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Auroch bull painting in the Lascaux cave, with the four dots indicated. Source: JoJan /CC BY 4.0

21,500-Year-Old “Writing?” Not Everyone Is Buying It!

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A group of 21,500-year-old painted “dots and lines” are at the center of an academic debate as to whether they are a form of proto writing. While multiple researchers claim they represent “an ancient lunar calendar and the earliest written language,” another professor says they are “likely horse parts”.

The Lascaux cave (not Lascaux “caves”) was discovered by four young boys in 1940 in the Montignac-Lascaux in the Vézère valley in the Dordogne-Périgord department of France. Perhaps best known for its perplexing Paleolithic depiction of a “bird-man,” the current debate is about the nature of a series of dots and Y-shaped marks and lines which a new study suggests represents “hunter-gatherer's proto writing.”

The meaning of these deliberate and similar markings on many ancient images of animals across Europe has had people wondering for decades. They are obviously meaningful, but the exact meaning has been an enigma.

Adding insight to the issue, Bernie Taylor, writing for Ancient Origins has similar conclusions to the headline study, but brought from different elements of the imagery and markings, and presents them in an exclusive Ancient Origins Premium article. He says:

‘Many hypotheses have emerged to describe these marks, including hunting magic and tallies, fertility and initiation rites, art for art’s sake, pareidolia, cosmology, mathematical sets designating time and altered states of consciousness.’

Auroch bull painting in the Lascaux cave, with the four dots indicated. (JoJan/CC BY 4.0)

Auroch bull painting in the Lascaux cave, with the four dots indicated. (JoJan/ CC BY 4.0 )

The First known Writing In Humankind?

The 21,500-year-old ‘controversial’ cave painting depicts the now extinct auroch bull. The new study instigated by furniture conservator Bennett Bacon and in collaboration with academics from the University of Durham was published on Jan. 5 in the Cambridge Archaeology Journal . As an example, it specifically looks at four dots on a painting of an auroch within the overall design at Lascaux. The writers of the study say the dots and lines “might relate to the seasonal behavior of prey animals.” If they are right, and this design conveys seasonal data, these dots and lines do indeed represent the earliest form of writing ever discovered in the history of humankind.

Similar groups of dots and lines have been found in hundreds of hunter-gatherer cave sites across Europe. The team of researchers maintains that when positioned near animal imagery the “apparently” abstract groups of dots and lines actually represent “a sophisticated writing system.” The team speculated that this early form of communicating seasonal information is related to hunter’s “understanding of the mating and birthing season of important local species”.

Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (a) Aurochs: Lascaux, late period; (b) Aurochs: La Pasiega, late; (c) Horse: Chauvet, late (we differ in opinion with the Chauvet team, for whom it would be early); (d) Horse: Mayenne-Sciences, early; (e) Red Deer: Lascaux, late; (f) Salmon: Abri du Poisson, early; (g) Salmon (?): Pindal, late; (h) Mammoth: Pindal, early. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (a) Aurochs: Lascaux, late period; (b) Aurochs: La Pasiega, late; (c) Horse: Chauvet, late (we differ in opinion with the Chauvet team, for whom it would be early); (d) Horse: Mayenne-Sciences, early; (e) Red Deer: Lascaux, late; (f) Salmon: Abri du Poisson, early; (g) Salmon (?): Pindal, late; (h) Mammoth: Pindal, early. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Is This an Ancient Lunar Calendar?

Mr Bacon and the team argue that hunter-gatherers in Europe hunted herds of deer, bison and horses, so they had intimate knowledge “of the timing of migrations.” Moreover, he wrote that the Upper Paleolithic people would have known the “mating and birthing” cycles of animals. Based on this premise the researchers pointed out that in other caves where hunter gatherers left lines and marks, nowhere do they total greater than the number 13. The team of researchers suggest this is because there are “13 lunar months” in each solar year.

The researchers' present their statistical analysis of more than 800 groups of Paleolithic marks which appear in cave paintings across Europe. The team go so far as to say they noted "strong correlations between the number of marks and the lunar months in which the specific animal is known to mate.” If this wasn’t speculative enough for one study, when the Y-shaped appears with dots it is suggested that they indicate “particular events in an animal's life cycle,“ for example, a species' birthing season.

Examples of the <Y> sign in sequences associated with animal depictions. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Examples of the <Y> sign in sequences associated with animal depictions. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Further Corroborating Analysis

Interestingly, coinciding with the headline study, Mr Bernie Taylor writing for Ancient Origins informs further how the Upper Paleolithic cave image “most pointed to as being designated with lunar counting” is the Black Stag at Lascaux. He also goes into detail regarding how these marks across images of deer, horses and other animals indicate how the breeding, gestation and birthing of animals tie in with the monthly lunar cycles, and how these are represented in the ancient markings.

