Mysterious signs in 20,000-year-old drawings solved for the first time



Mysterious markings seen in ancient drawings have finally been deciphered by British scientists who claim to have found evidence of “writing” dating back at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought.

A new study reveals that Ice Age hunter-gatherers used signs, along with drawings of their animal prey, to store and convey “sophisticated” information about the behavior of species so important to their survival at least 20,000 years ago.

The researchers explained that since the signs found in more than 600 images on cave walls and objects in Europe digitally record information and refer to a calendar rather than recording speech, it cannot be called “writing” in the sense of pictographic and cuneiform systems. Early writing that appeared in Sumer from 3,400 BC.

Instead, the team calls it a “proto-writing system” that predates other token-based systems thought to have arisen at least 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic period.

The study, published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, was led by independent researcher Ben Bacon and included senior scholars from Durham University and University College London (UCL).

Until now, archaeologists knew that lines, dots, and other markings from the last Ice Age store some form of information about species such as wild horses, deer, cattle, and mammoths—but they didn’t know their specific meaning.

Mr. Bacon was keen to decipher these and particularly the inclusion of a ‘Y’ mark created by adding a different line to the other.

Using the birth cycles of today’s equivalent animals as a reference point, the researchers were able to calculate that the number of marks associated with Ice Age animals was a record relative to the time they mated, according to the arbor.

Mr. Bacon assumed that the ‘Y’ sign meant ‘to give birth’ and the team’s work provided confirmation of this.

Their study showed that the sequences recorded the mating and birth seasons and found a “statistically significant” relationship between the position of the ‘Y’ sign and the mating and birth months of modern animals, respectively.

Mr. Bacon 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 an early form of 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 of Durham University have worked together to develop the field of visual paleopsychology, the scientific study of psychology that underpins the earliest development of human visual culture.

Prof Pettitt said: “To say it was exciting for Ben to contact us about his discovery would be an understatement. I’m happy to take this 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 were able to 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 eventually become commonplace among our species.”

Professor Kentridge added: “The results are a skill that Ice Age hunter-gatherers don’t just live in the present, they record memories of when past events occurred and use them to predict when similar events will occur in the future.” what memory researchers call mental time travel.”

UCL Professor Tony Freeth, who led the research that led to the deciphering of the function of the ancient Greek astronomical clock Antikythera mechanism, was also part of the team.

He said: “I was stunned when it came to me with the idea that the number of dots or lines on animals represented month-by-month major events in the life cycles of animals.

“Lunar calendars are difficult because there are 12 and a half lunar months in a year, so they don’t fit perfectly into a year. As a result, our own modern calendar has almost completely lost any connection to actual lunar months.

“In the Antikythera Mechanism, they used a complex 19-year mathematical calendar to resolve the mismatch of year and lunar month that was impossible for Paleolithic peoples.

“Their calendars had to be much simpler. They also had to have a “meteorological calendar” based on changes in temperature, not astronomical events like the equinoxes.

“With these principles in mind, Ben and I gradually devised a calendar that helps explain why the system Ben unearthed is so universal across a wide geography and extraordinary timescales.”

The team showed that despite the difficulties, the researchers were able to decipher the meaning of at least some symbols.

Mr. Bacon added: “This has encouraged us to continue our work and try to understand more about symbols and their cognitive underpinnings.

“What we hope, and what 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 delve deeper into their world, we’re discovering that these ancient ancestors are much more like us than we previously thought.

“These people, who have been separated from us for thousands of years, have suddenly become much closer.”

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