There is a long history of artistic expression among early humans and our now-extinct Neanderthal cousins. Over thousands of years, the abstract shapes and handprints that made up prehistoric cave art changed into identifiable drawings of plants and animals. France and Spain contain a large number of the earliest cave paintings.
Archaeologists can learn a great deal from these scenes about late Ice Age living, especially regarding early human hunting practices. Nevertheless, for decades, researchers have been baffled by some repeated dots and lines discovered in animal cave paintings. A recent paper published in the Cambridge Archeological Journal reveals that these marks are, in fact, a proto-writing system and calendar that tracks each animal's reproductive cycle, thanks to the astute deductions of a London furniture restorer.
Ben Bacon, a furniture restorer by trade rather than an archaeologist by education, got to work deciphering the dots and lines. He gathered information from online and British Library images of cave paintings. "I gathered as much information as I could and started searching for recurring patterns," he claims.
A Y-shaped sign piqued his interest in particular because it had a smaller line emerging from a main dash that appeared to him to represent the idea of "giving birth." After more investigation, Bacon concluded that the markings were a reference to a lunar calendar. He presented his theory to scholars at University College London and Durham University. Luckily, they were receptive to his untrained conclusions. They contrasted the markings with contemporary animals' birth cycles that are comparable, like cows. Based on this comparison, it appears that the Paleolithic markings most likely correspond to the lunar month-based mating season of each creature.
"The results show that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systemic calendar and marks to record information about major ecological events within that calendar," says Durham University professor Paul Pettitt. This is surprising, but consistent with the long-held belief among researchers that cave paintings had a vital role in survival. It's a remarkable illustration of an early writing system serving a very obvious function.