New study reveals meaning of Ice Age markings for first time and finds evidence of early ‘proto-writing’ dating back 20,000 years

Durham University—A new study claims to have conclusively decoded the meaning of markings seen in Ice Age drawings and found evidence of early writing dating back at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The study reveals that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were using markings combined with drawings of their animal prey to store and communicate sophisticated information about the behavior of those animals crucial to their survival, such as wild horses, deer, cattle, and mammoths, at least 20,000 years ago.

As the marks, found in over 600 Ice Age images on cave walls and portable objects across Europe, record information numerically and reference a calendar rather than recording speech, they cannot be called ‘writing’ in the sense of the pictographic and cuneiform systems of early writing that emerged in Sumer from 3,400 BC onwards.

Instead, the team refers to them as a proto-writing system, pre-dating other token-based systems that are thought to have emerged during the Near Eastern Neolithic by at least 10,000 years.

The study, published today [Thursday 5 January 2022] in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, was led by independent researcher, Ben Bacon and involved a small team including two senior academics from Durham University, and one from University College London, both in the UK.

Until now archaeologists have known that these sequences of lines, dots, and other marks – found on cave walls and portable objects from the last Ice Age were storing some kind of information but did not know their specific meaning.

Mr Bacon was keen to decode these, and in particular the inclusion of a ‘Y’ sign – formed by adding a diverging line to another.

By using the birth cycles of equivalent animals today as a reference point, the team was able to work out that the number of marks associated with Ice Age animals were a record, by lunar month, of when they were mating.

Mr Bacon had hypothesized that the ‘Y’ sign stood for ‘giving birth’ and the work of the wider team including Professors Paul Pettitt (Professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology) and Robert Kentridge (Professor of Visual Psychology) at Durham University enabled this to be confirmed.

Their work demonstrated that these sequences record mating and birthing seasons and found a statistically significant correlation between the numbers of marks the position of the ‘Y’ sign and the months in which modern animals’ mate and birth respectively.

Speaking about the discovery, Ben Bacon said: “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.

“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.

“As the study progressed, I reached out to friends and senior university academics, whose expertise were 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!”

Professors Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge, both of Durham University, have worked together developing the field of visual palaeopsychology, the scientific investigation of the psychology that underpins the earliest development of human visual culture.

Speaking about the discovery, Professor Pettitt, of the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, said: “To say that when Ben contacted us about his discovery was exciting is an understatement. I am glad I took it seriously.

“This is a fascinating study that has brought together independent and professional researchers with expertise in archaeology and visual psychology, to decode information first recorded thousands of years ago.

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

“In turn 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.”


Robert Kentridge, Professor of the Psychology of Vision, Durham University, said: “The implications are that Ice Age hunter-gatherers didn’t simply live in their present, but recorded memories of the time when past events had occurred and used these to anticipate when similar events would occur in the future, an ability that memory researchers call mental time-travel.”

Also, part of the research team was Tony Freeth, Honorary Professor at University College London, who led research that enabled the function of the ancient Greek astronomical clock Antikithera mechanism to be deciphered.

Professor Freeth said; “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.

“Lunar calendars are difficult because there are just under twelve and a half lunar months in a year, so they do not fit neatly into a year. As a result, our own modern calendar has all but lost any link to actual lunar months.

“In the Antikythera Mechanism, they used a sophisticated 19-year mathematical calendar to resolve the incompatibility of the year and the lunar month—impossible for Palaeolithic peoples. Their calendar had to be much simpler. It also had to be a ‘meteorological calendar’, tied to changes in temperature, not astronomical events such as the equinoxes.

“With these principles in mind, Ben and I slowly devised a calendar which helped to explain why the system that Ben had uncovered was so universal across wide geography and extraordinary time-scales.”

The team, which also included independent researchers Dr Azadeh Khatiri, a work-place and personal coach, ex-science journalist and scientist, and Clive James Palmer, a retired school teacher specializing in History, hope this is just the beginning of the story.

The team have demonstrated that despite the difficulties, researchers can crack the meaning of at least some of these symbols.  

Mr Bacon said: “That’s encouraged us to continue our work and to attempt to understand more of the symbols, and their cognitive bases.

“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.”

“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—these people, separated from us by many millennia, are suddenly a lot closer.”


Lascaux cave wall painting. Prof Saxx, GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons


Altamira cave wall painting.José-Manuel Benito, Locutus Borg, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


Article Source: Durham University news release




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