martes, 13 de marzo de 2012

The writing on the wall: Symbols from the Palaeolithic

In 2009, a ground-breaking study by Genevieve von Petzinger revealed 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, with University of Victoria 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 made her research ‘new’ was that she was able to use a whole range of modern technology to compare inventories and digital images from nearly 150 locations— allowing her the ability to observe startling similarities among the different sites studied.

26 repeating signs

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 a period of 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, 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 journal and their research continues to explore the meaning of the symbols.

In Palaeolithic cave art, geometric signs tend to outnumber figurative images and yet, they remained relatively understudied. Von Petzinger compiled a digital catalogue of all known geometric signs found in parietal art in France and then trended the results looking for patterns of continuity and change over time and space – this remarkable database has been distilled into a simple graphically intuitive online system at the Bradstone Foundation website as the Worldwide Geometric Signs Chart.
Creating the dataset

Von Petzinger focused on parietal art, as this was a method of ensuring provenance, and picked France as the study region due to the abundance of decorated sites and the well defined natural boundaries of water and mountain ranges, the database is searchable by a variety of criteria such as sign category, method of production, date range, site type, geographical coordinates and region.

To provide a visual dimension, it includes a selection of linked photographs and reproductions of the different signs. In her thesis, which is available to download she investigates the chronological and regional patterning in sign type and the frequency and the implications of these patterns for understanding where, when and why the making of these signs was meaningful to the Pleistocene peoples who created them.

A mix of symbols and animals

Peter Robinson, the editor of the Bradstone Foundation commented on a particular site, the Niaux Cave, which lies in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.

He noted that the main entrance to Niaux leads into a large and even-floored cavern, wide and high-ceilinged. The cave walls are smooth and clear, but empty of cave art and for the first 400 metres there are no paintings or engravings.

Then the open cavern becomes restricted, caused by an ancient collapse and you must squeeze through a narrow but level passage to the left. As one emerges from this, and on either side of the opening, the paintings begin as symbols. Simple linear lines in red seem to mark the beginning of the painted cave; the beginning of the experience. These enigmatic and understated decorations continue, with a hundred or so red and black geometric signs – dashes, bars, lines, and series of dots – some painted using tools, some using fingers. The red is haematite, the black is either manganese dioxide or charcoal, both ground and mixed with water or fat. They have been daubed strategically, sometimes opposite each other, sometimes on either side of a conspicuous fissure. Shortly after this, the animal figures appear, and the prehistoric dialogue continues to unfold.

In a recent article in the Guardian Newspaper von Petzinger says, “These symbols are all over cave walls, but no one really notices them. For example, in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary about Chauvet, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he concentrates totally on the paintings of the horses and rhinos and lets his camera sweep past the symbols as if they simply are not there.”

A form of communication

Although they admit that this is not a written language it is clear that there is a form of communication. For example, von Petzinger has found one set of five symbols – “II ^ III X II” – to be especially common, appearing on walls like a recurring motif this was also found at St Germain de la Rivière, north of Bordeaux, on the skeleton of a young woman – dated to 15,500 years ago – who was wearing a necklace made of the teeth of red deer. Three of those teeth have markings on them: ‘II ^’ was on one; ‘III’ on another; and ‘X II’ on the third.
Von Petzinger admits that without access to more detailed information, it is difficult to say anything meaningful about the depictions, but her study has done something to dispel the mystery. However, the under-representation of scholarship on these images can only be remedied by continuing the process of data collection, as without material to work with it is difficult to carry out further studies on any aspect of this subject.

Source: The Bradshaw Foundation / University of Victoria

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