systems of record-keeping by at least 10,000 years.
The research paper by Bacon, Freeth, and University of Durham professors Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge, as well as independent researchers Azadeh Khatiri and James Palmer, was published on January 5 in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
Bacon said he used information and images of cave art publicly available online and through the British library to collect data and look for repeating patterns.
“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,” he told the BBC. “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.”