Thoughts on ‘proto-writing’ in the Upper Palaeolithic

There’s a lot of buzz about the recent paper by Bacon et al ‘An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar’.

In short, the authors analyse repetitions of dots and and lines that are sometimes found superimposed on paintings of animals in European Upper Palaeolithic cave art. They argue that the signs are numerical and represent calendrical information pertaining to the life cycles of these animals. Each dot or line in a linear sequence encodes one lunar month from the new year (assumed to be late Spring) and a Y-shaped symbol indicates the time that the depicted animal gives birth.

Upper Palaeolithic horse in Lascaux cave, photographed by Emma Groeneveld. Note this image does not appear in the paper but is included here because it is public domain.

Many of my favourite scholars generate interesting visions of the world that shake up my thinking in useful ways, even if their models aren’t particularly well substantiated. In the case of this paper, I really do think the hypothesis is provocative and well-articulated and it’s quite possible that it’s statistically robust. But I remain unexcited by the vision and very cautious about the assumptions. I want to start by confessing that I’m automatically prejudiced against anything that presents itself as a ‘decipherment’. The world is already awash with folk interpretations of rongorongo, Linear A, and the Voynich manuscript to name a few, and I’m frankly jaded.

Ethnographic analogy

With that aside, my real objection is that the authors make assumptions about graphic codes and how they work that are far from universal in human societies. I’m aware that ethnographic analogy has its vigorous critics, but the approach is intended to be heuristic rather than predictive. It’s all about revealing the scope of what is possible. This makes it a much more effective safeguard against ethnocentrism than any thought-up-in-the-bath hypothesis that cannot see itself in the mirror.

A primary assumption of the authors is that a sequence of dots or lines is a numerical tally. Here’s the problem: examples can be found in contemporary societies of tally-like marks being merely decorative, or when they do carry information it is not necessarily numerical information. A ‘tally’ may indicating imprecise quantities (‘a large amount’, ‘all the women’), unnumbered stages in a journey, or core elements in a story or explanation (see figure below). Certainly, they are doing the work of structuring information but it is by no means always numerical information.

A non-numerical ‘tally’. Figure 2.13 from page 61 of Green (2014). Drawn from the ground: Sound, sign and inscription in Central Australian sand stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Related to this issue is the invisible role of orality.

A common expectation of literate minds is that sequences of standardised graphic symbols must represent self-contained strings of information—like written inscriptions—that are relatively context-independent. Yet in traditionally non-literate societies, graphic symbols may only become activated and meaningful within an oral interaction such as a sung performance, a diplomatic exchange or a narration. In these scenarios, the oral channel is doing almost all of the heavy lifting in terms of the information load. The graphic symbols may help to structure, reinforce or authenticate the oral message but they never encapsulate it in such a way that it can be independently reconstructed (or ‘deciphered’ like glottographic signs). To use a term applied by Pierre Déléage (2013), the graphic code is bound to the oral channel.

From the 19th century onwards, many anthropologists assumed that such codes were mnemonic, but again this is a gross simplification. Members of oral-dominant societies can remember things quite effectively without writing them down, though prompts can certainly help to structure and condense the information, or give it social legitimacy. Consider that some oral societies have transmitted observations of sea-level rises or volcanic eruptions without any ‘mnemonic’ whatsoever except the landscape itself. Some of these observations may have remained accurate for over 13,000 years (update: for a critique see Davidson et al. 2021). Writing, meanwhile, has been with us for a mere 5000 years and widespread global literacy only since the 1970s. Pure orality should not be underestimated. Indeed, on such measures it has yet to be outmatched by writing.

