The writing on the cave wall
February 23, 2010 7:35 PM   Subscribe

A graphic code uncovered by researchers at the University of Victoria suggests that written communication may have started 30,000 years ago. At least 19 of the symbols were used frequently in far-flung caves over thousands of years, which suggests they represent abstract ideas such as life, love, higher power and death. It also suggests that Ice Age humans – who fall in the range of modern humans – agreed on some common meaning for the code.

A recent study published in New Scientist by UVic 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. [Gallery]

The real clincher came with the observation that certain signs appear repeatedly in pairs. Negative hands and dots tend to be one of the most frequent pairings, for example, especially during a warm climate period known as the Gravettian (28,000 to 22,000 years ago). One site called Les Trois-Frères in the French Pyrenees, even shows four sign types grouped together: negative hands, dots, finger fluting and thumb stencils (a rare subcategory of the negative hands).

Related: First Impressions - What does the world’s oldest art say about us?
posted by KokuRyu (32 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Needs a "New Scientist" tag.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:38 PM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Perhaps the Lascaux cave paintings were the LOLcats of their time.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:39 PM on February 23, 2010 [11 favorites]


This does not surprise me one bit. I suspect written languages are far older than this, even; but the remaining traces of these primeval languages are vanishingly rare, because of the ephemeral nature of all human works, and especially of the written (or drawn) word.
posted by Mister_A at 7:43 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


New Scientist cuts you off if you're not subscribed, so you can only see about three pictures.
posted by Malice at 7:44 PM on February 23, 2010


SLGM?
posted by bicyclefish at 7:48 PM on February 23, 2010


New Scientist cuts you off if you're not subscribed, so you can only see about three pictures.

The BCLocalNews link above actually has the best visual description of the symbols.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:50 PM on February 23, 2010


To-Do:

flint
pelts
see Urg re cave: too high?
creek
get sticks, make pointy
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:54 PM on February 23, 2010 [10 favorites]


I think the one in the upper left in the bclocalnews photo is the Elder Sign.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 8:00 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like how the tags include "writing" and "language", when it's neither of these things. A codified set of abstract symbols is pretty interesting, especially if they had the space and time spread that is claimed/supposed.

"Using the word language is a bit strong. But what matters is that these are the first glimmerings of abstract behaviour, of people representing a concept that you can't just draw. Not only that, but it means that we had a bunch of people who agreed on what these symbols meant."
posted by Sova at 8:02 PM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


After many years of study, a translation starts to emerge:

Y-O-U-A-R-E-O-V-E-R-T-H-I-N-K-I-N-G-A-P-L-A-T-E-O-F...
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:03 PM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


.
posted by mazola at 8:06 PM on February 23, 2010


Alert the Unicode Consortium!
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:13 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Scientists were unable to explain the prevalence of one particular symbol:

[!]
posted by JaredSeth at 8:14 PM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


I say no shit Sherlock...the more we dig the more we'll find humans are and were
the same...even 100,000 years ago. I love how scientist emphasize that a big change happened 30,000 years ago. Just wait, in twenty years they'll be saying Lucy was fully capable of complex speech
posted by manwoo at 8:25 PM on February 23, 2010


New Scientist cuts you off if you're not subscribed, so you can only see about three pictures.
Edit the last digit in your address bar.
posted by tellurian at 8:32 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems unlikely that anything over a wide area and time frame could have a consistent meaning. Just look at how many different writing systems developed in just the eastern mediterranean.
posted by empath at 9:23 PM on February 23, 2010


It's fascinating to ponder that humans just like us had language and culture for tens of thousands of years, living lives that we can never really know of. It seems as though in another thirty or forty thousand years, our descendants will know quite a lot about our times, assuming civilization does not collapse in the meantime.

Or will they just dig up shiny discs and wear them as ornaments for luck in hunting feral cattle?
posted by longsleeves at 9:42 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


assuming civilization does not collapse in the meantime

They'll be wondering how it was that we managed to cure smallpox once but got wiped out by it sixty years later while worshipping a blonde milf and her rubber-faced boyfriend.
posted by klanawa at 9:56 PM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


A recent study published in New Scientist

New Scientists doesn't "publish studies", they write pop sci articles, and they usually do it badly.
posted by delmoi at 10:04 PM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Using the word language is a bit strong. But what matters is that these are the first glimmerings of abstract behaviour, of people representing a concept that you can't just draw. Not only that, but it means that we had a bunch of people who agreed on what these symbols meant."

Well you can actually find geometric patterns and stuff in African caves dating back about 100k years.

I think a lot of is just that most of these people didn't really write anything down on anything permanent. A lot of the stuff that got left over is pretty much by happenstance. People didn't know what they were doing, some of them just happened to use mediums that lasted a long time.

One example is the pottery that survives from ancient Greece which tells us a lot about how they lived. At a certain point, they switched to gold, which of course we know eventually got melted down. So all the inscriptions were lost. But the older clay pots survived.

