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Furniture conservator stuns archaeologists by decoding 20,000-year-old ice age cave drawings

Furniture conservator Ben Bacon has examined 20,000-year-old markings and linked it to the lunar calendar.

Furniture conservator stuns archaeologists by decoding 20,000-year-old ice age cave drawings
Cover Image Source: Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (

Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 3, 2023. It has since been updated.

Fellow historians and archaeologists have lauded a London furniture conservator for deciphering significant Ice Age cave drawings. Ben Bacon examined 20,000-year-old markings and found them to be a reference to the lunar calendar. Many of the oldest cave drawings can be found in France and Spain, and they tell archaeologists about the various lifestyles that existed during the Ice Age. They are scrawled on the cave walls and range from daily activities to the routines of hunters and gatherers during that time. According to BBC, this discovery made by Bacon led to the revelation that early Europeans documented the timing of animal reproductive cycles.



Mr. Bacon said it was "surreal" to decode what the hunter-gatherers were saying. The various dots on cave drawings have stumped archaeologists for decades, trying to understand what they meant. Bacon researches those dots on the internet and in the British Library to know more about cave paintings and "amassed as much data as possible and began looking for repeating patterns." This helped him to understand the meaning behind different symbols and alphabets, in particular the "Y," which could mean "giving birth" since it shows one line branching out from the other. As his research progressed, he was joined by friends and senior academics who supported Bacon even though he was "effectively a person off the street." 

Figure 1 (opposite). Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (Image Source:
Figure 1 (opposite). Examples of animal depictions associated with sequences of dots/lines. (Image Source:


Two professors from Durham University and University College London worked alongside Bacon to learn more about these calendar records. They concluded that the marks on the cave paintings were a record, per lunar month, of the animals' mating seasons by calculating the birth cycles of present-day species. The findings were published in the Cambridge Archeological Journal. Prof Paul Pettitt, of Durham University, said he was "glad he took it seriously", adding that: “The results show that ice age hunter-gatherers were the first to use a systemic calendar and mark to record information about major ecological events within that calendar.”

Examples of the <Y> sign in sequences associated with animal depictions.
Examples of the sign-in sequences associated with animal depictions. (Image Source:


He added: "In turn, we're able to show that these people, who left a legacy of spectacular art in the caves of Lascaux [in France] and Altamira [in Spain], also left a record of early timekeeping that would eventually become commonplace among our species." Mr. Bacon said our extinct ancestors were "a lot more like us than we had previously thought. These people, separated from us by many millennia, are suddenly a lot closer". For years these random lines and dots were understood as species of fish, reindeer, cattle, and other creatures from around 20,000 years ago, but thanks to Mr. Bacon and his team, we are now one step closer to learning about the lives of our extinct ancestral cousins. 



“When wildlife biologists look at those paintings of reindeer and bison, they can tell you what time of year it was painted just from the appearance of the animals' hides and skins,” Professor Brian Fagan told History in 2021. “The way these people knew their environment was absolutely incredible by our standards.” Moreover, Bacon's findings have encouraged them to do further research on the meanings found in cave drawings. According to The Guardian, the markings are numerical recordings rather than recording speech, they are classified as a proto-writing system and not "writing" in the sense that the pictographic and cuneiform systems evolved in Sumer about 3,400 BC. “What we are hoping, and the initial work is promising, is that unlocking more parts of the proto-writing system will allow us to gain an understanding of what information our ancestors valued,” Bacon said.

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