This makes me question the presumed function of these Upper Palaeolithic cave marks as recording and transmitting information about animal birth cycles in lunar months. For a hunter-gatherer community—whose members might potentially recall hours-long song cycles, genealogical lists, complex kinship arrangements, not to mention vast quantities of environmental knowledge—this is an odd thing to want to make a permanent record of. What’s more, animal life-cycles in any environment are integrated with countless other seasonal indicators that make predictions easier. Hunter gatherers will know, for example, that the arrival of a certain migratory bird announces the maturation of a certain frog. The drying out of a lagoon predictably coincides with the prevalence of a grub that attracts the interest of raptors and so on. In other words, I suspect that there would be many better ways of predicting when wild animals are going to give birth than numerical counting from the onset of a seasonal change. The subsequent need to actually record such counts for future generations is hard to fathom, though I could certainly imagine ceremonial possibilities, as per rock art in Australia.

With all this in mind, the hypothesis may still be correct, and I do love a bold vision! But I would want to see a more thorough exploration of alternative explanations.


The least inspiring part of the paper is the section arguing that that Upper Palaeolithic striations and dots represent a form of proto-writing. The suggestion that abstract cave signs are precursors to writing is an old chestnut that was entertained by Edward Clodd (1900), then Henri Breuil (1905) and then taken for a decent spin by Arthur Evans (1909) who imagined a Phoenecian alef in the carving on a reindeer horn fragment. The idea also turns up in Hans Jensen (1958) among other later writers who I won’t defame here.

But ‘proto-‘ anything is a suspect hold-over from progressivist thinking whereby a given phenomenon is characterised as an undeveloped stage of a higher-status phenomenon. As Graeber and Wengrow (2021) put it: “terms like ‘Proto-palatial Crete’, ‘Predynastic Egypt’ or ‘Formative Peru’ convey a sense of impatience, as if Minoans, Egyptians or Andean peoples spent centuries doing little but laying the groundwork for such a Golden Age.” Likewise, early graphic codes are not trying and failing to be writing. They are performing a fixed task that simply does not require the modelling of any linguistic structure. Standardised non-linguistic graphic codes are everywhere and do very specific jobs. They predate writing, are used alongside writing, and emerge after writing. To suggest that they are embryonic of ‘full’ multi-purpose writing is to ignore what they already do, or to assume that what they’re doing is deficient. Contemporary musical scores, for example, are a great example of a narrow yet potent non-linguistic code. It would be absurd to suggest that the system will eventually be abandoned in favour of a more effective written description of the music.

The authors maintain that the position of ‘Y’ in a tally sequence is ordinal and thus logographic, per contemporary Hindu-Arabic numerals. This dispensed with the need for orality to explain meaning and increased the reliability of the signal, just like writing. They speculate that ‘Y’ encapsulated morphological information in the verb form ‘give birth’. On these grounds, they assume that the signs could be articulated in language and thus represent writing. Again, this is easily refuted by contemporary ethnographic evidence where visual codes may prompt or reinforce elements of speech—especially formulaic speech such as ritual recitations—without modelling linguistic structure.

To further bolster their ‘proto-writing’ theory, the authors appeal to the Schmandt-Besserat (1989) hypothesis that the earliest invented writing in Mesopotamia was an outgrowth of numeric markers on clay tokens. This hypothesis is another bold idea that I enjoy but it has to be admitted that it has taken a battering in recent years on the grounds of archeological evidence (for one excellent critique see Bennison-Chapman 2018, cited by the authors). It doesn’t stand up to comparative generalisation either. At the three other sites in which writing was invented from scratch—Egypt, China and Mesoamerica—there is no good evidence that glottographic writing emerged from counting.

An aside: If abstract symbols in cave art are not proto-writing, who is to say that they not ‘writing’ proper? What is ‘writing’ anyway? This is a controversial question but minimally writing involves that modelling of linguistic structure such that a linguistic message can be reconstructed. Even by the most generous interpretation, these sequences of abstract cave symbols are not writing. For those interested, my own attempt at clarifying the question of ‘What is writing?’ is here.

Anyway, I don’t want any of this to come across as gripey or grumpy. Bennett Bacon and colleagues know a great deal about Upper Palaeolithic visual culture than I do, and I love seeing outsider scholars making profound contributions.

