3.8 Article

An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar


Volume 33, Issue 3, Pages 371-389


DOI: 10.1017/S0959774322000415




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In at least 400 European caves, Homo sapiens groups created non-figurative signs around 42,000 years ago and figurative images, especially animals, around 37,000 years ago. The purpose of the non-figurative signs has been a mystery, but researchers suggest they may have been a form of notation. Through an analysis of images from the European Upper Palaeolithic, this study reveals that three commonly occurring signs - the line <|>, the dot , and the < Y > - functioned as units of communication. They represented numbers denoting months and were part of a local calendar system. The pairing of numbers with animal subjects provided a specific insight into the notational system, allowing us to understand the earliest known writing in the history of Homo sapiens.
In at least 400 European caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira, Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens groups drew, painted and engraved non-figurative signs from at least similar to 42,000 BP and figurative images (notably animals) from at least 37,000 BP. Since their discovery similar to 150 years ago, the purpose or meaning of European Upper Palaeolithic non-figurative signs has eluded researchers. Despite this, specialists assume that they were notational in some way. Using a database of images spanning the European Upper Palaeolithic, we suggest how three of the most frequently occurring signs-the line <|>, the dot , and the < Y >-functioned as units of communication. We demonstrate that when found in close association with images of animals the line <|> and dot constitute numbers denoting months, and form constituent parts of a local phenological/meteorological calendar beginning in spring and recording time from this point in lunar months. We also demonstrate that the < Y > sign, one of the most frequently occurring signs in Palaeolithic non-figurative art, has the meaning . The position of the < Y > within a sequence of marks denotes month of parturition, an ordinal representation of number in contrast to the cardinal representation used in tallies. Our data indicate that the purpose of this system of associating animals with calendar information was to record and convey seasonal behavioural information about specific prey taxa in the geographical regions of concern. We suggest a specific way in which the pairing of numbers with animal subjects constituted a complete unit of meaning-a notational system combined with its subject-that provides us with a specific insight into what one set of notational marks means. It gives us our first specific reading of European Upper Palaeolithic communication, the first known writing in the history of Homo sapiens.


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