According to a groundbreaking study, Ice Age hunter-gatherers used cave paintings to record complex information about the world around them that helped them survive.
Deciphering the markings in the drawings for the first time, a team of experts has proven that at least 20,000 years ago, humans in Europe took notes on wild animals and the timing of their reproductive cycles.
Remarkably, the first discovery that the markings in the drawings could refer to some kind of lunar calendar was not made by an academic, but by Ben Bacon, a London-based furniture conservator who spent countless hours of his time looking and analyzing examples of cave paintings. data.
The so-called “proto-writing” system dates back at least 10,000 years before others thought to have arisen during the Near Eastern Neolithic period.
Mr Bacon said he went to academics with his theory and that although he was “effectively a man off the street” they listened to him and encouraged him to pursue it.
He collaborated with a team of two professors from Durham University and a professor from University College London to publish an article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
Cave paintings of species such as reindeer, fish, and now-extinct aurochs, such as cattle and bison, have been found in Europe.
Archaeologists have long known that the sequences of dots and other markings in the drawings are meaningful, but no one has been able to decipher them.
Mr. Bacon was keen to unravel these, and particularly the inclusion of a “Y” sign – created by adding a different line to the other – which he believed meant “to give birth”.
Using the birth cycles of today’s equivalent animals as a reference point, the team was able to calculate that the number of markings associated with Ice Age animals was a record relative to the time they mated, according to the lunar month.
Mr. Bacon, who has a degree in English but decided not to enter academia, said: “The meaning of the signs in these drawings has always intrigued me, so I tried to decipher them using a similar approach that others have taken to understand something in the early form of the Greek text.
“Using information and images about cave paintings found in the British Library and on the internet, I gathered as much data as possible and started looking for repetitive patterns.
“As the work progressed, I reached out to friends and senior university scholars whose expertise was critical to prove my theory.
“It was surreal to sit in the British Library and slowly decipher what people 20,000 years ago were saying, but it was definitely worth the hours of hard work.”
Professors Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge, both of Durham University, worked together to develop the field of visual paleopsychology, the scientific study of psychology that underpins the earliest development of human visual culture.
Professor Pettitt, from Durham University’s Department of Archeology, said: “To say it’s been exciting for Ben to contact us about his discovery is an understatement. I’m happy to take it seriously.
“This is a fascinating study that brings together independent and professional researchers with expertise in archeology and visual psychology to decipher information first recorded thousands of years ago.
“The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use signs to record a systematic calendar and information about important ecological events on that calendar.
“In turn, we can show that these people, who left a magnificent artistic legacy in the Lascaux and Altamira caves, also left a record of early timekeeping that will become common among our species.”
Mr Kentridge, Professor of Vision Psychology at Durham University, said: “The implications of this are that Ice Age hunter-gatherers not only lived in the present, but also recorded memories of the time past events occurred and used them to predict when similar events occur in the future. It’s a skill that researchers call mental time travel.
Also, part of the research team, Tony Freeth, Professor Emeritus at University College London, said: “I was stunned when it came to me with the idea that the dots or lines on animals represent the moon’s most important events in the life cycles of animals.”
The team, which includes independent researchers Dr Azadeh Khatiri and retired history teacher Clive James Palmer, hopes to do more.
Bacon said: “As we delve deeper into their world, what we’re discovering is that these ancient ancestors are much more like us than we previously thought.”