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How a furniture conservator helped crack the code of Ice Age cave art

Scientists say they have begun to decipher the symbols on Ice Age cave art — and it all started with a hunch by an enthusiastic amateur archeologist.

New study IDs a paleolithic ‘proto-writing system’ — and it started with an amateur's observations

A crude drawing sketched onto a rocky wall of a wild cattle with four dots.

As It Happens6:39How a furniture conservator helped crack the code of Ice Age cave art

Scientists say they have begun to decipher the symbols on Ice Age cave art — and it all started with a hunch by an enthusiastic layperson.

Ben Bacon, a London furniture conservator and amateur anthropologist, was looking at images of paleolithic cave drawings when he started to notice patterns in the dots, lines and other symbols that are often scrawled over depictions of animals.

"I'm afraid I'm slightly obsessive, and once I started looking at these, I looked at more and more," Bacon told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "You do become quite absorbed in this. It's very beautiful."

Bacon teamed up with academics at Durham University and University College London, as well as two other hobbyist archaeologists in his circle, to take a closer look.

The researchers identified the markings as a "proto-writing" system, used to track information about the depicted animals — including their migration routes and mating cycles.

Their findings — published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal — suggest that people who lived some 20,000 years ago had a sophisticated and practical way of communicating important information about the animals they hunted.

'A bit of a revelation'

It all began when Bacon was poring through images of cave art, and noticed that several different drawings of fish were accompanied by either three bars or three dots.

"I thought it must be a communication system of some sort," he said. "Then I looked to see if anyone had actually figured out what these marks meant. And apparently they hadn't, which was a bit of a revelation."

A bald man in glasses sits at a desk poring over books with a pencil and a magnifying glass.

His work piqued the curiosity of Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University in England, and co-author of the study. He told BBC News he's "glad he took it seriously" when Bacon reached out.

Pettitt brought the topic to his longtime collaborator, Durham psychologist Robert Kentridge. Together, the pair had been working to interpret the meanings of — and motivations behind — ancient cave art.

"[Bacon's] theories, especially given the mass of data he had compiled, seemed ripe for testing," Kentridge told CBC in an email.

Together, the team looked at hundreds of images from the European Upper Paleolithic era. They focused on three symbols — Ys, lines, and dots— and determined the latter two made up a lunar calendar.

"They were using this calendar to record and locate their prey for future hunts," Bacon said. "I think this was giving them just that little edge in their daily battle, you know, managing resources, being efficient hunters."

A sketch of a fish with three red bars on its belly.

On that calendar, the researchers theorize the "Y" represents giving birth, meaning the hunter-gatherers were tracking animals' reproductive cycles. The study notes the symbolism of one line becoming two, or "two parted legs."

The fact that it took so long to identify these markers is emblematic of how modern humans underestimate their predecessors, Bacon said.

"We think of ourselves as the peak of civilization. So it never occurred to us that someone 40,000 years ago could, for example, be as bright as we are," he said.

"Maybe the problem was in our heads, that we thought this couldn't be, therefore we didn't bother looking."

'Yet to be proven'

April Nowell, a University of Victoria anthropologist who specializes in paleolithic art and archaeology, says she welcomes studies that take a closer look at such symbols.

She says they are often "overlooked because they are less spectacular or their meanings [are] less obvious" than, for example, the animal drawings themselves.

"But I think there are a number of assumptions being made here that have yet to be proven," she cautioned in an email to CBC.

A grid of six crude black and white drawings of animals, each with a 'Y' symbol somewhere on them.

Nowell says she's not convinced the findings offer sufficient evidence to identify a calendar, and questions why the paleolithic people would start their calendar in the spring and abandon it in the winter.

What's more, she questioned the study's interpretation of the Y symbol.

"I am having some difficulty with that in that the majority of animals considered in this study are quadrupeds and humans normally squat giving birth," she said. "If this sign is supposed to be iconic of the birth process, it is not obvious to me."

Kentbridge noted that birth is just one possible interpretation for the Y symbol. Bacon said the theory is not based on symbolism alone, but archeological evidence. He says they found a correlation between Y and the birth cycles and birthplaces of the animals they analyzed.

Nowell also says the symbols are not quite sophisticated enough to be considered "proto-writing," as it lacks all the pieces of language, like nouns, verbs, pronouns, etc.

A man with long blonde hair, a big, bushy beard and sunglasses.

Finally, Nowell cautioned that the authors only looked at three of at least 32 recurring characters in art samples.

"Even if the authors are correct about dots, lines and Y-signs, we still don't know what 90 per cent of the signs mean, and they didn't address when these signs occur in other contexts and what that might tell us," she said.

"Knowing what images they don't occur with or if they occur in isolation is as important and could change our understanding of their meanings."

On that front, Bacon agrees. He says there's a lot of work left to be done — both in terms of deciphering the symbols, and mapping their complexity.

"This is only the beginning," he said. "There are upwards of 100 signs in this world, and we are steadily working away at them."

Interview with Ben Bacon produced by Sarah Jackson.

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