Imagine all the stuff that was written down on leaves, or in the dirt, wooden boards, etc. All rotted away long ago.
posted by delmoi at 10:08 PM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Forty thousand years? Our oldest continuous civilizations - if you can call them that, given the massive differences in outlook and lifestyle between, say, Vedic India and present-day India - have 4000 years and change. The Chinese use 10,000 years as shorthand for forever.

Over a 40,000 year timeline, the collapse of civilization isn't a question of if. It isn't even a question of when. It's a question of how many times.

We as a species aren't great at long-term archiving. In the last couple thousand years have managed to lose essentially the sum total of accumulated human knowledge more than once.

And those were paper-based records, relatively durable when properly stored. Our shiny disks? Useless inside of a generation. Even if the disks themselves hold up, what about the equipment to read them?

So, MeFites, do your duty to the species: print up a Wikipedia snapshot, seal it in an air-tight lead case, and bury it in your backyard.

And put some weird stuff from your house in there while you're at it. We don't want to make things too easy for the Future.
posted by zjacreman at 10:20 PM on February 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that no native South American language is related to any native North American language, and no native North American language is related to any Asian language, and it was about 30K years ago that people crossed the Bering Straight. This makes me wonder whether people had spoken language at all back then, let alone pictographs. (Otherwise you'd have at least some common word roots for man, sky, death, etc.)
posted by jabah at 11:04 PM on February 23, 2010


New Scientists doesn't "publish studies", they write pop sci articles, and they usually do it badly.

Well, you can forget about that for this time only, because this article was written rather well, probably because the researcher is from my alma mater!
posted by KokuRyu at 11:17 PM on February 23, 2010


I say no shit Sherlock...the more we dig the more we'll find humans are and were
the same...even 100,000 years ago. I love how scientist emphasize that a big change happened 30,000 years ago. Just wait, in twenty years they'll be saying Lucy was fully capable of complex speech
posted by manwoo at 8:25 PM on February 23 [+] [!]


Maybe by that time you'll have learned the proper use of the ellipsis.
posted by atrazine at 3:47 AM on February 24, 2010


New Scientists doesn't "publish studies", they write pop sci articles, and they usually do it badly.

Well, you can forget about that for this time only, because this article was written rather well, probably because the researcher is from my alma mater!


Can you ask said researcher why they didn't publish said research in a peer-reviewed journal? Because delmoi is completely correct: New Scientist does not "publish studies" in the true, scientifically rigorous use of the term.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:38 AM on February 24, 2010


no native North American language is related to any Asian language

I believe that the Yupik languages include examples from Alaska and Siberia. Although it is believed that Alaska Natives arrived in North America considerably later than the first people, and in fact in relatively modern times.

As for common words--while Proto-Indo-European has been partially reconstructed on the basis of shared features, it was probably only spoken about 4000 BCE. No credible attempt at reconstructing any earlier proto-language has been recognized--partially because no one has credibly been able to link large language stocks such as Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, or Dravidian languages into larger hierarchies. Language change is fast enough, and leaves few enough fossils, that one literally loses any indication of shared ancestry if you go deep enough in time.

Plus, there's no guarantee there was a single first language. It may have developed independently in many areas. Then there'd be no commonality at all.
posted by adoarns at 4:42 AM on February 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the post. I've studied this a bit but hadn't happened upon it. The distinction between icon (a picture) and sign (an arbitrary symbol) can get pretty blurry, but these seem to clearly be signs (given the degree of abstraction). If they are signs, and they are arranged consistently (that is, they appear in arrangements that could not be produced by chance), then I see no reason not to suppose they are a kind of "writing," though of a very simple kind.
posted by MarshallPoe at 8:34 AM on February 24, 2010


A few people have been trying to make this argument for decades. For example, some have been saying that the various chevrons and marks found on pottery in far-flung neolithic settlements should be considered a vocabulary.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:23 AM on February 24, 2010


For anybody who want's to see the complete study:
Making the abstract concrete: the place of geometric signs in French upper paleolithic parietal art.
(Von Petzinger's Masters thesis available here, pdf link at bottom of page).
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:31 PM on February 24, 2010


and that apostrophe has no place in wants.
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:45 PM on February 24, 2010


Not yet in a peer-reviewed journal; word got out when they gave a presentation at a conference:

"Von Petzinger caused quite a stir when she presented her preliminary findings last April at the Paleoanthropology Society Meeting in Chicago. She and Nowell have recently submitted a paper to the journal Antiquity and they are currently preparing another paper for the Journal of Human Evolution. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC plans to include the symbols in a forthcoming exhibition on human evolution."
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:03 PM on February 24, 2010


UVic is a pretty neat place. If only we could teach the bunnies to write in petrographs
posted by joelf at 9:44 AM on February 26, 2010


« Older James Traficant runs for Congress again, just...   |   Oh, yes, they are very cute... but they are... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments