An amateur archaeologist appears to have deciphered a Stone Age writing system that experts believe is the oldest ever discovered.

Ben Bacon, a furniture restorer by day, spent many evenings poring over pictures of cave paintings of mammoths and other prehistoric animals. His analysis, which has been backed by university professors, suggests that the paintings, which are up to 25,000 years old, use symbols to relay information.

“I’m interested in writing, how it develops,” Bacon, 67, said. “What we have here is a simple writing system.”


He believes that palaeolithic hunter-gatherers used symbols to store information on the breeding cycles of their prey. The symbols were used across Europe until the end of the Ice Age, roughly 11,000 years ago, and could date back up to 40,000 years. The next oldest system did not appear until about 5,500 years ago, in Mesopotamia.

The older system uses three symbols — lines, dots and a “Y” shape — and a calendar based on the lunar cycle. The year starts with spring and dots and lines stand for lunar months.

A picture of a mammoth followed by five marks indicates that the mammoth breeding season takes place five lunar months after the start of spring.


Stone Age Code Is Cracked By Amateur Archaeologist
Ben Bacon spent many evenings poring over pictures of cave paintings of mammoths and other prehistoric animals

The Y shape is used to show what time of year a species gives birth.

The findings are published today in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. The authors of the paper also include professors from Durham University and University College London. Knowing when to expect the breeding season would have been useful as large groups of animals often gather together, said Professor Paul Pettitt of Durham.

Bacon, from north London, believes that the findings change how we think about our Ice Age ancestors. Their cave art has often been interpreted as an attempt to invoke the supernatural. “They’ve conventionally been thought of as superstitious people who try to use hunting magic to kill animals,” Bacon said. “The signs are actually a scientific observational database of information that they build up over many years and sometimes decades.”

Stone Age Code Is Cracked By Amateur Archaeologist
A sequence of four dots on a painting of a bull on the wall of Lascaux Cave in France

Bacon was probably the first person in at least a hundred centuries to read the symbols. “I work alone most of the time,” he said. “It’s usually just you and the computer. And to sit there at midnight or one in the morning and to read something that is perhaps 16,000 years old — it’s overwhelming.”

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