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A Complete Amateur Helped to Decode Ice Age Cave Art

Photo Credit: Fotodesign Stadler Hubert/ Corbis/ Getty Images/ Cropped
Photo Credit: Fotodesign Stadler Hubert/ Corbis/ Getty Images/ Cropped

It doesn’t always take a professional with years of work in a specialized field to make a discovery that cracks history wide open. That is certainly the case for furniture conservator Ben Bacon who, in his spare time, came up with a complex theory explaining the use of lines and dots in Ice Age cave art which academics had a difficult time explaining themselves.

An interest in cave art

Ben Bacon lives and works in London, England as an English teacher. He was always interested in cave art, specifically, the various markings that appear on or near animals. These symbols, which had completely stumped archaeologists, were one of the reasons behind Bacon’s research. “The meaning of the markings within these drawings has always intrigued me so I set about trying to decode them, using a similar approach that others took to understanding an early form of Greek text,” he told BBC.

Cave painting of various different animals on rock face.
Cave painting of various animals in Lascaux, France, with the animal on the left featuring the symbols that Ben Bacon researched. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

He set a lengthy and impressive project, dedicating significant amounts of time to pore over various images of cave art that could be found online and through the British Library. Bacon was looking for recurring patterns in the paintings, which allowed him to create his theory that these apparently meaningless marks actually communicated a type of lunar calendar.

Furthering his theory

After creating a sound hypothesis, Bacon reached out to various academics looking for their input on his research. The experts thoroughly encouraged him to keep working on the project, and he ended up collaborating with a team of different archaeologists to publish his ideas. In the process of further research for this paper, the team came to a few conclusions.

Drawing of horse head with numerous rows of dots on the left side.
Hand-drawn sketch of one of the horse head cave drawings in Gallery A at Cueva de La Pasiega in Spain, showing an example of an animal associated with various dots. (Photo Credit: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

They looked at the three most common symbols that Bacon found, determining that they were a lunar record of when each of these animals were mating. They cross-referenced the occurrence of the symbols with the birth cycles of animals similar to those in the painting to make the connections. In addition, they determined that the inclusion of a “Y” symbol meant that the animal was giving birth.

Ultimately, what they discovered was that these patterns were proof that those who came 20,000 years before us had a complex way of communicating information about the animals that surrounded them – exactly what Bacon first assumed that it might be.

Alternative theories

Not everyone, however, is on board with Bacon and his team’s proposed understanding of these ancient symbols. As April Nowell from the University of Victoria said, “there are a number of assumptions being made here that have yet to be proven.” She is also skeptical of the “Y” symbol indicating birth. Melanie Chang at Portland State University also questions this meaning, instead proposing that these could simply be illustrating markings on the animal.

Rock painting of three stag like animals on a rock.
The oldest rock-painting (20,600 years old) in Bidon, France, showing the type of marks investigated by Ben Bacon on the right hand side. (Photo Credit: Serge DE SAZO/ Gamma-Rapho/ Getty Images)

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She also expressed concerns that the many hypotheses put forward by Bacon and his team did little to address any alternative ways that the marks could be viewed. Nonetheless, Bacon intends to continue this research and also assess many of the other symbols that have been found in cave paintings, hoping to “gain an understanding of what information our ancestors valued.”

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.