Archaeologists May Have Discovered a Secret Language in Lascaux & Chauvet Cave Paintings, Perhaps Revealing a 20,000-Year-Old “Proto-Writing” System

Care to take a guess what your smart phone has in com­mon with Pale­olith­ic cave paint­ings of Las­caux, Chau­vet and Altami­ra?

Both can be used to track fer­til­i­ty.

Admit­ted­ly, you’re prob­a­bly not using your phone to stay atop the repro­duc­tive cycles of rein­deer, salmon, and birds, but such infor­ma­tion was of crit­i­cal inter­est to our hunter-gath­er­er ances­tors.

Know­ing how cru­cial an under­stand­ing of ani­mal behav­ior would have been to ear­ly humans led Lon­don-based fur­ni­ture con­ser­va­tor Ben Bacon to recon­sid­er what pur­pose might have been served by non-fig­u­ra­tive mark­ings — slash­es, dots, and Y‑shapes — on the cave walls’ 20,000-year-old images.

Their mean­ing had long elud­ed esteemed pro­fes­sion­als. The marks seemed like­ly to be numer­ic, but to what end?

Bacon put for­ward that they doc­u­ment­ed ani­mal lives, using a lunar cal­en­dar.

The ama­teur researcher assem­bled a team that includ­ed experts from the fields of math­e­mat­ics, arche­ol­o­gy, and psy­chol­o­gy, who ana­lyzed the data, com­pared it to the sea­son­al behav­iors of mod­ern ani­mals, and agreed that the num­bers rep­re­sent­ed by the dots and slash­es are not car­di­nal, but rather an ordi­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of months. 

As Bacon told All Things Con­sid­ered his fel­low self-taught anthro­po­log­i­cal researcher, sci­ence jour­nal­ist Alexan­der Mar­shack, came close to crack­ing the code in the 1970s:

… but he was­n’t actu­al­ly able to demon­strate the sys­tem because he thought that these indi­vid­ual lines were days. What we did is we said, actu­al­ly, they’re months because a hunter-gath­er­er does­n’t need to know what day a rein­deer migrates. They need to know what month the rein­deer migrates. And once you use these months units, this whole sys­tem responds very, very well to that.

As to the fre­quent­ly occur­ring sym­bol that resem­bles a Y, it indi­cates the months in which var­i­ous female ani­mal birthed their young. Bacon and his team the­o­rize in the Cam­bridge Arche­o­log­i­cal Jour­nal that this mark may even con­sti­tute “the first known exam­ple of an ‘action‘ word, i.e. a verb (‘to give birth’).

Tak­en togeth­er, the cave paint­ings and non-fig­u­ra­tive mark­ings tell an age-old cir­cu­lar tale of the migra­tion, birthing and mat­ing of aurochs, birds, bison, caprids, cervids, fish, hors­es, mam­moths, and rhi­nos … and like snakes and wolver­ines, too, though they were exclud­ed from the study on basis of “excep­tion­al­ly low num­bers.”

Ear­ly humans were able to log months by observ­ing the moon, but how could they tell when a new year had begun, essen­tial infor­ma­tion for any­one seek­ing to arrange their lives around their prey’s pre­vi­ous­ly doc­u­ment­ed activ­i­ties?

Bacon and his peers, like so many poets and farm­ers, look to the rites of spring:

The obvi­ous event is the so-called ‘bonne sai­son’, a French zooar­chae­o­log­i­cal term for the time at the end of win­ter when rivers unfreeze, the snow melts, and the land­scape begins to green.

Read the con­clu­sions of their study here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


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