Palaeolithic Writing Systems - or a message from the Pleistocene

25 Feb 2010

New Scientist February 17th had an article on Chauvet Cave and it's Palaeolithic art (southern France). The most famous of the paintings is the group of trotting horses, or the two rhinoceros in a bad mood, or even the depiction of wild cattle. What is generally ignored by the art critics who manage to enter the cave system are the semi circles, lines and zigzag signs marked on the same walls - they have mostly been ignored. Until now. Two students have proposed these signs are actually symbols - not doodles by idle hands, and they form a written 'code' that is akin to an early form of transmitting information. It seems the Palaeolithic people are sending us a message - but what does it mean? Alas, the students don't know - or the archaeologists, anthropologists, and anyone else, it seems. The students come from the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island and they have compled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France covering 25,000 years of time - from 35,000-10,000BC. It seems that 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appear again and again at different sites. Some of them are quite simple brush strokes, such as straight lines, circles, semi-circles and triangles. Others are more complex - such as the tusks of mammoth (without a body). This is the kind of thing developed much later in the pictographic languages, it is suggested, and evolved into abstract symbols. Some signs appear repeatedly in pairs as in for example hands, or dots, fingerplanting and thumb stencils. The symbols, it is now realised, might represent a rudimentary language - they are telling us something (see also Van Pezinger and Nowell in Antiquity (?) and in The Journal of Human Evolution). The research didn't end there however as they tried to date and track the symbols - lines, dots, love heart shapes, kidney shapes, ladder shapes, and the spiral for example. The spiral only appeared in 2 out of the 146 locations which surprised them as in the Holocene era it became a common motif. Likewise, the zig zag symbol appeared very late in the sequence (in the Palaeolithic) but once again is a common Holocene symbol (on pottery for example, or at Newgrange and other megalithic monuments). However, three quarters of the signs as defined by Petzinger and Nowell occur from the earliest ppoint (after 35,000BC). In other words, the signs were already established at that point in time - with no evidence of a transition phase (a building process as different signs were added to the collection) and therefore they argue, quite realistically, the signs have an origin before 35,000BC - and before the arrival of modern humans in Europe (expect a lot of resistance to this idea). Of course, there could be a catastrophic reason for a sudden emergence of such symbols around 35,000BC - and they may in fact be describing some unusual events they experienced. Similar symbols turn up in Australia and southern Africa and it might be argued that early human migrants brought them Out of Africa. The race is on to interpret the meaning behind the signs - expect some strange ideas to blossom (see also )