Join up the dots … a new theory of cave paintings

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Many cave paintings across Europe seem to show random dots and stripes which scientists have until now been unable to decipher. A British amateur archaeologist believes that he has now cracked the code. According to a study published early in 2023 in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, ancient humans were using cave paintings to track the mating and birthing seasons of wild animals such as cattle, horses and mammoths. To be able to do this, Ice Age hunter-gatherers must have had a grasp of past, present and future and a primitive understanding of the calendar.

Ben Bacon spent years poring over dots and other symbols in famous cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamir and over 600 other sites. When he finally suspected that he had the answer, he engaged the help of several academics who verified his findings. Tony Freeth, honorary professor at University College London, had previously led research into an ancient Greek astronomical clock known as the Antikythera mechanism. He helped to reconstruct a calendar based on the meteorological and lunar information which Palaeolithic humans would have had available to them.

Together, they then matched the known birth cycles of animals alive today against the series of dots accompanying many animal drawings. This seems to confirm that the dots were a record of lunar months for when they were mating. For example, paintings of aurochs in Spain had four dots, showing that they were mating four months after the Palaeolithic spring.  

Archaeologists Prof Paul Pettitt and Prof Bob Kentridge of Durham University then confirmed the findings by proving that there was almost no statistical chance of the results being coincidental. “This is not just record keeping, it’s a real conceptualisation of time,” said Prof Pettit.

Three stripes clearly marked on a cave painting of a fish.
Cave painting of aurochs with dots at Altamira, Spain

Prof Pettit added: ““It’s a really great vindication that amateurs can still play a very critical role in understanding archaeology. A lesson for all academics.”

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