Tuesday February 28, 2017
First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols
Paul Kennedy takes a trip back in time to the Ice Age with renowned Canadian archaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger. That's where they discuss the possible meaning behind the strange geometric shapes that appear along with cave art from the Paleolithic Period, and her struggle to crack the code on the first form of graphic communication. **This episode originally aired September 15, 2016.
"Two hundred thousand years ago, modern humans appeared on the African landscape for the first time. They had our bodies, they had our brains. But the real question is: when did they become us? The more time I spent studying this ancient chapter of our history, the more fascinated I became with the art and the minds that had created it. Without a doubt a doubt, the art is magnificent, but that's not why I study it."
Genevieve von Petzinger is a world-renowned expert on prehistoric art. What's she's discovered has shaken up her entire field. Most researchers of Ice Age art focus on paintings of mammoths or bison, from famous sites like Lascaux or Chauvet. But Genevieve von Petzinger has devoted her professional life to something else: the lines, hand prints, and dots that have -- until now -- been given scarce attention.
"I am standing on the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route in northern Spain. . . This part of the Camino winds its way along the coast, passing through medieval villages on its way west. . . . We are here to explore a cave in the hillside behind us that is supposed to contain Ice Age paintings.
We walk along in single file, our boots making sucking sounds in the mud. The sounds echo off the walls, and I notice that the ceiling is starting to get low again. . . We scour the wall for the engravings and other mysterious red signs, using all the tricks at our disposal, but we were able to find the two red dots."
Those red dots, and other marks -- like intersecting lines or asterisks -- may not be as sexy as paintings of wooly mammoths, or ancient bison. But these geometric designs may actually hold the key to understanding our prehistoric ancestors -- and maybe, ourselves.
"Art presents us with a window into the minds of these people that other types of artifacts just can't provide. It offers us glimpses into their world, their culture, and their belief systems; intriguing hints about their level of sophistication in thinking in the abstract and manipulating symbols; and insights into how far along they may have been in the development of graphic communication. While all the art has this potential, the geometric imagery in particular seems to indicate a high degree of mastery of many of these uniquely human traits. This category of geometric signs is my passion."
Web Extra | Watch Genevieve von Petzinger's Ted Talk: Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves all over Europe?
- The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger published by Simon & Schuster
- Follow Genevieve von Petzinger on Facebook
- Ice Age Cave Art: Unlocking the Mysteries Behind These Markings - National Geographic Lecture by Genevieve von Petzinger