Let us consider cave paintings as writing

Archeology: The writing on the wall

The cave paintings consist not only of representations, but perhaps also of signs.

When looking at the cave paintings that the Gravettian culture left behind, especially in southern France and Spain, the depictions of animals and humans are so captivating that it is easy to overlook the fact that something is still there: lines, curls, negative impressions of hands, etc. They need a fresh look, the student Genevieve von Petzinger (University of Victoria) had it and cataloged what had been neglected in 146 caves in France for her diploma. She found 26 different signs, many of which appear frequently, especially the very simple ones: the most common, in 70 percent of the caves, there are lines, followed by points and open angles (42%). Spirals and serpentine lines are very rare, they only decorate two walls or one.


"Rudimentary language system"

Do you adorn them? Or do they contain a message? Some often appear in pairs - hands and dots, for example -, some in even larger groups: “This shows that they could really have a meaning,” explains April Novell, von Petzinger's professor: “We may see the first glimmer of a rudimentary language system here . “And one that is fixed in writing. That would be early, the cave paintings were created around 25,000 years ago - some consider them older, the dating is disputed - the oldest known characters were carved into clay tablets by Sumerians around 5000 years ago. (Maybe the Egyptians were a little earlier, there is tough competition.)

Abstract patterns on the other hand are much older, an ocher with incisions from the Blombos Cave in South Africa brings it to 70,000 years. This piece of ocher is considered - along with 100,000-year-old sea snails that were worn as jewelry in North Africa - as the first evidence that people began to think in symbols. Did they also invent writing somewhere in Africa (and all testimonies are rotten in Africa's climate)?

Novell / von Petzinger suspect it. Because many signs already appear in the oldest paintings, they were not developed gradually. And: Many signs can be found not only in Europe on stone walls, but worldwide, those in Europe are just particularly old. People could have taken them with them when they wandered the world from Africa (New Scientist, February 17). The main question remains: if the strokes etc. are signs of a script, what do they mean? That will remain in the dark forever, one cannot hope for a find like that of the Rosetta Stone - which illuminated the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

("Die Presse", print edition, February 20, 2010)