Mysterious symbols may represent the earliest writing ever found: ScienceAlert

Researchers say they have discovered what they call a “proto-writing system” embedded in 20,000-year-old cave paintings, making it the earliest form of any kind of writing we’ve ever found.

Hunters from the Upper Paleolithic era would have used the symbols on the walls to pass on important survival information: the researchers suggest they show an overview of animal mating seasons, organized by lunar months.

It is a significant discovery because it pushes back the earliest form of Homo sapiens write with around 14,000 years.

Although we’re not looking at letters and sentences here, these markings represent “a complete unit of meaning,” the researchers write in their published paper.

The team looked at more than 800 sequences of dots, lines and Y-shapes found in cave paintings across Europe from the last Ice Age.

These notations were often placed next to animals, which was crucial when it came to the process of decoding them.

Cave marks
Some of the markers used in the study. (Bacon et al., Camb. Archaeol. J.2023)

“The significance of the markings in these drawings has always intrigued me, so I set about trying to decode them using a similar approach that others have taken to understanding an early form of Greek text,” says independent researcher Ben Bacon.

The extensive database of painting samples was checked against the birth cycles of the corresponding animals today as a reference, revealing the previously hidden meanings of these marks – they appeared when each animal mated.

It was believed that the Y symbol that regularly appeared in these paintings stood for “birth”, and gave the people of the time important information about these animals, which included wild horses, deer, cattle and mammoths.

The discovery shows that these Ice Age hunters not only lived day-to-day, but also recorded past events to help them in the future, although the calendar system they used here has since fallen out of use.

– 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, says mathematician Tony Freeth from University College London in Great Britain.

“As a result, our own modern calendar has almost lost any link to actual lunar months.”

The work outlined by these researchers involves a degree of interpretation and guesswork, and not everyone is convinced by the conclusion that we are looking at a mating season calendar here or in some form of what you might call writing.

Even the researchers behind the new study suggest that these markings can best be thought of as an intermediate step between simpler notation and a complete writing system. At the very least, however, the idea is worthy of further investigation and study.

Writing as we know it today emerged from the Sumerian region of Mesopotamia around 3300 BCE, initially taking the form of basic pictographic forms such as letters. What we see here is that the history of ribs on stone can go back much further.

“The study shows that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systematic calendar and marks to record information about major ecological events within that calendar,” says archaeologist Paul Pettitt from Durham University in the UK.

“In turn, we are able to show that these people, who left a legacy of spectacular art in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, also left a record of early timekeeping that would eventually become common among our species.”

The research is published in Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *