When was writing originally invented? However anthropologists and archaeologists tend to assume that the oldest written word appeared about 5,000 years ago, a new paper published in Cambridge Archaeological Journal pushes that date back about 15,000 years.
According to the article, Ice Age individuals marked and painted strange symbols, including dots, slashes and asterisks, on rock surfaces inside and outside caves and on portable objects such as sticks and stones to record the seasonal activities of their favorite animals. If these findings stand up to scrutiny, it could mean that our ancient ancestors were much more advanced than previously appreciated.
“The ability to attribute abstract signs to phenomena in the world […] recording past events and predicting future events is a profound intellectual achievement,” the researchers said in their paper.
The oldest written words of ancient people
Ice Age individuals decorated a variety of surfaces France and Spain with depictions of regional carnivores, from bison to birds to fish, approximately 20,000 years ago. And sometimes, in caves such as Lascaux, Shove and Altamirathese representations were reinforced with stunning arrays of abstract symbols whose meanings still baffle anthropologists and archaeologists today.
Working with the alleged “uncontroversial” suggestion that these sequences support some species notation or numerical meaning to their creators, a team of researchers recently evaluated a series of 862 images of Upper Paleolithic animals to translate the three most widespread symbols: the dot, the slash, and the y-shaped sign.
Ultimately, the team hypothesized that the number and placement of these symbols were related to information about the mating and birth of the associated animals, which was of utmost importance to humans at the time.
“Not surprisingly, animal thinking is central to the existence of hunter-gatherers in the world,” the researchers said in their study. “It follows that knowing the timing of migrations, matings and births would be a major concern.”
What’s in a word?
Setting out to translate the specific meanings of these 20,000-year-old symbols, the researchers first cataloged 862 distinct animal associations and sequences, with 606 containing a series of dots and slashes and 256 containing a series of dots and slashes as well as y- figurative blows. After a cursory examination, the researchers realized that all the sequences contained no more than 13 characters.
Using statistical analysis to look more closely at these associations between animals and sequences, comparing patterns of birth, mating and migration with patterns of dots, slashes and dashes, the team found that simple dots and slashes symbolized the number of synodic months after the beginning of spring (out of a total of 13) that the related animals began to mate. Alternatively, they found that the placement of the Y-shaped strokes symbolized the beginning of the species’ breeding season.
According to the authors, although sequences may not represent the “full-fledged” form of the written word, they certainly comprise a preliminary phase in the transition to writing.
“It is perhaps best described as a proto-writing system,” the researchers added in their study.
some archaeologists and anthropologists who were not involved in the work cautioned that the researchers did not explore alternative interpretations of the three markings, nor did they explore the meanings of other markings in Upper Paleolithic art beyond the three they chose. However, some still support the theory that these markings meant something significant to their creators, whether or not they denoted the animals’ seasonal activities.
After all, the researchers condition that they intend to investigate several other Paleolithic symbols in the future. Until then, however, they stress in their study that their work offers “concrete insight,” for the first time, “into what a set of notational characters means.”