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Historians have long been puzzled by dots, lines and symbols which have been engraved on walls, bones, and the ivory tusks of mammoths. The nomads who made these markings lived by hunting and fishing during the last Ice Age which began about 35,000 B.C. and ended about 10,000 B.C. By correlating markings made in various parts of the world, historians have been able to read this difficult code. They have found that it is connected with the passage of days and the phases of the moon. It is, in fact, a primitive type of calendar. It has long been known that the hunting scenes depicted on walls were not simply a form of artistic expression. They had a definite meaning, for they were as near as early man could get to writing. It is possible that there is a definite relation between these paintings and the markings that sometimes accompany them. It seems that man was making a real effort to understand the seasons 20,000 years earlier than has been supposed.

Why does the author use the simple present or present perfect in "have been engraved", "is connected" and "is a primitive type of calendar" as highlighted above, to describe the findings about the markings, while using the simple past tense in "were not simply", "had a definite meaning" and "were as near", to describe the findings about the hunting scenes?

Can we use them the other way around?

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For the first portion of the passage, the author is talking about the markings themselves, which still exist today; so using the present tense for them is normal.

For the second portion, the author is talking about the meaning of the markings to the people who made them. Since they were made tens of thousands of years ago, the people who made them clearly are no longer around, so using the past tense for that is also normal.

You cannot switch the tenses around, because using the present tense in the second portion (about what the markings used to mean) wouldn't make sense. However, you could use past tense for the entire passage, which would keep the focus more on the historical usage of the markings and eliminate the subtle shift from "how we view them today" to "how their makers viewed them".

  • Thank you for the explanation which makes sense to me. So you mean "have been engraved" can be changed to "were engraved"? Can it be changed to "are engraved"? – user4140 Jan 26 '14 at 16:03
  • The use of "Have been engraved" is intended to convey that the markings were made in the past and still exist today. "Were engraved" would focus entirely on the fact that they were made in the past, while "are engraved" would focus on the fact that they still exist today. So yes, all three can be used and would probably be taken to mean pretty much the same thing, just with a different emphasis. – Hellion Jan 26 '14 at 16:06
  • Thank you very much! I get a better understanding about the differences between verb tenses now. – user4140 Jan 26 '14 at 16:18

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