According to groundbreaking research, Ice Age hunter-gatherers used cave paintings to record sophisticated information about the world around them, which helped them survive.
By decoding the signs in drawings for the first time, a team of specialists has proven that at least 20,000 years ago, people across Europe were taking notes about wild animals and the timing of their reproductive cycles.
Interestingly, the first discovery that the markings in the drawings could relate to a type of lunar calendar was made not by a scientist but by a London-based furniture restorer, Ben Bacon, who spent countless hours of his own time looking at the cave paintings and analyzing their data.
The so-called “protopism” system is at least 10,000 years older than others believed to have emerged in the Near Eastern Neolithic.
Mr. Bacon said he went to the scientists with his theory and they listened and encouraged him to pursue it even though he was “actually a street person.”
He collaborated with a team of two professors from Durham University and one from University College London to publish an article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
Throughout Europe, cave paintings have been found depicting reindeer, fish, extinct cattle called aurochs and bison.
Archaeologists have long known that sequences of dots and other characters in drawings have meaning, but no one has been able to decipher them.
Mr. Bacon wanted to decipher them, and in particular the inclusion of the “Y” – formed by adding a divergent line to another – which he believed meant “birth”.
Using the birth cycles of equivalent animals as a reference, the team was able to determine that the number of signs associated with Ice Age animals was a record, according to the lunar month, when they mate.
Mr. Bacon, who has a degree in English but chose not to go to college, said: “The meaning of the markings in these drawings has always intrigued me, so I started trying to decipher them, using a similar approach that others have taken to understand the early form of the Greek text .
“Using the information and images of cave art available from the British Library and the Internet, I gathered as much data as I could and started looking for repeating patterns.
“As the research progressed, I contacted friends and senior university scientists whose knowledge was crucial to proving my theory.
“It was surreal to sit in the British Library and slowly analyze what people were saying 20,000 years ago, but the hours of hard work were certainly worth it.”
Professors Paul Pettitt and Robert Kentridge, both of Durham University, collaborated to advance the field of visual paleopsychology, the scientific study of psychology that underlies the earliest development of human visual culture.
Professor Pettitt, from Durham University’s Department of Archeology, said: “To say that when Ben contacted us about his discovery was exciting is an understatement. I’m glad I took it seriously.
“This is a fascinating study that brought together independent and professional researchers with expertise in archeology and visual psychology to decipher information first recorded thousands of years ago.
“The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systematic calendar and signs to record information about major ecological events on this calendar.
“In turn, we are able to show that those people who left behind a legacy of spectacular art in the Lascaux and Altamira caves also left a record of early timekeeping that eventually became commonplace among our species.”
Mr Kentridge, professor of the psychology of vision at Durham University, said: “The implications are that Ice Age hunter-gatherers did not simply live in their present, but recorded memories of the time past events took place and used them to predict when similar events occur in the future, an ability memory researchers call mental time travel.”
The research team also included Tony Freeth, an honorary professor at University College London, who said: “I was stunned when Ben came to me with his basic idea that the number of spots or lines on animals represented the lunar month of a key event in animal life cycles.” .
The team, which also included independent researchers Dr Azadeh Khatiri and Clive James Palmer, a retired history teacher, hopes to do more.
Mr Bacon said: “As we delve into their world, we find that these ancient ancestors are much more like us than we previously thought – these people, separated from us for many millennia, are suddenly so much closer. “