Could These Cave Markings Be the Earliest Form of Writing?

New research proposes that symbols in 20,000-year-old cave drawings are a proto-writing system, but not all scientists are convinced

Cave drawing of a bull
A cave painting of an extinct cattle species from Lascaux, France, with markings on its back. JoJan via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0

Around 20,000 years ago, Ice Age hunter-gatherers in Europe decorated caves with a variety of animal drawings, ranging from salmon to cattle. Sometimes, the creatures were accompanied by a mysterious series of symbols, including dots, lines, asterisks and crosses. Researchers have long debated the meaning of these markings, but without consensus.

Now, in a new study published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, scientists propose that these sequences were an early form of writing that recorded animal behavior. If confirmed, this would mean humans had developed a proto-writing system at least 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, reports Alison George for New Scientist.

The symbols may not be considered written language, but they could be “an intermediary step between a simpler notation/convention and full-blown writing,” write the authors. However, other experts are reluctant to agree with this conclusion.

In the study, the team examined three shapes: lines, dots and Y-like symbols. They hypothesized these marks represented months of the year to convey information about their corresponding animals’ mating and birthing habits.

Bennett Bacon, a London-based furniture conservator and independent researcher, came up with the initial hypothesis. He compiled a database of animal drawings from global literature and web archives. It revealed 606 examples of animals accompanied by lines or dots and another 256 animals with sequences that included a Y-shaped mark. 

Bacon contacted some experts, and together they analyzed the data, concluding that the marks were a lunar calendar. Each dot or line, they suggest, represented one month, with the number of symbols indicating how many months after the start of spring each animal’s mating season began. For example, horses were often accompanied by three marks, while mammoths had five. No sequence contained more than 13 symbols, and there are 13 months in the lunar year. The placement of the Y-shaped mark indicates the month that the animal gives birth, the authors write. 

“This is exactly the sort of thing I’d expect Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to record,” co-author and archaeologist Paul Pettitt at Durham University in England tells New Scientist. “If anything was worth recording outside of memory, it would be animals, particularly the times of the year when those prey animals, critical for survival, would be aggregated together and preoccupied with mating and birthing. It makes absolute sense.”

But not all researchers are convinced of this interpretation.  

“Upper Paleolithic people had the cognitive capacity to write and to keep records of time,” Melanie Chang, a paleoanthropologist at Portland State University who was not involved in the study, tells Live Science’s Kristina Killgrove. But she says that the researchers’ “hypotheses are not well-supported by their results, and they also do not address alternative interpretations of the marks they analyzed.”

Additionally, the team examined only three of “at least 32 different recurring signs,” April Nowell, a Paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada who was not involved in the study, tells Live Science. That leaves most of the cave symbols without any suggested meaning. “I think there are a number of assumptions being made here that have yet to be proven,” she adds. 

Pettitt tells the publication that examining the three most common symbols as a starting point makes sense, and they plan to expand their work to look at the other marks. 

“As we probe deeper, what we are discovering is that these ancient ancestors are a lot more like us than we previously thought,” Bacon tells BBC News. “These people, separated from us by many millennia, are suddenly a lot closer.”