Amateur archaeologist deciphers 20,000-year-old cave writing

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NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks with Ben Bacon, a London-based furniture conservator, about decoding a 20,000-year-old writing system.


If I say Stone Age cave paintings, what comes to mind – stick figures, humans hunting woolly mammoths? Well, yes. But more than 20,000 years ago, Ice Age hunter-gatherers also started including symbols in these paintings, lines and dots. And these lines and dots have perplexed modern researchers. Nobody knew what they might represent. Now the ancient code has apparently been cracked and not by an archaeologist but by Ben Bacon, a London-based furniture conservator. He spent hours looking at images of cave paintings from the British Library, then teamed up with a few professors. And they have now published their findings in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Ben Bacon joins us now from London. Welcome.

BEN BACON: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: OK. Drumroll – what are the lines and dots?

BACON: The lines and the dots are, very, very simply, numbers. I mean, if you envisage Roman numerals, we go one line, two line, three line. If you imagine that, it’s a very long line of these single digits, as they’re known. That’s how the system works. It’s a very, very simple system.

KELLY: And numbers tracking what?

BACON: Well, the numbers, of course, track time. It seems to be the only thing that they need to track in this world is time. They don’t have trade. They don’t exchange quantities. They don’t do any of the things that we normally need numbers for. So we started from the position that if these were numbers, then the only logical reason that they would exist would be to track time. And this is an idea that had been put forward in the ’70s by a man called Marshak, but he wasn’t actually able to demonstrate the system because he thought that these individual lines were days. What we did is we said, actually, they’re months because a hunter-gatherer doesn’t need to know what day a reindeer migrates. They need to know what month the reindeer migrates. And once you use these months units, this whole system responds very, very well to that.

KELLY: So the time that they were interested in tracking and recording on the walls of caves had to do with animals, had to do with life cycles of animals.

BACON: Exactly. So if you’re a hunter-gatherer people, you’re immersed in your environment. You are one with it, really. If you don’t understand it, if you can’t work with it, you’re going to die. The seasons matter to you. The winter is a horrible season. There’s no food. You’re cold. You’re in trouble. But then you start tracking the animals through the spring and summer and the autumn. If you’re doing this, you can effectively select your prey at the appropriate time. So it becomes quite an efficient way of managing complex resources in a very, very hostile environment.

KELLY: What do you think allowed you to see this when archaeologists have been beating their heads against the wall, trying to figure this out for ages?

BACON: Well, I think the key was we didn’t dismiss the animal. We processed the animal. Fish was three. And other people would concentrate on the fish and the color of the fish and the form of the fish and all the rest of it. And we just said, no. It’s a fish, and it’s a three. The three is the importance of it. So if you start focusing on the number, it becomes a lot easier to do. Another advantage is we accumulated 700 examples of these, and across large databases, patterns demonstrate themselves.

KELLY: What can we as modern humans learn other than the sheer wow factor of figuring out what we’re looking at from all those thousands of years ago – anything we can learn?

BACON: I think that we in the team view this as we’re not studying them. We’re actually studying us. We think there’s a difference between us and them. And we’re saying we cannot distinguish the difference between us intellectually or cognitively. We are exactly the same as they are. It’s – that’s what’s coming across. Their culture was this immensely beautiful visual culture. They’re very clever, very, very clever.

KELLY: Ben Bacon, thank you so much.

BACON: Thank you for having me.


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