20,000-year-old painted dots could be the earliest written language, study claims

It was claimed by an amateur archeologist.
Nergis Firtina
Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (a) Aurochs: Lascaux, late period.
Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (a) Aurochs: Lascaux, late period.

Bennett Bacon et al.  

A new study claims that Ice Age hunter-gatherers in Europe used cave drawings to record information.

As BBC reported, long thought to have symbolic significance, markings discovered on paintings dating back at least 20,000 years have remained untranslated until now. Surprisingly, Ben Bacon, a furniture conservator, made the original finding that the patterns depicting animal life cycles were his own. He then collaborated on their papers with academics from Durham University and the University College of London.

Even though some animal depiction is one of the main distinctive features of Paleolithic cave art, hundreds of nonfigurative signs are seen. Ben Bacon and scholars have recently suggested that abstract dots and lines represent a sophisticated writing system when they were positioned near animal imagery.

The team determined that the number of marks was a record, by lunar month, of when the animals were reproducing using the birth cycles of contemporary equivalent animals as a guide.

20,000-year-old painted dots could be the earliest written language, study claims
Aurochs: La Pasiega, late.

"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," told Bennett Bacon to BBC.

"Using information and imagery of cave art available via the British Library and on the internet, I amassed as much data as possible and began looking for repeating patterns. I reached out to friends and senior university academics, whose expertise was critical to proving my theory. 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," he added.

A collaboration for the study

Durham University professors Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge have collaborated to develop the area of visual palaeopsychology, which is the study of the psychology that underlies the earliest stages of the evolution of human visual culture.

"The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systematic calendar and mark to record information about major ecological events within that calendar," Prof. Pettitt said.

Reserachers hope to find out and dig more to understand the dots.

Their findings were published in Cambridge Archeological Journal on January 5.

Study abstract:

In at least 400 European caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira, Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens groups drew, painted and engraved non-figurative signs from at least ~42,000 BP and figurative images (notably animals) from at least 37,000 BP. Since their discovery ~150 years ago, the purpose or meaning of European Upper Palaeolithic non-figurative signs has eluded researchers. Despite this, specialists assume that they were notational in some way. Using a database of images spanning the European Upper Palaeolithic, we suggest how three of the most frequently occurring signs—the line <|>, the dot <•>, and the <Y>—functioned as units of communication. We demonstrate that when found in close association with images of animals the line <|> and dot <•> constitute numbers denoting months, and form constituent parts of a local phenological/meteorological calendar beginning in spring and recording time from this point in lunar months. We also demonstrate that the <Y> sign, one of the most frequently occurring signs in Palaeolithic non-figurative art, has the meaning <To Give Birth>. The position of the <Y> within a sequence of marks denotes month of parturition, an ordinal representation of number in contrast to the cardinal representation used in tallies. Our data indicate that the purpose of this system of associating animals with calendar information was to record and convey seasonal behavioural information about specific prey taxa in the geographical regions of concern. We suggest a specific way in which the pairing of numbers with animal subjects constituted a complete unit of meaning—a notational system combined with its subject—that provides us with a specific insight into what one set of notational marks means. It gives us our first specific reading of European Upper Palaeolithic communication, the first known writing in the history of Homo sapiens.

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