These are just my personal reactions and I’m very happy to be told where I’ve got it wrong!

Bennison-Chapman, Lucy E. 2018. “Reconsidering ‘tokens’: The Neolithic origins of accounting or multifunctional, utilitarian tools?” Cambridge Archaeological Journal:1-27.

Breuil, Henri. 1905. “La dégénérescence des figures d’animaux en motifs ornementaux à l’époque du renne.” Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 49:105-120.

Clodd, Edward. 1900. The story of the alphabet. London: George Newnes.

Davidson, Iain, Heather Burke, Pearl Connelly, Stephen Porter, Hazel Sullivan, Lance Sullivan, Isabel Tarragó, and Lynley A Wallis. 2021. “Oral tradition, history, and archaeohistory of Indigenous Australia.” In The Oxford Handbook of the archaeology of Indigenous Australia and New Guinea, edited by Ian J McNiven and Bruno David. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Déléage, Pierre. 2013. Inventer l’écriture: Rituels prophétiques et chamaniques des Indiens d’Amérique du Nord, XVIIe-XIXe siècles. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Evans, Arthur J. 1909. Scripta Minoa: The written documents of Minoan Crete with special reference to the archives of Knossos. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. 2021. The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Green, Jennifer. 2014. Drawn from the ground: Sound, sign and inscription in Central Australian sand stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jensen, Hans. [1958] 1970. Sign, symbol, and script: An account of man’s efforts to write. Translated by George Unwin. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 1989. “The precursors of writing: Plain and complex tokens.” In The origins of writing, edited by Wayne M. Senner, 27-41. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Just published

The evolution of the Chinese script

I have a new publication with Simon Jerome Han, Charles Kemp and James Winters on the dynamics of visual complexity in Chinese writing from the Shang Oracle Bone script onwards.

You can read it at Open Mind here. If you don’t feel like struggling through it, you can read our Conversation article here.

Short concordance table published on page 28 of Pauthier, G. 1842. Sinico-Ægyptiaca: Essai sur l’origine et la formation similaire des écritures figuratives chinoise et egyptienne. Paris: Firmin Didot Frères.

Jerome led the research while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and he did a terrific job. He started by applying the same method of measuring visual complexity that James and I applied to the Vai script, but at a much more significant scale, measuring upwards of 750,000 individual characters.

The result is also surprising: while Vai writing simplified in line with the assumptions in the literature, Chinese writing got more complex over time. The whole collaboration was very satisfying even though peer review turned into a bit of a wild ride lurching from trollish depths to ultra-constructive heights.

Research about Chinese writing seems to provoke strong reactions, both good and bad.

[UPDATE: The research has now featured on Language Log (‘The complexification of the Sinoglyphic writing system continues apace‘) and on SBS Mandarin which you can listen to here.]


American Chopper on anthropology

American Chopper anthropology

I keep thinking of this American Chopper meme and why it makes me laugh but also bugs me. The argument of the moustachioed man is one that is familiar to me but I find it to be naive. When such pure standards are set for decolonial methodologies, the baby is inevitably thrown out with the bath water. As Graeber and Wengrow put it: “To say Mi’kmaq thought is unimportant would be racist; to say it’s unknowable because the sources were racist, however, does rather let one off the hook.”

Anthropology may never be decolonised but that fact shouldn’t be taken as permission to avoid dealing in complexity (or dare I say ‘entanglement’) altogether. Anyone who works seriously with archival materials knows that knowledge is distorted by the power dynamic producing it, but it is never completely in its thrall. It has its own mercurial logic that very often eludes the structure that hopes to contain it. Edward Said is easily invoked by those who want to bring the news about the orientalist foundations of anthropology while his call to action is conveniently ignored.

I feel like picking up a chair and throwing it across the room just to emphasise that Said’s methodological program is all about how to do the the liberating work of reanalysis, knowing that this work will never be perfect and never be finished. Denying any possibility of reading against the grain, or finding the countersign (per Bronwyn Douglas), is to take colonial discourse at its word and to hand it all the easy power that it pretends to have already.

