There’s something about caves that draws you in; as soon as you cross their threshold, you enter a surreal and shadowy alternative world. Back when Europe was deep in the Ice Age something drew people in then too; and they left their marks all over the walls.
Archaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been studying these marks, which are not only among some of the world’s oldest art, but also some of the most famous. Who can say they have not been impressed by the paintings of Lascaux or Altamira? But, says von Petzinger in a landmark TED talk, we’ve been so caught up by the beautiful, flowing artistry of these painted animals, that we’ve missed something even more remarkable.
Among the elaborate horses, bulls, bears and hunters, there are some other rather less captivating designs – small geometric motifs, etched onto the walls. Until now, they’ve not received much attention. But as it turns out, these humble designs conceal a much more intriguing mystery.
Von Petzinger and her photographer-husband visited 52 caves across Europe recording every instance of these symbols that they could see. They found new, undocumented examples at 75% of the caves they visited, and found the symbols far outnumbered the human and animal images. But the amazing thing was that however many caves they visited, they found the same 32 shapes being used again and again and again.
The fact that the same 32 symbols are repeated across sites that span 30,000 years and an entire content is nothing less than mindblowing. But what do they actually mean?
The oldest written texts appear well over 5,000 years ago, and these symbols appear some 25,000 years earlier than that, but they don’t quite seem to form a written language – there are neither enough characters to represent all their spoken words, nor do they repeat often enough to be some sort of alphabet.
Nevertheless, they clearly meant something to whoever created them and von Petzinger concludes that whatever that meaning was, these symbols changed the course of human communication; no longer confined to spoken words, or gestural movements, 25,000 years ago human communication finally became graphic too.
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