December 6, 2023

Want to guess what your smartphone has to do with the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira?

Both can be used to track fertility.

Granted, you probably don’t use your phone to stay on top of the reproductive cycles of reindeer, salmon, and birds, but this information was of great interest to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Realizing how crucial an understanding of animal behavior was to early humans led London-based furniture conservator Ben Bacon to reconsider what purpose the non-figurative markings—slashes, dots, and Y shapes—on cave walls might have served. 20,000 year old images.

Their significance has long eluded respected professionals. The marks seemed likely to be numerical, but for what?

Bacon stated that they documented the lives of animals using a lunar calendar.

An amateur researcher assembled a team that included experts in the fields mathematics, archeologyand psychologywho analyzed the data, compared it to the seasonal behavior of modern animals, and agreed that the numbers represented by dots and slashes were not cardinal, but rather an ordinal representation of the months.

As Bacon said After all his fellow self-taught anthropological researcher, science journalist Alexander Marshack came close to cracking the code in the 1970s:

… but he wasn’t actually able to demonstrate the system because he thought these individual lines were days. What we’ve done is we’ve actually said it’s months because the hunter-gatherer doesn’t need to know when the reindeer migrate. They need to know what month the reindeer migrate. And once you use those units of months, this whole system is very, very responsive to that.

As for the frequently occurring symbol that resembles a Y, it indicates the months in which the various females gave birth to their young. Bacon and his team theorize in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal that this mark may even represent “the first known example of the word ‘action’, ie the verb (“to give birth”).

Together, the cave paintings and non-figurative markings tell an ancient circular story of migration, birth and mating of bison, birds, bison, caprids, deer, fish, horses, mammoths and rhinoceros… and like snakes and wolverines. , although they were excluded from the study based on “exceptionally low numbers”.

Early humans were able to record months by observing the moon, but how could they tell when the new year began, essential information for anyone trying to organize their lives around the previously documented activities of their prey?

Bacon and his peers, like many poets and farmers, look up to the rites of spring:

The obvious event is the so-called “bonne saison,” a French zooarchaeological term for the period at the end of winter when the rivers thaw, the snow melts, and the landscape begins to turn green.


Read the conclusions of their study here.

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Ayun Halliday is the chief primatologist East Village Incas zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and A creative, not famous, activity book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.



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