Bones and stones

Blanchard Bone - Abri Blanchard, Dordogne, France. Archaeological Museum

The carved-engraved bone plates of mobiliary art were the earliest objects which attracted the attention of researchers. Alexander Marshack (1972) interpreted the various Paleolithic and Mesolithic, mostly portable, objects that bear engraved or painted series of dots or lines as accurate lunar observations. His arguments were based not only on counting the signs but on what he called "microscopic analysis". The interpretation of the markings on various artifacts as notational systems rests on the hypothesis of a slow accumulation of these marks which correlate with lunar or solar motion. Thus he concluded that these artifacts reflect nonarithmetic observational astronomical skills and lore. The most well-known depiction interpreted by him is found on the bone plate about 30 000 years old, from Abri Blanchard (Dordogne, France) which is said to represent the waxing and waning moon positions in serpentine form.

"Studiando una serie di minuscole punteggiature incise su un osso aurignaziano (30.000 BP circa) rinvenuto nel riparo Blanchard, marshack sostiene che per incidere i sessantanove fori furono usati ventiquattro diversi utensili e fu necessaria una serie di interventi successivi distribuita su un periodo piuttosto lungo si tratterebbe, in definitiva, di una sorta di calendario con le annotazioni del ciclo lunare. oggi questa ipotesi non è più sostenibile considerando, fra l’altro, che più aggiornati criteri d’analisi hanno messo in luce che le marcature del reperto sono state eseguite con un solo utensile e con una successione rapida di gesti. sophie a. de Beaune ritiene più probabile che si tratti di uno strumento musicale, forse usato facendo scorrere un bastoncino sui bordi denticolati. In ogni caso, marshack ha sviluppato la sua ipotesi “calendaristica” estendendola a diversi reperti mobiliari istoriati". (Gabriella Brusa Zappellini, in Morfologia dell'immaginario: L'arte delle origini fra linguistica e neuroscienze)

Cave of Taï, Drôme, France. After Marshack 1991


Francesco d’Errico and colleagues developed a different type of methodology (d'Errico 1989). Drawing on experimental archaeology, they compiled a database in an attempt to demonstrate whether the notches represent notational systems or not. After investigating great number of artifacts they concluded that there were some objects which might have depicted parts of a series of complex codes based on the hierarchical organization of information, and using formally differentiated marks. One of these artifacts might be the find from the cave Taï (Drôme, France) whose age is about 10 000 years.

Mal’ta, Irkutskaya Oblast, Russia


After studying Eurasian portable art the Russian investigator B.A. Frolov also became convinced that these objects were calendars following the monthly motion of the moon and/or yearly solar path, and claimed they were used by early communities. The most well-known bone plate interpreted as a lunisolar calendar is from Ma’lta (Irkutskaya Oblast, Russia).

Deliberate engravings on a tibia fragment of the forest elephant from the major Lower Paleolithic occupation site near Bilzingsleben, north of Erfurt, Germany; one of several engraved pieces from the living floor of the Holstein interglacial.

Engraved bone from the French Acheulean period, c. 200,000 BCE


An engraved ox rib was discovered during the 1967-1968 excavation season at Pech de l’ Azé and dated to c. 200,000 BCE. The engraving, according to François Bordes (1919-1981; the archaeologist in charge of the excavation), consists of a "series of lines and incisions which are clearly intentional, not the random lines left by a flint cutting off the meat.” It wasn't engraved by people like us, but rather by an earlier form of our species.  The relationship of the engraved ox rib from the Upper Paleolithic site of Pech de l’Azé with Ice Age and later straight lines seems limited to a demonstration of ability and accomplishment.  Some opine that the layer which contained the ox rib properly belongs to the Mousterian period, which requires a shifting of accomplishment from archaic humans (Homo sapiens) to the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).  Modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) didn’t enter Europe until the Neanderthals were on their way out and archaic humans had been gone a very, very long time.  Any claims of traditions or traits and those early dates regarding straight lines are laughable, but ability and accomplishment remain a point of primitive pride.  Apparently the engraving of straight lines goes back, way back.


With the initial dispersals of modern humans from Africa c. 100,000 BCE, the approximate beginnings of language and art may be imagined (Though an ability for both language and art may be considered for earlier hominans; see ‘Update - 3/9/08' below). By 50,000 BCE modern humans had spread out across the globe, probably utilized a limited maritime technology to settle Australia and perhaps the New World, and shortly afterwards many examples of portable and parietal rock art begin to appear.  Critical interpretations of these early examples of art are as problematic, debatable, and as opinionated as views overheard after any contemporary gallery opening (without, of course, comments about wine and cheese).  Early art is often complex and attests to the ability and accomplishments of modern humans. Representational art is easier to discuss than the non-representational, such as those examples which consist of straight lines, dots and holes, or abstract designs.  Such interpretations of early art are abundant.  Freud may have had difficulty differentiating between a cigar and a penis symbol, but it’s nothing compared to how some have interpreted the straight lines of early art.  Everyone’s a critic and everyone has an answer.

Ishango bone - approximately 25,000 years old is one of the oldest known astronomical and mathematical artifacts.

