Student’s analysis of “cave signs” suggests prehistoric written language

- Anne MacLaurin

A recent study by UVic anthropology graduate student Genevieve von Petzinger reveals that dots, lines and other geometric signs found in prehistoric European caves may be the precursor to an ancient system of written communication dating back nearly 30,000 years.

Von Petzinger, under the supervision of UVic anthropology professor April Nowell, compiled the markings from 146 different sites in Ice Age France, making it possible to compare the signs on a larger scale than had ever previously been attempted.

“What makes my research ‘new’ is that I was able to use all the wonderful modern technology at my disposal to compare inventories and digital images from nearly 150 locations. This gave me the ability to observe some startling similarities among the different sites,” says von Petzinger.

Building on previous work by other scholars who tended to focus on the local or regional level, von Petzinger and Nowell were surprised by the clear patterning of the symbols across space and time—some of which remained continually in use for over 20,000 years.

The 26 specific signs may provide the first glimmers of proof that a graphic code was being used by these ancient humans shortly after their arrival in Europe from Africa, or they may have even brought this practice with them. If correct, these findings will contribute to the growing body of evidence that the “creative explosion” occurred tens of thousands of years earlier than scholars once thought.

Von Petzinger and Nowell’s findings have been reported in the New Scientist and other media around the globe—including Canada, Germany, the UK, Pakistan, Finland, China and India. Their research continues to explore the meaning of the symbols.

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Keywords: anthropology, doctoral research

People: Genevieve von Petzinger

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