Reading the Writing on the Cave Wall

Genevieve Von Petzinger speaks at TED Fellows Retreat 2015, August 26-30, 2015, Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, California. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Genevieve von Petzinger, a paleoanthropologist, has a TED talk that is garnering some attention. She speaks on her findings from the exploration of art and geometric signs in caves around Europe. Most people have long known about the cave art, but the geometric signs were largely ignored until von Petzinger decided to focus on them and catalogue them.

Maybe fascination with the art distracted people from the significance of the geometric signs. Whatever the reason, Von Petzinger is the first person to document and create a database of those geometric signs. She reports previously undocumented geometric signs in 70% of the caves she surveyed.

Her TED talk focused on a stunning discovery. She found only 32 different geometric signs in all the caves she visited. Thus, only 32 different geometric signs were developed over a 30,000-year span on the entire continent of Europe!

“What’s the big deal?”, you might ask. The answer is that we would expect much more variation if they were random doodles or decorations. The fact that the same signs were used over and over again suggests something more than mere art.

The signs were repeated from location to location. About 60% of the signs were used throughout the entire 30,000-year time span. Some signs appeared early and ceased to be used. Other signs appeared later. Some signs appeared in wide geographic distribution, while other signs appeared in more concentrated geographic areas. But most of the signs were found throughout the continent and throughout the 30,000-year span.

Another interesting observation is that cave art in Europe bears some resemblance to cave art as far away as Indonesia and Australia. Many of the same signs appear in far flung places, especially in the same 30,000-40,000 year range. Genevieve von Petzinger believes these findings indicate an increasing likelihood that “this invention traces back to a common point of origin in Africa”.

“[T]hat is a subject for a future talk”, says von Petzinger. Meanwhile, let’s explore the significance of the geometric signs found in the European caves

The geometric signs found by Genevieve von Petzinger in European caves

Von Petzinger’ concludes from the fact that the same signs are repeatedly used at so many sites that they must have conveyed some commonly understood meaning. It “tells us that the artists were making intentional choices.” Those signs could be “one of the oldest systems of graphic communication in the world”.

We can’t really call it writing, but it appears to be a type of “proto-writing”. The symbols don’t seem to have the characteristics of an alphabet, but they appear to be the precursor to a “full writing system”, according to von Petzinger.

The earliest writing systems are Sumerian Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs and the earliest Chinese script. All of these writing systems are found much later in history than the cave symbols von Petzinger cataloged, but each of them emerged from earlier proto-writing systems made up of “counting marks” and pictographic representations”, says von Petzinger. In the early pictographs, the meanings and the images were the same. A drawing of a bird, for instance, would represent a bird.

Later the pictographs become stylized until they almost became unrecognizable from the initial pictographs. Other symbols were invented to depict more abstract things, like pronouns, adverbs and adjectives. I will come back to this at the end.

Stylization of Pre-Cuneiform Pictographs over time

Meanwhile, von Petzinger says, “it seems highly unlikely that the geometric signs from ice age Europe were truly abstract written characters. Instead, what’s much more likely is that these early artists were also making counting marks… as well as making stylized representations of things from the world around them.”

Von Petzinger theorizes that later writing systems did not come out of a vacuum. They came from proto-writing systems that were much older – “stretching back tens of thousands of years to the geometric signs of ice age Europe and beyond”.

My thoughts on the subject extend beyond what Von Petzinger specifically addresses in her TED Talk. The geometric signs von Petzinger cataloged were notably uniform, with some exception, over a long span of about 30,000 years. Some signs came and went. Others appeared late, but a majority of the signs were in use throughout the 30,000-year span of time.

The emergence of full writing systems happened in a relatively short time span, and it happened at roughly the same time in disparate places – Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. According to von Petzinger, Sumerian Cuneiform emerged between 4000-5000 years ago.

I have read claims that the origins of Sumerian Cuneiform can be traced as far back as 8000 BC[1]. Even so, 8000 BC to 3500 BC is a relatively short period of time compared to the relatively static 30,000-year, span that marks the use of geometric symbols in European caves.

Further, the rapidity with which the writing systems became stylized, from symbols representing recognizable objects found in nature to more obscure marks, suggest that, maybe, something else is going on. These observations led Fazale Rana, the bio-chemist who writes for Reasons to Believe, to wonder why written language appears so late after human origins.[2]

That will have to be a subject of a future article.


[1] See, for instance,

[2] Why Does Written Language Appear So Late after Human Origins, December 14, 2015.


For the whole TED talk, see Why are these 32 symbols found in caves all over Europe?

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