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Mystery of ancient dots and stripes on Europe's caves is solved

Ancient humans were using the paintings to track the mating and birthing seasons of wild animals
Ancient humans were using the paintings to track the mating and birthing seasons of wild animals

For decades, researchers had suspected that the seemingly random dots and stripes on cave paintings across Europe contained a hidden meaning, yet they were unable to decipher them.

Now, thanks to the work of a pioneering amateur, the code has been cracked and archaeologists believe that a wave of discoveries is set to tumble forth.

The first great revelation is that ancient humans were using the paintings to track the mating and birthing seasons of wild animals such as cattle, horses and mammoths.

It demonstrates not only that Ice Age hunter-gatherers had a grasp of past, present and future but also that they had devised a form of “proto-writing”.

The deciphering of the markings pushes back the date for the earliest known proto-writing by 14,000 years to at least 20,000 years ago.

That, said academics, suggested that writing wasn’t a sudden invention necessitated by administration and bureaucracy in sophisticated societies, but was instead something “far more deep-rooted in human behaviour.”

Ben Bacon, the archaeology enthusiast behind the revelations, spent years poring over dots and a distinctive Y symbol present on famous cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamir and over 600 other sites.

The deciphering of the markings pushes back the date for the earliest known proto-writing by 14,000 years to at least 20,000 years ago
The deciphering of the markings pushes back the date for the earliest known proto-writing by 14,000 years to at least 20,000 years ago

When he finally suspected he had the answer, Mr Bacon engaged the help of several academics who confirmed and verified his findings.

“It's really great vindication that amateurs can still play a very critical role in understanding archaeology in whatever period. A lesson for us all academics”, Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University who aided Mr Brown, told The Telegraph.

To crack the code, Mr Bacon first enlisted the help of Tony Freeth, an honorary professor at University College London, who previously led research that enabled the function of the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical clock, to be deciphered.

“Lunar calendars are difficult because there are just under twelve and a half lunar months in a year, so they do not fit neatly into a year. As a result, our own modern calendar has all but lost any link to actual lunar months,” said Prof Freeth.

The two men had to reconstruct a calendar based on meteorology and other information that paleolithic humans would have had available, which then helped explain the universality of the cave symbols.

The duo were then able to use the birth cycles of equivalent animals still alive today to figure out that the series of dots accompanying many animal drawings was a record of lunar months for when they were mating.

A pair of wild horses and other marks created on a rock surface in Pech-Merle Cave in France around 30,000 years ago
A pair of wild horses and other marks created on a rock surface in Pech-Merle Cave in France around 30,000 years ago
The scientists used the birth cycles of equivalent animals still alive today to figure out that the dots were a record of lunar months for when they were mating
The scientists used the birth cycles of equivalent animals still alive today to figure out that the dots were a record of lunar months for when they were mating

For example, paintings of aurochs, wild ancestors of modern cattle, in Spain had four dots on them. This showed that they were mating four months after “bonne saison” or Paleolithic spring.

Prof Pettitt and Prof Bob Kentridge, also at Durham, helped confirm the findings by proving that there was almost no statistical chance of the results being coincidental.

By showing that the dots were more than just a simple tally, for example of hunting kills, the research has revealed a much higher level of thought among hunter-gatherers said Prof Pettitt.

“It’s a fundamentally different thing [to a tally], if it is saying this animal species will mate four lunar cycles after our agreed starting point… And that really is a totally different league of thought. It's not just record keeping, it's a real conceptualisation of time,” he said.

It would, he hoped, change public perceptions of paleolithic humans, showing that they were not simple cavemen.

It was also only the beginning, Prof Pettitt added. A number of studies are expected to stem from the breakthrough. Prof Pettitt said that they were already close to releasing findings on another symbol related to human beings, with further studies to follow.

The study is published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.