Your mother-in-law may not understand your obsession with the reproductive cycles of game animals, but a new study suggests that ancient hunter-gatherers shared your fascination—and they used what could be the earliest forms of writing to capitalize on it.
The study, published this month in the Cambridge Archeological Journal, purports to unlock a mystery that has stumped researchers for years. The authors argue that European Homo sapiens from the Upper Paleolithic era (50,000 to 12,000 years ago) used a kind of “proto-writing” to record and predict the mating and birthing cycles of game animals.
They used sequences of lines, dots, and “Y” shaped characters in much the same way we use trail cameras today. These written messages recorded when a specific game species had given birth or gone into heat, presumably so that the reader could predict when the same events would take place the next year.
These written messages predate by thousands of years what has previously been considered the earliest forms of writing.
“We have proposed the existence of a notational system associated with an unambiguous animal subject, relating to biologically significant events informed by the ethological record, which allows us for the first time to understand a Paleolithic notational system in its entirety,” the authors write. “It gives us our first specific reading of European Upper Palaeolithic communication, the first known writing in the history of Homo sapiens.”
Image Credit: Henri Breuli
Everyone knows that ice-age humans carved and painted images of animals on cave walls, bones, rocks, and other items. What you may not know is that many of these images are accompanied by a wide array of markings and symbols. Three of the most common are sequences of lines or dots along with “Y” shaped markings interspersed within those sequences.
Archeologists have, of course, speculated as to the meaning of these symbols, but until now “their specific meaning has remained elusive,” according to the study.
Ben Bacon, a furniture conservator in London who described himself to the BBC as “effectively a person off the street,” had been studying these lines and symbols and had begun to develop a theory. He wondered whether the “Y” symbol could indicate “giving birth” since it depicted one line becoming two.
He brought his theory to researchers at the University College London and the University of Durham, and together they began digging into the data. They amassed a database of images containing 606 sequences of markings without “Y” and 256 sequences with “Y,” largely from France and Spain, with some examples from further east.
Since there were never more than 13 lines or dots in any image, they hypothesized that these markings could represent lunar months. They stuck with Bacon’s original theory about the “Y” symbol, and they added two crucial hypotheses.
First, they believed sequences of lunar months began with the “bonne saison.” The bonne saison is a French zoological term for the time at the end of winter when rivers unfreeze, the snow melts, and the landscape begins to green. This would have been an important time of year for ice-age humans, and an obvious point of origin for the lunar calendar.
Next, they guessed that the end of each sequence of lines and dots and the location of the Y likely corresponded to one of four potential events: spring migration, fall migration, mating, and birthing. Ice-age hunter-gatherers, like modern-day hunters, would have had obvious reasons for being interested in each event, and it makes sense they would have recorded them.
“That we are looking for number-based information about specific prey animals is therefore our point of departure,” the researchers explain in the study. “It seems to us unnecessary to need to convey information about the numbers of individual animals, the times they have been sighted, or the number of successful kills.”
“It seems far more likely that information pertinent to predicting their migratory movements and periods of aggregation, i.e., mating and birthing when they are predictably located in some number and relatively vulnerable, would be of greatest importance for survival,” they add.
Image Credit: Bacon, B
To test their hypothesis, they compared the images with what we know about the mating, migration, and birthing patterns of the species depicted in the drawings. They settled on nine animal categories: aurochs, birds, bison, caprids, cervids, fish, horses, mammoths, and rhinos.
They found that while some animal categories didn’t comport with their hypothesis, “there is a remarkable degree of correlation between the numbers of lines/dots in sequences with and without 'Y' and the position of 'Y' and the mating and birthing behaviors of our analytical taxa.”
The lines, dots, and Y’s do not seem to correspond to migration patterns, but they do strongly correspond to mating and birthing periods.
“The first key message is that the birth periods are significantly well predicted by the position of 'Y,'” they write. “Our second key finding is that mating periods are significantly well predicted by length of sequences of dots or lines not containing a 'Y.'”
In other words, if a sequence of lines and dots contains “Y,” the placement of the “Y” within that sequence likely predicts the time of year that species would be giving birth. If the sequence does not contain “Y,” the number of lines or dots corresponds to the month during which the rut would take place.
Image Credit: Berenguer, M
A study of this importance will invariably be subject to critique, and some researchers are already pushing back in popular science periodicals. Several archeologists who spoke to Live Science noted that the authors do not sufficiently address alternative interpretations–both of the lines, dots, and “Ys,” and of other symbols that also appear in these drawings.
Dr. Tim Maloney, an archeologist and research fellow at Griffith University in Australia, told MeatEater that while the study is “exciting” and the hypothesis is “compelling,” he would have liked to see some details clarified.
“There is a lot of interpretation here from ancient pigment traces; no doubt some of it is entirely accurate,” he said in an email. “However, the many symbols and motifs in this study, and most ancient rock art sites, are only partially preserved, meaning some animal identifications are quite an inferential stretch–they only sometimes have unambiguous pigments traces of antlers, trunks, horns or fins clearly preserved.”
By studying Australia’s Indigenous communities, researchers have learned that what may seem like an obvious symbol may have had an entirely different meaning to the person who drew it.
“For instance, in some nations of Indigenous Australia, many painted 'boomerangs' were revealed by traditional owners to represent billabongs or river bends,” Maloney said. “From the Bacon, et al., study, could an upper paleolithic horse, in fact, be a pregnant fallow doe with nostrils flared and ears up? I always find interpreting motifs difficult.”
Maloney is a hunter himself, so he also wondered how useful a lunar calendar would have been to ice-age humans. A cold snap can be enough to kickstart the rut two weeks earlier, he pointed out. “I find their predictions of seasonal variations in different species mating (based on modern examples) an unrealistic expectation to have been faced by people hunting wild upper paleolithic herds,” he said.
Bacon did not respond to a MeatEater request for comment, but he did tell Live Science that more studies are in the works.
“We are analyzing other signs,” Bacon said. “Rather than searching for the meaning of individual signs, what we are looking for is the linguistic and cognitive bases that underpin the 'writing' system.”
Whether hunters actually developed some of the first written languages is a topic for further research. Still, this study does suggest that however much humans evolved between 2023 and 20,000 B.C., some things never change. We may use compound bows, firearms, and magnified optics, but the rut is still the best time to take home some venison.
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International
Feature image via JoJan; Wikimedia Commons