September 29, 2023


A Home Grown Success

How a home furnishings conservator helped crack the code of Ice Age cave art

As It Happens6:39How a home furniture conservator served crack the code of Ice Age cave artwork

Researchers say they have started to decipher the symbols on Ice Age cave art  — and it all begun with a hunch by an enthusiastic layperson. 

Ben Bacon, a London furnishings conservator and newbie anthropologist, was searching at illustrations or photos of paleolithic cave drawings when he started off to discover styles in the dots, traces and other symbols that are normally scrawled about depictions of animals. 

“I’m worried I’m a little obsessive, and after I started out seeking at these, I appeared at additional and extra,” Bacon advised As It Transpires host Nil Köksal. “You do grow to be rather absorbed in this. It can be really beautiful.”

Bacon teamed up with lecturers at Durham University and University Higher education London, as perfectly as two other hobbyist archaeologists in his circle, to just take a nearer search. 

The scientists recognized the markings as a “proto-producing” procedure, made use of to keep track of information and facts about the depicted animals — which includes their migration routes and mating cycles.

Their findings — printed in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal — recommend that persons who lived some 20,000 a long time ago experienced a innovative and functional way of communicating vital facts about the animals they hunted.

‘A bit of a revelation’

It all began when Bacon was poring by visuals of cave artwork, and discovered that several distinct drawings of fish ended up accompanied by both three bars or 3 dots.

“I considered it need to be a interaction system of some kind,” he said. “Then I appeared to see if anybody experienced really figured out what these marks meant. And apparently they hadn’t, which was a bit of a revelation.”

Ben Bacon is a London furnishings conservator who served decipher the symbols on Ice Age cave artwork. (Durham College)

His work piqued the curiosity of  Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham College in England, and co-creator of the examine. He told BBC News he’s “glad he took it significantly” when Bacon arrived at out.

Pettitt brought the matter to his longtime collaborator, Durham psychologist Robert Kentridge. Collectively, the pair experienced been doing work to interpret the meanings of — and motivations guiding — historic cave artwork.

“[Bacon’s] theories, specially supplied the mass of data he experienced compiled, appeared ripe for testing,” Kentridge instructed CBC in an e-mail.

Alongside one another, the staff seemed at hundreds of photos from the European Higher Paleolithic era. They targeted on 3 symbols — Ys, strains, and dots— and established the latter two manufactured up a lunar calendar. 

“They were employing this calendar to document and identify their prey for foreseeable future hunts,” Bacon claimed. “I believe this was providing them just that very little edge in their every day fight, you know, handling sources, currently being successful hunters.”

A sketch of a fish with three red bars on its belly.
This historical drawing of a salmon in Spain’s Pindal cave function 3 traces, positioned there about 17,000 decades back. (M. Berenguer/Cuidad de México/Frente de Afirmación Hispanista)

On that calendar, the scientists theorize the “Y” represents providing start, this means the hunter-gatherers ended up monitoring animals’ reproductive cycles. The study notes the symbolism of a single line getting two, or “two parted legs.” 

The fact that it took so very long to detect these markers is emblematic of how fashionable human beings undervalue their predecessors, Bacon explained. 

“We think of ourselves as the peak of civilization. So it in no way happened to us that an individual 40,000 many years back could, for illustration, be as vibrant as we are,” he claimed.

“It’s possible the issue was in our heads, that we assumed this could not be, hence we did not trouble wanting.”

‘Yet to be proven’

April Nowell, a University of Victoria anthropologist who specializes in paleolithic artwork and archaeology, claims she welcomes reports that just take a nearer seem at this sort of symbols.

She states they are usually “neglected mainly because they are considerably less spectacular or their meanings [are] a lot less evident” than, for illustration, the animal drawings themselves. 

“But I assume there are a number of assumptions remaining built listed here that have yet to be verified,” she cautioned in an e mail to CBC.

A grid of six crude black and white drawings of animals, each with a 'Y' symbol somewhere on them.
This ‘Y’ image viewed on Ice Age cave artwork may perhaps symbolize when an animal presents birth, a new study hypothesizes. (Cambridge Archaeological Journal)

Nowell says she’s not convinced the conclusions offer ample proof to establish a calendar, and questions why the paleolithic men and women would start their calendar in the spring and abandon it in the winter.

What’s a lot more, she questioned the study’s interpretation of the Y symbol. 

“I am possessing some issue with that in that the the vast majority of animals thought of in this study are quadrupeds and people ordinarily squat offering beginning,” she mentioned. “If this signal is meant to be legendary of the birth process, it is not obvious to me.”

Kentbridge famous that beginning is just one attainable interpretation for the Y image. Bacon stated the concept is not based mostly on symbolism by yourself, but archeological proof. He states they identified a correlation among Y and the beginning cycles and birthplaces of the animals they analyzed.

Nowell also suggests the symbols are not really sophisticated sufficient to be viewed as “proto-producing,” as it lacks all the items of language, like nouns, verbs, pronouns, etcetera. 

A man with long blonde hair, a big, bushy beard and sunglasses.
Robert Kentridge is a psychologist at Durham College who is fascinated in the psychological determination of Ice Age cave art. (Durham College)

At last, Nowell cautioned that the authors only seemed at three of at minimum 32 recurring people in artwork samples. 

“Even if the authors are suitable about dots, strains and Y-signals, we however don’t know what 90 for each cent of the signals suggest, and they did not tackle when these indications take place in other contexts and what that could possibly convey to us,” she reported.

“Understanding what photos they really don’t arise with or if they occur in isolation is as essential and could change our being familiar with of their meanings.”

On that entrance, Bacon agrees. He says you can find a ton of function left to be accomplished — both in terms of deciphering the symbols, and mapping their complexity.

“This is only the commencing,” he claimed. “There are upwards of 100 symptoms in this entire world, and we are steadily functioning absent at them.”