Lines and dots in parietal art, signs of proto-writing?

A sequence of aligned points, sticks drawn one after the other or even “Y” shapes… In many European caves, whose walls are covered with paintings from the Paleolithic era, animal images are accompanied by those interesting geometric shapes that interest archaeologists. . For researchers, these lines and dots, drawn between 40,000 and 13,000 BC, are even more mysterious because no evidence will definitively clarify the questions raised by this parietal art.

The key to deciphering these non-figurative signs that adorn the walls of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira and many other European caves could well be deciphered. In

A study published on February 5 the end Cambridge Archaeological Journaltitled Protowriting system and phenological calendar in the Upper Paleolithic, Independent researchers from Durham University offer an interpretation of these symbols. According to them, it was used to describe the seasonal behavior of animals and thus would be the oldest form of proto-writing.

Lunar calendar

We owe this work to independent researcher Bennett Bacon, who fell in love with these non-figurative signs. “One night I was lazily looking at Paleolithic paintings on the Internet and I happened to think that a large number of animals had a number associated with them”,

he says vice. In a statement to the BBC, the researcher then spent many hours scouring the internet and the British Library to find references to prehistoric paintings. “collect as much information as possible before you start looking for repeating patterns“.

Until now, archaeologists believed that these symbols were a form of numbering that allowed the prehistoric artist to keep track of the number of animals seen or killed. Bacon thought it might be a calendar before presenting his hypothesis to researchers at Durham University and University College London. Examining the sequence of dots or lines found in sequences at the center of more than 400 caves, the small team noticed that none of the non-figurative signs had more than 13 iterations, each corresponding to a 13-month month. year The researchers then worked on the hypothesis that these sequences would convey information related to lunar units.

Point and stick patterns in the caves of Lascaux, La Pasiega, Chauvet and Mayenne Sciences.
Point and stick patterns in the caves of Lascaux, La Pasiega, Chauvet and Mayenne Sciences.

-Cambridge University Press

the idea of ​​having “Quantitative information about the specific prey was our starting point,” specify authors in their studies*. “It seemed to us that it was necessary to transmit information about the number of animals* […] or the number of animals killed was not necessary. Relevant data were more likely to predict migration movements and aggregation periods, i.e. mating and calving periods, so when animals are breeding and vulnerable..

For researchers, the number of lines or dots associated with an animal can thus represent the number of lunar months after the start of the “good season”. A term from zoo-archaeology that designates the end of winter, i.e. the moment when the rivers melt, the snow melts and the landscapes turn green again. Therefore, the researchers compared data on autumn and spring migrations, as well as matings and births for aurochs, bison, deer, horses and even fish with their hypotheses. Result: “Our data do not explain everything, but given the imprecision and regional variability, the degree of support for our hypothesis is surprising. “.


For the authors of the study, if their hypothesis is correct, it would mean that hunter-gatherers were still using the calendar to record information during the Paleolithic era. At the end of their work, they ask how this calendar is “Regardless of the need for parallel oral explanations, it made possible the accumulation and transmission of intelligible information over several generations”. Thus, they note that, depending on the meaning given to the concept of “writing”, non-figurative signs on the walls of caves may fall under this concept: “We do not want to dwell on the controversial (and in many ways semantic) question of whether writing is a Paleolithic invention; perhaps it would be more effective to describe it as a proto-writing system. simpler notation/convention and full-fledged writing”.

For now, part of the archaeological community is cautious, as noted

An article from LiveScience. “Any research that explores non-metaphorical signs in more detail is welcome, but I think there are a number of hypotheses here that have yet to be proven. Paleolithic archaeologist April Nowell from the University of Victoria in Canada believes before pointing. “there are at least 32 different recurring traits [et que] The authors chose to examine only three of them in a very specific context.”

For Paul Pettitt, one of the study’s co-authors, “Above all, it seemed important to focus first on the most common signs associated with figurative imagery. Simple dots and lines are the most common. Among the most complex signs, the Y sign is the most common.” The team of researchers announced that they are already working on the analysis of other signs and will wait for all their results to be published before celebrating their discovery.

Posted in Art

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *