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.


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


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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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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.

This blog is rarely updated! If you want an email notification whenever there is a new post, click on the follow button right at the top ↑ that looks like this: Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 10.02.26 am  You can also use a service called Blogtrottr.


A not so skinny kinship book

This book came for me in the mail. First contemplated five years ago, it’s now an object you can hold in your hands — if that’s your fetish. For everyone else, you can download it for free here. The front cover is by Shirley Purdie and represents the Gija subsection system.

There are twelve authors, spanning the length and breadth of linguistics and linguistic anthropology in Australia. I’m especially happy to be on a chapter with the late and great Luise Hercus, even if my input was largely to do with mapping. Luise was always the common point of reference for Australianist linguistics and her summer lunch parties were legendary. She is, I’m sure, the only person I will ever know to have sustained a wombat-related injury. Continue reading


What is linguistic anthropology?

I have been reflecting recently on the aims of linguistic anthropology as a practice. It strikes me that the concept can mean very different things to different people, and much of this varied intellectual activity gets washed out in its its confluence with other better-defined disciplines and methods.

So for what it’s worth, this (periodically updated) post is an effort to define what I believe makes linguistic anthropology distinctive and why it is worth pursuing.

What it is

Beliefs about language and how it relates to the world

Linguistic anthropology is all about the social meaning of language and language behaviours. To put this another way, it is concerned with the commonsense beliefs that people hold about the possibilities of language and how these beliefs are put into practice or expressed as norms. Key to this understanding is a recognition of the diverse strangeness of human beings. Men belonging to certain Indigenous Australian communities have a special lexicon to be used within earshot of their mothers-in-law, while an activist community in Sweden has an agreed-upon vocabulary for reinforcing values of gender equality. A decision to use one language over another in a multilingual north Indian workplace may be motivated by deference, enmity, national politics or a conviction that a given language has an intrinsic power to encapsulate certain ideas while another is deficient. In some parts of the world, people believe they can communicate with their pets while others converse with the dead. Malagasy peasants use French to address their cattle, or when drunk and boasting. For the most part, these commonsense assumptions could easily be described as ‘language ideologies’, a term defined by Kathryn Woolard as the “socially, politically, and morally loaded cultural assumptions about the way that language works in social life and about the role of particular linguistic forms in a given society”.

Linguistic anthropologists do not care so much about whether any of these beliefs are empirically true, nor whether the practices that stem from them are reasonable. They are much more interested in how such beliefs and practices maintain coherence within their own everyday contexts. In other words, linguistic anthropologists are interested in all the ways in which we systematically connect language to other aspects of our lives: how we organise ourselves as social creatures, how we signal belonging and exclusion, or how we express our values.

Beliefs about the world and how they are enacted through language

Linguistic anthropologists understand that language is not merely representing information in a straightforward denotative way, but is also doing something in the world. That is, they see language-use as a kind of social action.

Mary Douglas once wrote that “it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts”. Of course, symbolic acts are not necessarily isomorphic with linguistic acts but in practice they are almost always mediated by language in important ways. As Kathryn Graber put it, a “linguistic anthropologist is more likely to take as her starting point the assumption that, through evaluative language and other forms of interaction, we do nothing less than constitute ourselves”. Others have expressed the same kinds of perspectives: that “social life and its materiality are constituted through signifying practices” (Gal 1998); that “social action requires a semiotic basis” (Gal & Irvine 2019); and that language is not “removed from the social structures and processes” but is itself a “form of social action that plays a creative role in the social reproduction of cultural forms” (Kroskrity 2008). I think my favourite account is provided by Tomlinson and Makihara who present this stance as a kind or reverse Whorfianism whereby “language structure does not necessarily shape social reality as an earlier variety of Whorfian linguistic relativism would describe it, but rather that what people do with language has the potential to change social reality, as well as to change language structure” (Tomlinson & Makihara 2009).

This amusing chart by twitterer @koutchoukalimar based on @kjhealy (here) illustrates just how linguistic anthropology can be so profoundly mischaracterised as being founded in innatism rather than relativism, but I’m posting it here because it’s still pretty funny.


What it ain’t

For me, linguistic anthropology is first and foremost a form of anthropological knowledge. It analyses language and language-use as a means to understand something about people. This contrasts with what might be called ‘anthropological linguistics’ which gazes in the other direction: it takes human diversity as a starting point for understanding something about language. Of course, any piece of research can be doing both things at more-or-less the same time but it is still worth making the distinction. In my view, all of linguistics as a discipline ought to be pursued as anthropological linguistics otherwise it ends up being boring at best and naïve at worst. I have much more patience for anthropology that is pursued in ignorance of linguistics. Language represents a great deal of what it means to be human but it is not everything.

Sociolinguists in the classical Labovian mould focus on variation in language use, and how differences of linguistic expression correlate, or not, with demographics or distinctions of social identity. The habit of attributing moral or aesthetic value to these real or perceived differences is, I believe, a universal tendency. But linguistic anthropologists are not content with simply cataloguing and measuring these observed differences or attitudes and then moving on. Instead, they want discover how they fit into a wider system of meaning-making, and how this system is historically situated. While sociolinguists might nod vigorously towards ethnography, it is not the aim of the game.

Descriptive and typological linguists, meanwhile, tend to treat languages as more-or-less disembodied objects of study. This is not necessarily a flaw although they are sometimes accused of sidelining and even dehumanising speakers. Their aim, however, is to deliberately extrapolate away social context the better to isolate formal characteristics. In other words, they are posing the question: What can we say about the internal structural properties of a language, or Language, that we can reliably posit in general patterned terms, without recourse to context? Linguistic anthropologists, by contrast, are interested in how these same characteristics are contextually embedded and very often socially connected to phenomena that are not strictly linguistic.

What it means to me

Linguistic anthropology’s overarching analytic frame can be summarised very simply. It’s all about associating linguistic forms with linguistic behaviours and linguistic attitudes, and then situating all three within a bigger social picture. This is another way of describing Silverstein’s concept of the the total linguistic fact. It is not, however, about drawing straightforward causal lines between the three elements. On the contrary, the ways that they are often incommensurate are particularly revealing.

In my view linguistic anthropology suffers from both under-theorisation and over-theorisation. It is over-theorised to the extent that its practitioners can be very good at coming up with increasingly refined analytic models to apply to increasingly refined (and perhaps increasingly trivial) linguistic or social phenomena. It’s under-theorised because surprisingly few can provide a confident reason for why language should provide such a critical entry point for addressing foundational anthropological questions such as “What does the world mean to people? How are we all similar and how are we all different? Why do we entertain ideas and behave in ways that appear to contradict common sense?”

And what I’m doing with it

Language is less like a programming code distributing informational bits, and more like a multi-purpose tool that is crafted and re-crafted in the process of its use in real interactions. As a system of representation it is rigid enough to perform high-precision work under pressure, and versatile enough to adapt and change quickly. To my mind it is this peculiar property that makes language such a powerful and interesting phenomenon since it lends itself to strategic manipulations. (Enfield’s take on this is perhaps better informed. He argues that language lends itself to strategic manipulations specifically because it is not a high-precision tool.)

Languages can be imagined as evolving biological organisms, to the extent that we receive them as ready made and fully structured. This structure, and our awareness of it, presents an easy analogy for the systematicity we perceive around us in our relationships with one another and the world at large.

It is not the goal of linguistic anthropologists to reify this awareness. We do not, with Lacan, wish to claim that the “unconscious is structured like a language” nor that Eskimos have an especially nuanced appreciation of snow. Rather, we delight in the very existence of these analogies and what they entail about us as a reflective species.

For all these reasons I am interested in situations in which people actively manipulate the systematic properties of language to pursue wider social objectives. At the moment I’m exploring writing systems as a very human and very artificial extension of our communicative potential. I think, at heart, it is the artificialness of writing systems that intrigues me. After all, there is no such thing as a natural script. All writing originates in conscious creative effort, even if it can evolve in ways that are not consciously directed. In this light I’m interested in how James Paul Gee defines literacy. For Gee, literacy is not the capacity to interpret graphic symbols as linguistic values, but rather the  “control of secondary uses of language (i.e. uses of language in secondary discourses)” (Gee 1989). While I am definitely a narrowist when it comes to definitions of writing, I am a broadist when it comes to literacy as a discursive practice.

Writing may extend the potential of language but it also operates as a constraint on it, and like all good constraints it encourages formal innovation. Those who decide to write a text usually do so in the knowledge that their audience is not in the same time or place as they are. This promotes a certain self-consciousness of expression, and the very pragmatic need to contextualise and to establish conventions. But counterintuitively, writing is so often naturalised or invisibilised. Far from being a game-changer that reorganises cognition and revolutionises the dynamics of knowledge (per Jack Goody), writing is regularly deployed in defence of existing social relations and conventions (per Maurice Bloch). In this way, culture-specific literacy ideologies can end up having a similar logic to the culture-specific language ideologies, outlined above.

Writing is, however, just one kind of graphic communication device. Across the world there are graphic codes that do not encode any linguistic structure and rely on a supplementary oral channel to be activated. Such systems, including Australian message sticks, Andean khipus and north American mnemonic codes, traverse the ambiguous gap between orality and the written word. The artefacts left behind in museums may be silent, but patient historical ethnography is allowing us to reconstruct the principles of communication and restore their meanings.



Seven pieces of luggage, three planes, two trains, two days, two kids. We’re in Jena. Spring has also arrived and everything is blossoms and light – a far cry from my last visit in November when the town felt dark and empty of people.


We’ve had one exciting day when it snowed just a bit. I never realised that snow does not fall silently as the poets claim. You can hear it faintly crackling through the branches of trees before it hits the ground.


Our flat in Damensviertel is perfect and our neighbours are really the best. In amongst all the paperwork I have started pecking around the edges of the research project. I’ll keep you up to date.