Research team decode earliest ever 'writing' in cave paintings

A research team from the U.K. has decoded the meaning of markings seen in Ice Age drawings and found evidence of early writing dating back at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The study reveals that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were using markings such as lines and dots combined with drawings of their animal prey to record and share sophisticated information about the behaviour of these animals at least 20,000 years ago.

Until now, archaeologists have known that these sequences of lines, dots and other marks - found on cave walls and portable objects from the last Ice Age - were storing some kind of information but did not know their specific meaning.

By using the birth cycles of equivalent animals today as a reference point, the team was able to work out that the number of marks associated with Ice Age animals were a record, by lunar month, of when they were mating. The team were also able to ascertain that a 'Y' sign in the markings - formed by adding a diverging line to another - stood for 'giving birth'.

Their work demonstrates that these sequences record mating and birthing seasons and found a statistically significant correlation between the number of marks, the position of the 'Y' sign and the months in which modern animals mate and give birth respectively.

The team refers to them as a proto-writing system, pre-dating other token-based systems that are thought to have emerged during the Near Eastern Neolithic by at least 10,000 years.

The study, published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, was led by an independent researcher, Ben Bacon, as well as Professors from Durham University.