Amateur archaeologist helps crack Ice Age cave art code

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Lead researcher Ben Bacon (inset), Horse drawn onto the wall of Niaux Cave (Ariège, France) around 15,000 years ago. Credit: Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann

An amateur archaeologist's discovery has led to new research decoding the meanings of markings seen in Ice Age drawings.

The study, led by Durham University, found evidence of early writing dating back to at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought.

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

The initial discovery that the markings related to animal life-cycles was made by London-based furniture conservator Ben Bacon, who spent countless hours of his own time looking at examples of cave painting and analysing data.

A red ochre drawing of an aurochs (wild cattle) in La Pasiega cave (Cantabria, Spain) around 23,000 years ago showing a set of four dots. Credit: Henri Breuli

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 hypothesised 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, who has an English degree but decided not to go into academia, 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.

A pair of wild horses, hand stencils and other marks created on a rock surface in Pech-Merle Cave (Lot, France) around 30,000 years ago. Credit: Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann

“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.

Professor Pettitt, of the department of archaeology at 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.”

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