Mysterious marks on Ice Age cave art may have been a form of record keeping

Way back to roughly 25,000 years in the past, Ice Age hunter-gatherers might have jotted down markings to speak details about the conduct of their prey, a brand new examine finds.

These markings embrace dots, strains and the image “Y,” and sometimes accompany pictures of animals. Over the past 150 years, the mysterious depictions, some relationship again practically 40,000 years, have been present in a whole lot of caves throughout Europe.

Some archaeologists have speculated that the markings might relate to keeping track of time, however the particular goal has remained elusive (SN: 7/9/19). Now, a statistical evaluation, printed January 5 in Cambridge Archeological Journal, presents proof that previous folks might have been recording the mating and birthing schedule of local fauna.

By evaluating the marks to the animals’ life cycles, researchers confirmed that the variety of dots or strains in a given picture strongly correlates to the month of mating throughout all of the analyzed examples, which included aurochs (an extinct species of untamed cattle), bison, horses, mammoth and fish. What’s extra, the place of the image “Y” in a sequence was predictive of delivery month, suggesting that “Y” signifies “to provide delivery.”

The discovering is among the earliest information of a coherent notational system, the researchers say. It signifies that folks on the time had been capable of interpret the which means of an merchandise’s place in a sequence and plan forward for the distant future utilizing a calendar of types — reinforcing the suggestion that they had been able to complicated cognition.

Based on the position of the “Y” in this line-drawing reproduction, the chamois (a “goat-antelope”) gave birth in the second month after the snowmelt, researchers say.
Primarily based on the place of the “Y” on this line-drawing replica, the chamois (a “goat-antelope”) gave delivery within the second month after the snowmelt, researchers say.B. Bacon et al/Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2023

“This can be a actually huge deal cognitively,” says Ben Bacon, an unbiased researcher primarily based in London. “We’re coping with a system that has intense group, intense logic to it.”

A furnishings conservator by day, Bacon spent years poring by scientific articles to compile over 800 cases of those cave markings. From his analysis and studying the literature, he reasoned that the dots corresponded to the 13 lunar cycles in a 12 months. However he thought that the hunter-gatherers would’ve been extra involved with seasonal adjustments than the moon.

Within the new paper, he and colleagues argue that somewhat than pinning a calendar to astronomical occasions just like the equinox, the hunter-gatherers began their calendar 12 months with the snowmelt within the spring. Not solely would the snowmelt be a transparent level of origin, however the meteorological calendar would additionally account for variations in timing throughout areas.

For instance, although snowmelt would begin on completely different dates in several latitudes, bison would all the time mate roughly 4 lunar cycles — or months — after that area’s snowmelt, as indicated by 4 dots or strains.

“For this reason it’s such a intelligent system, as a result of it’s primarily based on the common,” Bacon says. “Which suggests in the event you migrate from the Pyrenees to Belgium, you possibly can simply use the identical calendar.”

He wanted knowledge to show his concept. After compiling the markings, he labored with educational researchers to establish the timing of migration, mating and delivery for widespread Ice Age animals focused by hunter-gatherers through the use of archaeological knowledge or evaluating with comparable trendy animals. Subsequent, the researchers decided if the marks aligned considerably with essential life occasions primarily based on this calendar. When the workforce ran the statistical evaluation, the outcomes strongly supported Bacon’s idea.

When explaining the markings, “we’ve argued for notational methods earlier than, but it surely’s all the time been pretty speculative as to what the folks had been counting and why they had been counting,” says Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser College in Burnaby, British Columbia, who peer-reviewed the paper. “This provides much more depth and specificity to why folks had been conserving calendars and the way they had been utilizing them.”

Linguistic consultants argue that, given the dearth of standard syntax and grammar, the marks wouldn’t be thought of writing. However that doesn’t make the discovering inherently much less thrilling, says paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger of the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar in Portugal, who wasn’t concerned within the examine. Writing methods are sometimes mistakenly thought of a pinnacle of accomplishment, when in truth writing can be developed solely in cultural contexts the place it’s helpful, she says. As an alternative, it’s vital that the marks present a approach to maintain information exterior of the thoughts.

“In a method, that was the massive cognitive leap,” she says. “All of a sudden, now we have the flexibility to protect [information] past the second. We have now the flexibility to transmit it throughout house and time. All the things begins to vary.”

The controversy over these marks’ meanings continues. Archaeologist April Nowell doesn’t purchase most of the workforce’s assumptions. “It boggles my thoughts why one would wish a calendar … to foretell that animals had been going to have offspring within the spring,” says Nowell, of the College of Victoria in British Columbia. “The quantity of knowledge that this calendar is offering, if it truly is a calendar, is sort of minimal.”

Hayden provides that, whereas the fundamental sample would nonetheless maintain, a number of the cave marks had “wiggle room for interpretation.” The subsequent step, he says, shall be to evaluate and confirm the interpretations of the marks.


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