For Taylor, in his article “ What Were The Ice Age People Counting? ”, published today exclusively on Ancient Origins Premium , this is a marvelous indicator that Upper Paleolithic people were counting, observing and recording essential information to pass on to others. Although he doesn’t address the ‘Y’ markings in this essay, he does look at other markings, such as boxes, that he believes holds certain information, concluding that these marks, plus the story told in the images themselves (stag rutting, deer crossing a river) records a calendar of certain yearly events in nature, communicating them through modes of graphic representation.

Taylor explains:

“The Lascaux artists would have needed this knowledge so as to be in the right place and time for each life sustaining activity of the hunter-gatherer that required them to move to different locations.”

He notes that similar lunar knowledge is used by First Nations people, who, “live in the modern world, but have traditions of lunar timed fish and wildlife awareness”.

Lascaux Cave, Axial Gallery: Photo of the rutting “Black Stag” with his full autumn antler set, neck raised, and hot breadth calling in the cows during a cool morning. He rides on a series of 13 black dots that lead to a box. This 13-count may be the lunar phases leading up to the full moon at the box. Note the 12th and 13th dots to the right of the series are not clearly visible. (Centre National de Préhistoire, Paris #29).

Lascaux Cave, Axial Gallery: Photo of the rutting “Black Stag” with his full autumn antler set, neck raised, and hot breadth calling in the cows during a cool morning. He rides on a series of 13 black dots that lead to a box. This 13-count may be the lunar phases leading up to the full moon at the box. Note the 12th and 13th dots to the right of the series are not clearly visible. ( Centre National de Préhistoire , Paris #29).

Or Is It Proto Writing?

The Cambridge paper concludes the groups of lines and dots “convey information about their associated animal taxa in units of months.” For example, Spring is the obvious signal of the end of Winter and corresponding migrations to traditional animal breeding grounds “would have provided an obvious, if regionally differing, point of origin for the lunar calendar.”

According to the paper this apparent ability that hunter-gatherers have displayed to assign abstract signs to describe natural phenomena, and to record past events and predict future events, was “a profound intellectual achievement.” This “proto-writing system,” according to Bacon, was “an intermediary step between a simpler notation/convention and full-blown writing.”

Bacon told Live Science that rather than searching for the meaning of individual signs, his team searched for “the linguistic and cognitive bases that underpin the 'writing' system.” Bacon proposes the existence of “a notational system associated with an unambiguous animal subject relating to biologically significant events.” And with this new knowledge he claims the team can now "for the first time” understand a Paleolithic notational system "in its entirety.”

Although it seems Bernie Taylor’s research was on the same track.

A Sceptic Rides In On Horseback

Not unexpectedly, a host of sceptics have risen in front of the bold claims being made by Mr Bacon on behalf of her team. In a Live Science article, Dr. Melanie Chang, a paleoanthropologist at Portland State University, says that she agrees with Bacon’s assessment that "Upper Paleolithic people had the cognitive capacity to write and to keep records of time." But she quickly added that the hypotheses’ presented in the paper are “not well-supported by their results.” Furthermore, neither did the team address “alternative interpretations of the dots and lines,” according to Chang.

Chang is a horse owner and equestrian specialist and she suggested that the Y-shape line might represent “the edge of the brachiocephalic muscle.” She explained that this is “a prominent landmark on a horse's neck.” She also played with the idea that perhaps the dots and lines are “leg bars that are associated with wild-type horse colors, or they may represent hair patterns, or other anatomical features,” Chang told Live Science in an email.

For further discussion on this subject, and a full interpretation of the dots and boxes included on deer images, read Bernie Taylor’s article here.

Top image: Auroch bull painting in the Lascaux cave, with the four dots indicated. Source: JoJan / CC BY 4.0

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Actually, if you read the original article, the author specifically states that it is NOT a sophisticated writing system, terming it instead a proto writing system Instead they propose it as a method to count new moons post the animals mating, signified by a y shaped mark. It is not a writing system, more a calendar

Pete Wagner's picture

Anything can happen in a children’s art class.  There’s goes little Johnny again, putting his little dots on the older children’s projects. 

Or were the dots already there, for some other reason, BEFORE the animals were drawn?

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Could this be proto-counting?  Some of these lines and dots look like counting.  Some of them look like mere decoration.  How are we to decide if they’re decorative, or an early form of counting?  Can we match any of these marks to a lunar calendar from that time period?

There’s clearly more to these drawings.  They have stories to tell, but can we decipher them?

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