A “proto-writing” in the parietal arts: a feathered prehistory of pseudo-discovery

It’s hard not to raise your eyebrows from the first lines of the article published on January 5 in the specialty journal Cambridge Journal of Archeologypresented by the author as “the first specific reading of Upper Paleolithic European communication, the earliest known writing in the history of Homo sapiens.” His formula is bold when we know that the first generally accepted form of writing in human history – cuneiform – appeared in Mesopotamia almost 5000 years after the end of the Paleolithic. However, this apparently did not flinch from the largest Anglo-Saxon media (and some French media), which hastily relayed in enthusiastic articles the “amazing” discoveries disclosed in the publications.


“Amateur archaeologist discovers Ice Age ‘writing’ system”title Guardian. “Amateur archaeologist helps ‘decode’ rock art”very serious write BBC. The coup is given by the esteemed American scientific weekly New Scientist : “Mysterious cave painting symbols may be the oldest form of writing”, could we read in bold, as if the use of conditionals is enough to dilute the announcement effect with readers not always sensitive to the art of nuance. However, it must be believed that storytelling here has superseded any principle of verification, starting with author profiles: among them is actually only one archaeologist, Durham University professor Paul Pettitt, who is also the only one to publish in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (in other words, where the peer is designated to correct and validate, or not, work). One is a retired history teacher, the other is a “life coach”. Bennett Bacon, who was encouraged as the first writer, was a furniture restorer. “Passionate about archeology”teach us various media, it will pass “countless hours” consulted images of cave paintings on the Internet and in the British Library in an attempt to find meaning in the non-figurative elements that frequently appear in Europe’s best decorated caves, often alongside animal figures. After all, since professional researchers stop at nothing to grind their teeth on what is one of mankind’s oldest riddles, we’d better roll up our sleeves, no?

This is what Bennett Bacon would find: the mysterious markings that appear on most of the decorated Paleolithic walls are in fact “a primitive writing system used by hunter-gatherers to record information about the breeding cycles and migrations of animals”. More specifically, vertical lines and points, “two of the most frequent signs”will show you the month and shape “a local phenological/weather calendar that begins in spring and records the weather from then on in lunar months.” They”, “third most frequent sign”means “Give birth to”.

Signs of Paleolithic art, unsolved puzzles

Since the discovery of Old Continent parietal art nearly a century and a half ago, lines, dots, and many other geometric figures pose problems of interpretation for researchers. Should they be understood as symbolic representations of important concepts or ideas? Like real syntactic construction elements? Or as something incomprehensible to the humans we have become? At the moment, these questions remain unanswered, and they likely never will. Of course, many hypotheses have been advanced more or less seriously by specialists over the decades, including proto-writing, lunar and meteorological calendars, systems of counting and numbering or even seasonal expressions, specially formulated by Norbert Aujoulat. However, neither was convincing enough to reach a consensus. Works remain popular, such as that of André Leroi-Gourhan, who in the 1960s proposed dividing signs into large groups in an attempt to better understand them, or Georges Sauvet, who demonstrated that certain signs are never associated with one another, with thereby indicating the possibility of intentionality.

However, it is necessary to wait for Ben Bacon’s intervention to put an end to this mystery. Alone, under the light of a library lamp, without ever moving in a cave, this low “street anonymous” (sic) will surpass those who sometimes devote their entire careers to understanding these prehistoric modes of expression.

Date statement and confirmation bias

Enough irony. “There’s nothing wrong with this article, which is really outrageous”launched Carole Fritz, specialist in prehistoric art and scientific director of the Chauvet cave, interviewed by Science and the Future. “This proto-writing story is a sea serpent, which Paul Pettitt and his co-authors mixed this time with other older and sometimes questionable theories soon after publication. I find it difficult to understand how such a paper can be validated. , and why Paul Pettitt agreed to co-sign it.” Also asked to react, Jean-Loïc Quellec, French prehistoric who specialized in the Sahara (to whom we owe some money on cave art, Original cavepublished in the fall of 2022 by the edition of La Découverte), and Patrick Paillet, lecturer at the National Museum of Natural History and specialist in prehistoric art and representation, is just as sharp: “The problem isn’t that it’s a demonstration by an amateur, but that this demonstration isn’t the only one.”complained Jean-Loïc Le Quellec. “They relied on totally unreliable 19th century records and many of these are now dismissed as fakes.”

Patrick Paillet wonders about a’s “theory is built from partial data – old records, photographs… – generalized and whole, up to 28,000 years, from the Franco-Iberian Upper Paleolithic.” And to continue: “The authors also and especially forgot to go to the field, to the site, to the cave, to see it for themselves, to make their analysis there as objective as possible, to verify the quality and integrity of the archaeological site. facts, and the graphs they use to construct their theoretical constructs.”

Sign panels as presented in the study: “(a) Aurochs: Lascaux, late period; (b) Aurochs: La Pasiega, late; (c) Horse: Chauvet, late (we differ with the Chauvet team, as to who was earlier ); (d) Horse: Mayenne-Sciences, early; (e) Red Deer: Lascaux, late; (f) Salmon: Abri du Poisson, early; (g) Salmon (?): Pindal, late ; (h) Mammoth : Pindal, early.” Credit: Durham University

Other than this more questionable database and complete absence of observations in place Confirmation bias is assumed from the first line of the paper, in which the collective confirms “relies on the uncontroversial assumption that dots/lines represent numbers”. “Relying on a hypothesis”, which is still quite controversial, is of course problematic in the context of scientific demonstration. In the same vein, we can also point out that the authors explain from the fact that no sequence in their corpus contains more than thirteen similar signs, hence the idea of ​​a calendar notation based on lunar cycles. However, we observe there is a sequence of 59 signs, two of 29, three of 16, and a sequence of 14, 17, 20 and 28 signs“, relieved Jean-Loïc Le Quellec. Therefore, the latter were simply removed from the study, as they would most likely harm him.

Finally, it is impossible not to note that only three signs were analyzed, whereas in Paleolithic art there are several dozen attested signs. “Above all, it seems important to focus first on the most common signs associated with figurative images”confirmed Paul Pettitt in the column Live Science. But again, the association of these signs with figurative images is postulate: “None of the authors questioned the associations they studied. Yet, when does an association begin? By what criteria can it be distinguished from a simple juxtaposition? Are we always sure of the contemporancy between signs and animals?”picked up Jean-Loïc Le Quellec.

contemporary fantasy

None of the three researchers interviewed opposed the proposed new interpretation for these signs. “I am not hostile to the idea of ​​a calendar or a system of numerical calculations related to the life and reproduction of living plants or animals, but I am radically opposed to the methods developed here, or rather the lack of methods”, concluded Patrick Paillet. “If you want to describe proto-writing, you have to take all the elements and work out the relationships between them, which is not done here at all”ended Carole Fritz. “Paleolithics had a different vision of the world than we do, so we have to stop systematically placing our will on them. These societies probably didn’t have writing because they didn’t need it.” We’ll leave a last word for Jean-Loïc Le Quellec: “How can we believe in the practical use of recording at the bottom of caves, and often in places that are difficult to access, or very invisible, or accessible to only one or two people, information such as the period of childbirth? bison? “

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