The Ishango bone is a bone tool, dated to the Upper Paleolithic era. It is a dark brown length of bone, the fibula of a baboon, with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end, perhaps for engraving. It was first thought to be a tally stick, as it has a series of what has been interpreted as tally marks carved in three columns running the length of the tool. But some scientists have suggested that the groupings of notches indicate a mathematical understanding that goes beyond counting. It has also been suggested that the scratches might have been to create a better grip on the handle or for some other non-mathematical reason

The Ishango bone was found in 1960 by Belgian Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt while exploring what was then the Belgian Congo. It was discovered in the area of Ishango near the Semliki River.[5] Lake Edward empties into the Semliki which forms part of the headwaters of the Nile River (now on the border between modern-day Uganda and Congo). The bone was found among the remains of a small community that fished and gathered in this area of Africa. The settlement had been buried in a volcanic eruption.

The artifact was first estimated to have originated between 9,000 BC and 6,500 BC. However, the dating of the site where it was discovered was re-evaluated, and it is now believed to be more than 20,000 years old.

The Ishango bone is on permanent exhibition at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural SciencesBrusselsBelgium.

Petroglyph from Colorado (a.k.a. the "Noble Twins inscription"), c. 1000 BCE


There was an intense bias toward diffusionist theory that blinded McGlone and his group to other explanations, though they claimed otherwise.  After mentioning Marshack and work on a Native American (Kiowa) calender stick, McGlone et al remark: “Because the Indians also may have marked stone in this way, some of the more recently carved panels of parallel marks in southeast Colorado should be compared with this very interesting artifact for possible explanation as calendars.  This has no impact on our acceptance of some of the ancient inscriptions as Ogam, however.” I don’t care for the arrogance of “our acceptance” and charge that McGlone and his et al group couldn’t escape their collected bias.  Case in point: besides work on possible Upper Paleolithic lunar calendars, Marshack also studied Native American calendars. In a 1989 book, Marshack again published about Native American calendars, the article was followed by a response (not entirely unfavorable), and the next article concerned “Navajo Indian star ceilings.” [69]  The book is not referenced in McGlone’s publications, I don’t recall him mentioning such to me during my week-long visit with him in 1995 or our many telephone conversations and letters that we exchanged.  Still, he was a bibliophile, aware of most publications which even remotely mentioned his concerns, and I find it difficult to accept that he wasn’t aware of “Navajo Indian star ceilings.”  The controversial dating of the so-called “Noble Twins” petroglyph and its impossible “translation” has been discussed and will, likely in an unconventional fashion, continue to be debated. However, a scant several feet above that petroglyph is a natural partial cave with a “ceiling” containing star-like marks as used by the Navajo.  The next state down from Colorado contains similar markings, but because some amateurs with old dictionaries “read” certain straight lines and have issues with "acceptance," a Native American origin is not considered?  Blind bias.

77,000 BP engravings on ochre from Blombos Cave, near Still Bay, South Africa made by early Homo sapiens sapiens.  Photographs from The Blombos Cave Project web-site, funded by Norway’s University of Bergen, at:  

Homo neanderthalis continues to take two steps forward, a step back, and it now seems our distant cousins were definitely not the dumb brute caricatures of yesteryear, possessed advanced cultural components, but weren’t actually our “distant cousins,” still family, but it seems there was an evolutionary estrangement some 500,000 years ago (passim Richard E. Green, J. Krause, S. E. Ptak, A. W. Briggs, M. T. Ronan, J. F. Simons, Lei Du, M. Egholm, J. M. Rothberg, M. Paunovic, S. Pääbo.  2006.  “Analysis of one million base pairs of Neanderthal DNA.”  Nature.  444, 16: 330-336).  A recent claim has been made that although no Homo neanderthalis DNA (or mitochrondrial DNA, actually) has so far been detected in any living Homo sapiens sapiens, at least one team of scientists is still sort of looking.  The aside was included with a remarkable claim, the subject of a newspaper feature article, that all Europeans are descendent from women who lived somewhere in an area stretching from the Levant to Italy:  “These seven women – or ‘clan mothers’ as Prof Bryan Sykes, professor of genetics at Oxford University, calls them – lived between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago, everywhere from the Syrian savannah to the Tuscan hills.

Mousterian engraved animal bone from 60,000-48,000 BP; I believe it’s unknown if the marks were made by a Homo neanderthalis or early Homo sapiens sapiens, though the former seems more likely.  Photograph from: Davis, Simon.  1974.  “Incised bones from the Mousterian of Kebara Cave (Mount Carmel) and the Aurignacian of Ha-Yonim Cave (Western Gallilee), Israel.”  Paléorient.   2, 1: 181-182.  Used without permission.  For a detailed, though a tad dated, overview, see: O. Bar-Yosef; B. Vandermeersch; B. Arensburg; A. Belfer-Cohen; P. Goldberg; H. Laville; L. Meignen; Y. Rak; J. D. Speth; E. Tchernov; A-M. Tillier; S. Weiner; G. A. Clark; Andrew Garrard; Donald O. Henry; Frank Hole; Derek Roe; Karen R. Rosenberg; L. A. Schepartz; John J. Shea; Fred H. Smith; Erik Trinkaus; Norman M. Whalen; Lucy Wilson.  “The Excavations in Kebara Cave, Mt. Carmel [and Comments and Replies].”  Current Anthropology.  33, 5: 497-550.  For a discussion of Homo neanderthalis co-existing with Homo sapiens sapiens in Israel, see: Shea, John J.  2001.  “Feature: The Middle Paleolithic: Early Modern Humans and Neandertals in the Levant.”