Archaeology: Hobby archaeologist decodes writing system from the Ice Age

The discovery of an amateur archaeologist could rewrite parts of human history.

Archaeology: Hobby archaeologist decodes writing system from the Ice Age

The discovery of an amateur archaeologist could rewrite parts of human history. As reported by the British "Guardian", among others, the Briton Ben Bacon was able to decode a primitive writing system in the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, which was apparently used by hunters and gatherers during the Ice Age 20,000 years ago.

Research suggests that the cave drawings that Bacon studied were not just a form of artistic expression, but also served to record complex information about the timing of animal reproductive cycles. That would mean that this "proto-script" is about 10,000 years older than previously known recording systems.

Bacon describes himself as just "a normal guy from the street", but he was still fascinated by the cave paintings. He spent countless hours analyzing the drawings until he came to the theory that mysterious sequences of dots could represent a lunar calendar. With his findings, he turned to a group of scientists who encouraged him to pursue his thesis further.

Bacon then worked with a team that included two professors from Durham University and one professor from University College London. They published an article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Prof Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University, said he was "glad he took it seriously" when Bacon contacted him. "The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systemic calendar and markers to record information about important ecological events within that calendar," Pettitt said.

Cave paintings of animal species such as reindeer, fish, bison and the now extinct cattle aurochs have been found across Europe. In addition to these images, sequences of dots and other markings have been found on more than 600 Ice Age images on cave walls and portable objects across Europe. Archaeologists have long believed these markings to have meaning, but no one has been able to decipher them.

Bacon set out to crack these codes, using previous research and cave paintings in the British Library to look for recurring patterns. He said it was "surreal" to find out what people were saying 20,000 years ago.

Using the birth cycles of similar modern-day animals, the team concluded that the number of signs associated with Ice Age animals were a record of the lunar month in which these animals mated. The researchers also assume that a "Y" character formed by two lines joined together means "birth".

Pettitt said, "We can show that the people who left spectacular works of art in the Lascaux and Altamira caves also left a record of early timekeeping that would only become common among our species."

Because the characters are believed to record numeric information rather than language, they are not considered "writing" in the sense of the pictographic and cuneiform systems used in Sumer, in modern-day Iraq, from 3,400 BC. B.C., but as a proto-writing system.

Bacon said the work made the people responsible for the drawings "suddenly feel a lot closer". "As we delve deeper into their world, we discover that these ancient ancestors are a lot more like us than we previously thought."

The results have encouraged the team to conduct further research into the meaning of other markings in cave drawings.

"We hope, and early work is promising, that by decoding more parts of the proto-script system, we can gain an understanding of what information was important to our ancestors," says Bacon.

Quellen: "The Guardian",, "Cambridge Archaeological Journal"