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Did humans start writing 10,000+ years earlier than we thought?
A London-based furniture conservator and amateur archaeologist may have solved a mystery that has long perplexed experts—and it could revolutionize our understanding of the history of humanity.
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When did humans first start writing?
Well, it depends how you define writing. But a new discovery by an amateur archaeologist may have just completely changed the answer to that question—and altered our understanding of the history of our species. It’s a story that reminds us that countless mysteries are out there, waiting to be solved, and sometimes, it’s the curious amateur, rather than the established expert, who can discover that which is hiding in plain sight.
For a long time, most scholars have agreed that the earliest writing was to be found dating from about 5,500 years ago, in ancient Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq). Sumerian is often considered the first written language, though it was crude—if you wanted to communicate a concept, you simply drew something that looked like it.
By 2,900 BC, these pictographs had morphed into something more sophisticated: cuneiform writing, in which early symbols were imprinted on clay tablets using a reed stylus. The symbols were wedge-shaped, and the word cuneus in Latin means "wedge,” which is why it’s called cuneiform. This is what they look like. (Image from the BBC).
We’ll come back to cuneiform shortly. But our story now turns to an unlikely hero, a man named Bennett (Ben) Bacon, an independent researcher with a deep interest in archaeology, though his day job is as a furniture conservator in London.
In recent news coverage of Bacon’s discovery, he’s been described as “effectively a person off the street,” though Bacon told me he’s perplexed by this label. “I have no idea where this came from, it implies that I'm a hobo,” he told me. Nonetheless, his formal training is in English and furniture conservation, not prehistoric archaeology.
Bacon has always been an intellectually curious man, however, and he’s long been fascinated by writing and writing systems. So, one night, as he tells it, he was browsing through online image libraries of cave paintings from the Paleolithic era. And he stumbled across various bits of prehistoric artwork that puzzled him. “I saw several images of what I took to be animals with numbers,” he explained. “That was seven years ago.”
This is what these cave paintings look like (the yellow circle is added to highlight the dots).
In addition to the dots, the paintings also featured a peculiar “Y” shape, as though two branches were coming together as one.
Nobody knew what the symbols meant, if indeed they meant anything at all. The finest minds in the world had pondered over that question and come up empty. But Bacon, undeterred, set out to crack the code of those symbols, and discover why these prehistoric people had gone to such trouble to draw these animals with various dots around them in the first place. He was hooked.
“We call the caves the Rabbit Hole,” Bacon told me. “Once you fall in, you can’t get out.”
For the next several years, Bacon toyed with various theories. But his initial impression was the one that stuck. It was at odds with the prevailing interpretations at the time. But sometimes, an outsider’s fresh eyes can reinterpret the accepted wisdom of experts in a given field.
“The difficulty is that the academics didn't see the ‘dots’ with the animals as numbers, and I instantly did,” Bacon notes.
Even if his hunch was right, though, there was still a puzzle. What could the numbers mean? This is where the guesswork began, along with a lot of grueling data analysis.
With painstaking tenacity, Bacon compiled a fresh database of cave paintings, and found 606 instances in which animal drawings were accompanied by peculiar lines or dots. In 256 of them, they featured that peculiar Y-shaped marking.
The number of dots varied from painting to painting, but there seemed to be a hard upper limit. There never had more than thirteen dots. And that seemed significant.
Bacon surmised that the dots might have something to do with the moon. The lunar cycle is about 28 days long, meaning that the year is divided into 13 lunar cycles. Given that there seemed to be an upper limit — there were never 14 dots — it made sense to conclude that the dots were used to keep time, in reference to the number of lunar cycles that had passed. Each dot or line, he proposed, represented one lunar cycle.
Bacon contacted several eminent experts in the field and presented his hypothesis. They encouraged him, Bacon refined his theories, and eventually, they decided that he was onto something. They agreed to work together on a new research paper that fleshed out the idea in greater detail.
Their theory relies on an important bit of context: these prehistoric peoples were hunter-gatherers who relied on animals for their survival. To know about animals was to survive, so recording knowledge about the behaviors and patterns of animals was essential to stay alive. Proto-writing could provide a recording system to store that knowledge.
