The mystery of ancient dots and stripes in European caves has been solved

Ancient people used paintings to track the mating seasons and births of wild animals

For decades, scientists have suspected that seemingly random dots and stripes on cave paintings across Europe have hidden meanings, but have been unable to decipher them.

Now, thanks to the work of a pioneering amateur, the code has been cracked, and archaeologists believe a wave of discoveries is in the making.

The first big discovery is that ancient people used paintings to track the mating seasons and births of wild animals such as cattle, horses and mammoths.

It shows not only that Ice Age hunter-gatherers had an idea of ​​the past, present and future, but also that they developed a form of “proto-writing”.

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

According to the researchers, this suggests that writing was not a sudden invention demanded by administration and bureaucracy in sophisticated societies, but was something “much more deeply rooted in human behavior.”

Ben Bacon, the archaeological enthusiast behind these revelations, has spent years poring over the dots and the distinctive Y symbol found in the famous cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamir, and at more than 600 other sites.

Decipherment of markings pushes date of earliest known proto-writing by 14,000 years to at least 20,000 years ago

Decipherment of markings pushes date of earliest known proto-writing by 14,000 years to at least 20,000 years ago

When he finally began to suspect he had the answer, Bacon engaged several scientists who confirmed and verified his findings.

“It’s really great confirmation that amateurs can still play a very crucial role in understanding archeology at any time period. A lesson for all of us scientists,” Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University who assisted Brown, told The Telegraph.

To break the code, Bacon first enlisted the help of Tony Freeth, an honorary professor at University College London who had previously conducted research that enabled him to decipher the functions of the ancient Greek antikythera mechanism, the astronomical clock.

“Lunar calendars are tricky because there are less than twelve and a half lunar months in a year, so they don’t exactly match the year. As a result, our own modern calendar has almost lost any connection with the actual lunar months,” said Prof. Freeth.

The two men had to reconstruct the calendar based on meteorology and other information available to Paleolithic people, which then helped to explain the universality of cave symbols.

The duo were then able to use the birth cycles of equivalent animals still alive to learn that the series of dots accompanying many of the animals’ drawings were a record of the lunar months when they mated.

A pair of wild horses and other marks formed on the surface of a rock in the Pech-Merle cave in France about 30,000 years ago

A pair of wild horses and other marks formed on the surface of a rock in the Pech-Merle cave in France about 30,000 years ago

Scientists used the birth cycles of equivalent animals still alive to find out that the dots were a record of the lunar months when mating took place

Scientists used the birth cycles of equivalent animals still alive to find out that the dots were a record of the lunar months when mating took place

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

Prof. Petit and Prof. Bob Kentridge, also from Durham, helped confirm the findings by proving that statistically there is almost no probability of randomness of the results.

Showing that the dots were more than a simple juxtaposition of, for example, hunting kills, the research revealed a much higher level of thinking among hunter-gatherers, said Prof. Pettit.

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

This, he hoped, would change public perceptions of Paleolithic people by showing that they were not mere cavemen.

This was just the beginning, added Prof. Pettit. A number of studies are expected to emerge from the breakthrough. Professor Pettit said they were on the verge of revealing their findings regarding another symbol related to human beings, with further research.

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