Antiquity · Genvieve von Petzinger · New Scientish

Messages from the Stone Age

I don’t know! I pick up a piece from ‘The History of the World in a Hundred Objects’ about the development of early writing and then suddenly it becomes a hot topic!
This time it’s the latest issue of the New Scientist, which is running the story ‘Messages from the Stone Age’. We’re used to hearing from time to time about the wonder of the cave paintings, especially those in southern France. Those articles are almost always slanted in the direction of extrapolating from the representations of animals what the culture was like 30,000 years ago. However, according to Kate Ravilious, hardly any attention has been paid to the ‘small and inconspicuous marks around the cave paintings’.
Well, that has just all changed. The researcher Genevieve von Petzinger wondered why no-one had compared the signs and markings to be found in different caves and set about doing just that. What she found was remarkable: signs, looking surprisingly similar in style seemed to pop up again and again from sites across France. Could this, she wondered, be the ‘seeds’ of some kind of early writing?
Apart from simple symbols, such as groups of dots, short lines in the shapes of crosses, and the like, she found clear examples of synecdoche, where the part symbolises the whole. An example of this would be where the tusks of a mammoth or the horns of an ibex represent the whole animal. This von Petzinger and her supervisor April Nowell argue is evidence for the shift from realistic to symbolic representation.
The date of this ‘creative explosion’ is being put at between 30,000 to 40,000 years ago and it is being speculated that these findings may be linked to evidence that goes back even further.
Was this the beginning of our ability to store information to pass on to subsequent generations? Does it reflect a significant cognitive leap in the way humans thought about their world? Of course, the problem is that we have no idea what the jottings stand for – yet.
Von Petzingera and Nowell have just published their research in the journal Antiquity.