State of the art in cave painting

France has some of the world’s most spectacular cave paintings that depict wild animals in vivid outline surrounded by what were thought to be purely decorative markings.

These markings have been all but ignored until recent research, covered in a fascinating New Scientist article, gathered examples from 146 cave sites and found they shared core symbols and were arranged in meaningful patterns.

While some scholars like Clottes had recorded the presence of cave signs at individual sites, Genevieve von Petzinger, then a student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, was surprised to find that no one had brought all these records together to compare signs from different caves. And so, under the supervision of April Nowell, also at the University of Victoria, she devised an ambitious masters project. She compiled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France, covering 25,000 years of prehistory from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again at numerous sites (see illustration). Admittedly, some of the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles, but the fact that many of the more complex designs also appeared in several places hinted to von Petzinger and Nowell that they were meaningful – perhaps even the seeds of written communication.

According to the article, these seemingly meaningful groupings, potentially representing a sort of proto-writing, raise the question of whether symbolic communication developed far earlier than was previously thought.

It’s a wonderfully thought-provoking article and don’t miss the fantastic illustrations that accompany the piece.

Link to NewSci article ‘The writing on the cave wall’.

One Comment

  1. St Louis
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    People who write articles like this one don’t do much research. There is an extensive literature on the topic of missing finger joints in Paleolithic art. There is no great mystery here. Joint=ancestors. This is an old equation and explains how most counting systems developed. Fingers, body joints, or other body parts were used to remember relatives. When a relative died, a finger joint was amputated. This practice went on in New Guinea until recent times and is well documented. Hand prints are found all over the world in many cultures. They are easy to apply stencils. They represent the group or tribe. This is all based on an analogy between the plant world and the human body.


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