This is where it gets tricky. How do you go about deciphering meaning just from looking at a crude picture of a cow, or a bison, or some deer and a varied number of dots? There are no clues and no shortcuts. All you can do is to try relentless brainstorming, considering what might be so important to these people that they would want to record it.
The hypothesis they came up with is simple: the prehistoric people from the Paleolithic were using the dots to record units of time, and the Y-like symbols refer to mating/birthing behavior. In other words, if there were three dots and then a Y, that would mean that kind of animal could be expected to give birth after three lunar months. The records were applied to all sorts of animals, from horses to fish.
The start date for this rudimentary Stone Age calendar was the period in which rivers unfroze and plants began to grow—that was their sense of what New Year meant.
As Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University and co-author of the new study explained, “If anything was worth recording outside of memory, it would be animals, particularly the times of the year when those prey animals, critical for survival, would be aggregated together and preoccupied with mating and birthing. It makes absolute sense.”
When Bacon and his academic collaborators put this fresh theory to the test, they found a remarkable correlation. Using statistical methods, they were able to demonstrate that the number of dots usually corresponds to the month in which various kinds of animals mate and give birth. The theory and the data were a nice fit.
Of course, as with all new and revolutionary theories, not everyone is convinced. Melanie Chang, a paleoanthropologist at Portland State University, didn’t find the results convincing and thinks rival hypotheses are more plausible. But even as the controversy and the mystery continues, this breakthrough represents a profound shift in how we conceptualize of our distant ancestors.
The earliest forms of writing (or, more accurately, proto-writing) may have begun as long as 37,000 years ago. If correct, that puts the origins of human writing, at a minimum, 10,000 years earlier than previously thought—and, if the 37,000 years ago figure is correct, possibly much more. But even the smallest increase of 10,000 years is a huge stretch of time. (To put it into perspective, keep in mind that the pyramids were only built about 4,500 years ago, so 10,000 years tacked onto the history of writing is a big change).
This finding, according to Bacon, “has the potential to change how we think about them [prehistoric humans], and how we think about us.” The lesson is simple: “You don't have to be technologically advanced to be smart.” In other words, perhaps these distant ancestors were a lot more like us than we previously believed.
There is, however, a debate about what qualifies as “writing.” And certainly, there’s a big difference between the sophistication of cuneiform tablets, with their full linguistic structure, and a series of dots that accompany crude drawings of horses on cave walls. But the shift from one to the other, potentially over tens of thousands of years, is the story of our species becoming more sophisticated in how we process and record our experiences of the world.
Last Friday, I went and saw the collection of cuneiform tablets on display at the British Museum in London. They are astonishing objects, and it’s an incredible feeling to be inches away from some of the earliest examples of human writing, knowing that someone had etched those wedged symbols into wet clay with a reed nearly 5,000 years ago—which I could still marvel at several millennia later. It’s moving to be so near such a profoundly important object in the story of our species.
On my way to the exhibit, I had the pleasure of bumping into Irving Finkel, a wonderfully charming man, who is a philologist and a curator of the cuneiform tablets at the museum. He’s also one of the world-leading experts on the history of writing. Finkel’s official title is wonderful, too: Assistant Keeper of the Ancient Mesopotamian Script, Languages and Cultures Department at the British Museum. His delightfully eccentric appearance, with his memorable wizard beard, fits the bill too. Behold, dear reader, the majesty of Irving Finkel:
If you are interested in the history of writing, and the ways in which scholars and amateur linguistic sleuths alike have cracked the code of ancient writing systems (and it is a fascinating topic), then look no further: Irving Finkel is here to help.
I leave you with this video to watch (embedded below), of Finkel explaining the story of cuneiform and its place in the broader history of writing—and I assure you it is a profoundly enjoyable video to watch, partly because of the fascinating subject matter, and partly because Finkel is an eccentric delight and a hilariously engaging public speaker. I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud, but I also learned a ton.
Our species has used many different mechanisms to convey information, and the little symbols you’re reading right now are a contingent accident of history—the culmination of a long process that may have originated far earlier than we previously thought, painted on caves by humans just trying to survive.
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You can read the new research paper from Bacon and his academic associates here.