The “world’s oldest language” has been found in cave paintings dating back 20,000 years

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About 37,000 years ago, figurative art appeared on the walls of caves. Animals are the main subjects. These paintings, according to many scholars, allowed the transmission of knowledge between generations. Recently, researchers hypothesized that non-figurative signs (lines, dots) would be the oldest form of a complex protolanguage that provides information about the seasonal behavior of animals – mating, birth.

About 37,000 years ago, humans moved from recording abstract representations such as handprints, dots, and rectangles on cave walls to painting, drawing, and carving.

These images, whether carved and inscribed on exposed rock surfaces, in caves, or on materials, refer almost exclusively to animals, primarily the herbivorous prey necessary for survival in the Eurasian Pleistocene steppes. In most cases, it is easy to identify the species represented and the characteristics they often exhibit at certain times of the year.


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In addition to these representations, sets of abstract symbols, particularly sequences of vertical lines and dots, “Y” shapes, and various other symbols are common in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe, appearing either singly or contiguous, and have long been superimposed on animal representations. recognized.

Since their discovery nearly 150 years ago, the purpose or meaning of non-figurative signs from the European Upper Paleolithic has eluded researchers. Nevertheless, scholars believe that they are notes in some sense.

Recently, a group of independent and Duhram University researchers claim to have deciphered the meaning of signs seen in Ice Age paintings, and in the process found evidence of ancient writing dating back at least 14,000 years earlier than previously thought. Their findings were published in the journal Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Early signs of knowledge transfer

The study shows that Ice Age hunter-gatherers used symbols such as lines and dots along with images of game animals to record and share detailed information about the behavior of these animals, which is less than 20,000 years old.

As noted, until now archaeologists knew that these sequences of lines, dots, and other markings found on cave walls and worn objects from the last ice age held some information, but did not know their specific meaning.

Four dots next to a depiction of wild cattle in the cave of La Pasiega, Spain. They would have been taken about 23,000 years ago. © Henri Breuil

Bacon, an independent researcher, explains this in his article BBC : ” I’ve always been intrigued by the meaning of the symbols in these drawings, so I set about trying to decipher them, using a similar approach that others have taken to understanding early Greek texts. “.

He adds: ” Using the rock art information and images available in the British Library and on the internet, I gathered as much information as possible and began to look for repeating patterns. “.

pig research symptoms
Ben Bacon developed the theory that “Y-shaped” markings were used to mark the birth of animals. © Durham University

Using a database of images spanning the European Upper Paleolithic, and using today’s equivalent animal birth periods as a reference point, the team was able to determine the number of signs associated with Ice Age animals that were transcribed month by month. when they mate.

four signs of cattle
About 21,500 years ago, a sequence of four dots was placed on the wall of the famous Lascaux cave in France. © Jo Jan

The team found that the “Y” sign, one of the most common signs in Paleolithic non-objective art, “ give birth to “. This sign, included in the sequence of signs, indicates the month of shaking.

In more than 600 Ice Age paintings—found on cave walls (such as Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altimara)—as well as on objects discovered throughout Europe, the signs digitally “record” information and refer to a calendar rather than a speech record, from 3,400 BC Like the early Sumerian writing systems, they cannot be called “scripts” in the pictographic and cuneiform sense. J.-C.

Instead, the team clarifies in their commentary that they understand them as a “proto-writing” system that existed at least 10,000 years before other token-based systems that emerged in the Neolithic period of the Middle East.

A dive into paleopsychology

Professors Pettitt and Kentridge worked together to develop the field of visual paleopsychology. You should know that paleopsychology studies the psychology of Paleolithic men based on the analysis of the unconscious. In this study, the scientific study of psychology forms the basis of the earliest development of human visual culture.

The research not only deciphers information first recorded thousands of years ago, but also shows that Ice Age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systematic calendar and signs to record information about key environmental events within that calendar.

Indeed, by examining the total number of signs – dots or lines – found in a sequence in hundreds of caves, the researchers found that none of the series contained more than 13 signs corresponding to the 13 lunar months of each year.

Kentridge clarifies this issue BBC : ” The result is that Ice Age hunter-gatherers didn’t just live in the present, they recorded memories of when past events happened and used them to predict when similar events would happen in the future. travel’ “.

Unanimous results

But some researchers don’t believe the study’s interpretation of these artificial cues. Indeed, said Melanie Chang, a paleoanthropologist at Portland State University who was not involved in the study. LiveScience he said he agreed with the researchers’ assessment that “Upper Paleolithic people had the cognitive ability to write and keep records of time.” But he cautions that “ the researchers’ hypotheses are not well supported by their findings, and they do not address alternative interpretations of the brands they analyze. “.

In addition, said Paleolithic archaeologist Avril Nowell of the University of Victoria in Canada, who was not involved in this study. LiveScience : ” Any research that explores non-figurative cues in more detail is welcome, but I think there are a number of hypotheses here that have yet to be proven. “.

Indeed, as he points out, ten years ago he supervised Genevieve von Petzinger’s thesis, where together they created a database of dozens of signs and repeat patterns from more than 200 caves in southern France and Spain. He explains: ” There are at least 32 different repeating signs. The authors chose to examine three of them in a very specific context “. This leaves 90% of signs with no known meaning.

Nevertheless, having demonstrated that they can decipher the meaning of at least some of these symbols, the team hopes to continue their work in an attempt to further understand the symbols, their cognitive basis, and the information valued by Ice Age hunter-gatherers.

Source: Cambridge Archaeological Journal

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