Tuesday February 28, 2017

First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols

"I feel a sense of awe, no matter how many caves I visit." (video footage by Dillon von Petzinger) 0:50

Listen to Full Episode 54:00

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."

First Signs - Two Red Dots

The Ice Age artists who entered this muddy little cave appear to have only left behind two red dots to mark their visit (though it may be that there was originally more art which has since disappeared). (Dillon von Petzinger)

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."

First Signs - converging rivers meander, Coa

Abstract meander or possible depiction of two converging rivers? Ribeira de Piscos, Portugal. This engraving from the Côa Valley is found on an open-air stone block on a hillside overlooking the Piscos River near its point of confluence with the Côa River. (Dillon von Petzinger)

First Signs - St. Germain-la-Rivière teeth

The St. Germain-la-Rivière teeth – France. These nine teeth are part of a collection of forty-eight deer teeth decorated with geometric signs. Found in a 16,000 year-old burial in France, these artifacts are thought to have originally been part of a necklace included as grave goods. (D. von Petzinger, courtesy of the Musee Nationale de Prehistoire, les Eyzies-de-Tayac, France. )

First Signs - 32 signs typology

The thirty-two signs depicted in this typology are the main abstract shapes created by early humans living in Europe during the Ice Age (10,000 to 40,000 years ago). There are distinct patterns across space and time for each of the signs, suggesting that they were part of a system - possibly one of the oldest systems of graphic communication in the world. (Genevieve von Petzinger)

First Signs - Probable Male Hand

Probable Male Hand. Recent studies of the hands at sites like El Castillo have shown that many of the hands were probably those of women based on the index and ring finger being about the same length, while with males, the ring finger is usually longer. (Dillon von Petzinger)

Web Extra | Watch Genevieve von Petzinger's Ted Talk: Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves all over Europe?

Related Websites: