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’.