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An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar

Bacon, Bennett; Khatiri, Azadeh; Palmer, James; Freeth, Tony; Pettitt, Paul; Kentridge, Robert

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Bennett Bacon

Azadeh Khatiri

James Palmer

Tony Freeth


In at least 400 European caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira, Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens groups drew, painted and engraved non-figurative signs from at least ~42,000 BP and figurative images (notably animals) from at least 37,000 BP. Since their discovery ~150 years ago, the purpose or meaning of European Upper Palaeolithic non-figurative signs has eluded researchers. Despite this, specialists assume that they were notational in some way. Using a database of images spanning the European Upper Palaeolithic, we suggest how three of the most frequently occurring signs—the line <|>, the dot <•>, and the <Y>—functioned as units of communication. We demonstrate that when found in close association with images of animals the line <|> and dot <•> constitute numbers denoting months, and form constituent parts of a local phenological/meteorological calendar beginning in spring and recording time from this point in lunar months. We also demonstrate that the <Y> sign, one of the most frequently occurring signs in Palaeolithic non-figurative art, has the meaning <To Give Birth>. The position of the <Y> within a sequence of marks denotes month of parturition, an ordinal representation of number in contrast to the cardinal representation used in tallies. Our data indicate that the purpose of this system of associating animals with calendar information was to record and convey seasonal behavioural information about specific prey taxa in the geographical regions of concern. We suggest a specific way in which the pairing of numbers with animal subjects constituted a complete unit of meaning—a notational system combined with its subject—that provides us with a specific insight into what one set of notational marks means. It gives us our first specific reading of European Upper Palaeolithic communication, the first known writing in the history of Homo sapiens.


Bacon, B., Khatiri, A., Palmer, J., Freeth, T., Pettitt, P., & Kentridge, R. (in press). An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar. Cambridge Archaeological Journal,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 29, 2022
Online Publication Date Jan 5, 2023
Deposit Date Jan 19, 2023
Publicly Available Date Jan 19, 2023
Journal Cambridge Archaeological Journal
Print ISSN 0959-7743
Electronic ISSN 1474-0540
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed


Published Journal Article (1.2 Mb)

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Copyright Statement
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives licence (, which permits re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that no alterations are made and the original article is properly cited.

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