“Proto-writing” in parietal art: pseudo-discovery fragile prehistory

It is difficult not to raise your eyebrows from the first lines of the article published on January 5 in a specialized magazine. Cambridge Archaeological Journalpresented by authors such as “The first dedicated reading of an Upper Paleolithic European communication, the earliest known writing in the history of Homo sapiens.” The formula is bold when we know that the first universally accepted form of writing in human history – cuneiform – appeared in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years after the end of the Paleolithic period. However, it seems that the “wonderful” discovery revealed in the publication did not faze the largest Anglo-Saxon media (and some French media) who rushed to report it in enthusiastic articles.

running away

Amateur Archaeologist Discovers Ice Age ‘Writing’ Systemtitled watchman. “Amateur archaeologist helps ‘catch’ rock art code”wrote very seriously BBC. The blow was given by the respected scientific weekly of America New Scientist : “Mysterious symbols of cave paintings may be the oldest form of writing”, can we read in bold, as if the use of a conditional expression might be enough to weaken the effect of the announcement with a readership not always sensitive to the art of nuance. In any case, it must be believed that storytelling here it supersedes any principle of verification, starting with the profile of the authors: they actually include only one archaeologist, Professor Paul Pettitt of Durham University, who is also the only one published in peer-reviewed articles. scientific journals (in other words, whether or not peers are assigned to review and validate the work). One is a retired history teacher and the other is a “life coach”. Bennett Bacon, who is credited as the first author, is himself a furniture restorer. “Enthusiastic about archaeology”if he taught us different media, he would pass “countless hours” Consult descriptions of cave paintings on the Internet and in the British Library to find meaning in the non-figurative elements that often appear alongside animal figures in Europe’s best-decorated caves. After all, since professional researchers can’t stop gnashing their teeth about what constitutes one of mankind’s oldest mysteries, we might as well roll up our sleeves, right?

This is what Bennett Bacon would discover: the enigmatic markings seen on the vast majority of Paleolithic decorated walls would actually have been like this. “a primitive writing system used by hunter-gatherers to record information about animal breeding and migration periods”. More precisely, the vertical line and point, “the two most common symptoms”shows months and form “The local phenological/weather calendar records the weather from that point through the months beginning in spring.” “Y”, “the third most common symptom”could say “to be born”.

Signs of Paleolithic art, an unsolved enigma

Since the discovery of Old Continent parietal art nearly a century and a half ago, lines, dots, and many other geometric figures have posed an interpretative challenge for researchers. Are they to be understood as symbolic representations of important concepts or ideas? As elements of true syntactic structure? Or have we become nothing that is not understood by humans? At present, these questions remain unanswered, and most likely they will never be answered. Of course, many hypotheses have been put forward by experts over the decades, including proto-writing, lunar and meteorological calendars, counting and numbering systems, or, most notably, the expression of seasonality formulated by Norbert Aujoulat. However, none were convincing enough to reach a consensus. It still remains notable, as does the work of André Leroi-Gourhan, who in the 1960s suggested dividing signs into large groups in order to better understand them, or Georges Sauvet, who demonstrated that certain signs are never related to each other. suggests a possible intention.

However, it would be necessary to wait for the intervention of Ben Bacon to end this mystery. Alone, in the light of the library lamp, motionless in the cave, this modest “anonymous of the street” (sic) will sometimes have overtaken those who devoted their entire careers to understanding this prehistoric mode of expression.

Dated statements and confirmation bias

Enough irony. “There’s nothing wrong with this article, it’s just outrageous”launches Carole Fritz, an expert in prehistoric art and Scientific Director of the Chauvet Cave. Science and the Future. “This proto-writing story is a sea serpent that Paul Pettitt and his co-authors have mixed up with other older theories this time and are sometimes questioned as soon as they are published. I have a hard time understanding how such a paper can be validated and why Paul Pettitt would sign it. agreed.” Jean-Louis Quellec, a French historian specializing in the Sahara, is also asked to respond (we owe cave art, The original cavePublished by La Découverte in autumn 2022) and Patrick Paillet, lecturer at the National Museum of Natural History and specialist in prehistoric art and imagery, is equally sharp: “It’s not that it’s being performed by an amateur, it’s not a demonstration.”Jean-Loïc Le Quellec regrets. “They rely on 19th-century records that are completely unreliable and many of which are now considered fake.”

Patrick Peillet wonders for his part about the value of a “A theory built from partial data – old records, photographs … – plus a generalization of the Franco-Iberian Upper Palaeolithic as a whole, for 28,000 years.” And to continue: “The authors also forgot, first of all, to go to the fields, areas, caves, look at them with their own eyes, conduct their analysis there as objectively as possible, check the quality and integrity of the archaeological materials. the facts and graphs they use to construct their theoretical edifices.”

A panel of traits presented in the study: “(a) Aurochs: Lascaux, late period; (b) Aurochs: La Pasiega, late; (c) Horse: Chauvet, late (we disagree with the Chauvet team. to whom it would be early); (d) ) Horse: Mayenne-Sciences, early; (e) Red Deer: Lascaux, late; (f) Salmon: Abri du Poisson, early; (g) Salmon (?): Pindal, late ; (h) Mammoth: Pindal, early .” Credit: Durham University

In addition, there is a questionable database and a general lack of observations in place Confirmation bias derived from the first lines of an article endorsed by the collective “based on the undisputed assumption that the dots/lines represent numbers”. By the way, the rather controversial “reliance on hypothesis” is certainly problematic in the context of scientific demonstration. Likewise, we can note that the authors explain that no sequence in their corpus contains more than thirteen similar signs, hence the idea of ​​a calendar record based on the lunar cycle. However, we observe “Having a sequence of 59 tokens, two of 29, three of 16, and sequences of 14, 17, 20, and 28“, relief Jean-Loïc Le Quellec. Therefore, the latter were simply excluded from the study, since it could certainly endanger it.

Finally, it should be noted that only three signs are analyzed, while there are several dozen signs attested in Paleolithic art. “Above all, it seemed important to focus first on the most common signs associated with figurative imagery”Paul Pettitt justified in his columns LiveScience. But still, the connection of these signs with figurative images is a postulate: “The authors nowhere question the associations they study. But when does the association begin? By what criteria can it be distinguished from simple juxtapositions? Are we always sure of the contemporaneity of the sign and the animal?”Jean-Loïc raises Le Quellec.

modern fantasy

None of the three researchers interviewed objected to the proposed new interpretation for these signs. “I am not hostile to the idea of ​​calendars or numerical systems relating to the life and reproduction of living plants or animals, but I strongly object to the method, or rather the lack of a method, employed here.” Patrick Peillet completes his opinion. “If you want to describe a prototype, you have to take all the elements and work on the relationships between them, which is definitely not done here”Carole Fritz finishes. “The Paleolithic had a different view of the world than we do, so we have to stop systematically imposing our wishes on them. Those societies probably didn’t have writing because they didn’t need it.” We’ll leave the last word to Jean-Loïc Le Quellec: “How can we believe in the practical utility of recording information such as the calving period at the bottom of a cave and in places that are often difficult to access or not very visible, or accessible only to one or two people? bison? “

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