Did hunter-gatherers have a writing system?

Archeologists have decoded the markings on 20,000-year-old cave paintings created by Ice Age hunter-gatherers. The results show that early humans used writing to convey information far earlier than researchers previously believed. Here’s everything you need to know:

Why did hunter-gatherers make cave drawings?

Scientists have known about prehistoric cave paintings for hundreds of years. Some of the oldest ones date back to the Neanderthals over 60,000 years ago, writes History. They depict people, animals, and hybrid creatures, as well as more abstract markings like dots and lines. These dots and lines have been found in over 600 cave drawings dating back to the Ice Age. Little was known about their purpose until recently. 

Skip advert

Amateur archaeologist Ben Bacon spent years attempting to decode the abstract markings on the paintings, which experts believed to be a form of “proto-writing,” reports The Guardian. He, along with a group of researchers, released a report identifying the drawings as means of artistic expression as well as record-keeping for animals’ reproductive cycles. 


They also deduced that in tracking reproductive cycles, early hunter-gatherers were following mating seasons by lunar month, BBC reports. “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,” explains Paul Pettitt of Durham University, one of the researchers who contributed to the report.

How was the discovery made?

Bacon was the first to see a pattern within the markings. About his process, he said, “Using information and imagery of cave art available via the British Library and on the internet, I amassed as much data as possible and began looking for repeating patterns.” Bacon collaborated with researchers from Durham University and University College London (UCL) to release the findings in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Skip advertSkip advert

The most common markings were dots, lines, and a symbol similar to the letter “Y.” He noticed that the “Y” marking appeared in a number of animal species drawings and came to the conclusion that it was a symbol representing giving birth. The symbol was depicted in between dot and line markings, which “constitute numbers denoting months,” per the report. The “Y”‘s position within the dots and lines “denotes month of parturition,” or birth-giving. 

Skip advert

With the belief that the markings represented ecologically significant events per the lunar calendar, the researchers set out to map it, explains The Independent. “Lunar calendars are difficult because there are just under 12-and-a-half lunar months in a year, so they do not fit neatly into a year,” explained Tony Freeth, professor at UCL and researcher on the study. He added that early humans would have used a “‘meteorological calendar’ — tied to changes in temperature, not astronomical events such as the equinoxes.”

In turn, the researchers conceptualized a calendar that “helped to explain why the system that [Bacon] had uncovered was so universal across wide geography and extraordinary time scales.”

Why is this discovery important?

The breakthrough shows that our ancestors may have had more in common with us than previously understood. This research falls under the area known as palaeopsychology, which is “the scientific investigation of the psychology that underpins the earliest development of human visual culture,” per BBC. 

“The implications are that Ice Age hunter-gatherers didn’t simply live in their present, but recorded memories of the time when past events had occurred and used these to anticipate when similar events would occur in the future,” remarked another contributing researcher, Robert Kentridge, from Durham University. This discovery can be tied to the evolution of modern humans. “We’re able to show that these people — who left a legacy of spectacular art in the caves … also left a record of early timekeeping that would eventually become commonplace among our species,” Pettitt said. 

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

Skip advert