It’s also a neat pretext for denying Indigenous voices simply because you don’t like the packaging they arrive in, per Graeber and Wengrow’s critique. And quite apart from being a bit self-satisfied and activist-splainy, this denial amounts to accusing black and Indigenous anthropologists of double consciousness, or of being duped, rather than being much better informed about the dynamics of knowledge and interpretation than you are.

To paraphrase Said himself, “read a fucking book” (Said 2004 ,’The return to philology’). OK, well not exactly but that’s the gist.

Years ago, during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, I asked a professor of philology at the University of Cape Town how it was that some non-white students like himself were able to graduate at all under the apartheid regime. He said that it was simple: racist ideology loves to project itself as totalising but it never fully succeeds. This is just the kind of gritty optimism—capable of containing contradiction—that should precede the troubling task of reading colonial texts.


The predictable evolution of letter shapes

Our paper on the evolution of the Vai script and its implications for the evolution of writing is finally published in Current Anthropology here. If you can’t get behind the paywall, the preprint is here, but if you want the nice clean published version please drop me a line.

One of the best things about Current Anthropology is their policy of eliciting responses and we have commentaries from Henry Ibekwe, Andrij Rovenchak and Monica Tamariz as well as our collective reply to those responses. Here is an earlier twitter thread about the paper, and there is also a new piece about it by Colin Barras in New Scientist here (paywalled). In the meantime, enjoy Julia Bespamyatnykh’s excellent animation of three Vai letters evolving before your eyes.


The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2021

This list gets smaller each year, a sure sign that my idle reading time is diminishing. It was a year of endless pandemic chores, grant-chasing and depression. But I now have job security for 6 years and it feels like a great reprieve.

One piece needs a special mention, just because it was so surprising. This is John Semley’s account of the US postal service that somehow ends up talking about everything that ails us in this scary political moment: America, Ex Post Facto. Also, loved Sharon Old’s poem First Thanksgiving, written 16 years ago but it was new to me and it hit me very hard.




Ethics & the examined life


Continue reading

How to attract emus with this one weird trick

Years ago when I was contributing to a report for a native title claim in the Pilbara, I came across this passage written by Émile Clement over a century ago:

Clement, Emile. 1904. “Ethnographical notes on the Western-Australian Aborigines: With a descriptive catalogue of a collection of
ethnographical objects from Western Australia by J.D.E Schmeltz.”  Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie 16 (1/2):1-29.

The phrase I enjoy the most is: “[t]he Emu, being a very inquisitive bird…”. Emus certainly have a funny way of looking at you sidewise like a chook calculating the odds that you will drop part of your sandwich. As a child, my sister was about to bite into a whole tomato when an inquisitive emu approached her from behind and snatched the tomato out of her hand. She turned to see a tomato-shaped bulge travelling slowly down its neck.

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The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2020

It’s much smaller list this year, probably because of all the madness: Covid, homeschooling, a book manuscript, grant applications, illness. For all these reasons I did a lot less of my usual idle and aimless reading. The stand-out article is Married (Happily) With Issues (even though it was published yonks ago), and I loved the poem Good Bones by Maggie Smith. 



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Just published

New blog post at Hiphilangsci: the return of the human in the study of writing

I have a new blog post at History and Philosophy of the Language sciences on how the study of writing is returning to human-centric practice-based framework, and why this is a good thing.

Written production generates new practices but it is also an activity that is recruited into existing social routines. These routines might be concerned with the management of labour and its products, the projection of political power, the elaboration of myth, and the performance of ritual including communications with the supernatural world. In effect, writing is a practice that is seemingly bound up in the reproduction and maintenance of social orders.



Message stick news

I’ve been terrible at updating this blog this year, for obvious reasons, but I’m going to spell them out anyway as succinctly as possible: pandemic, homeschooling, book manuscript, funding applications.

A round-up of recent news:

Over and out.

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