In a 12:05 TED talk filmed in August, 2015, cave art researcher Genevieve von Petzinger asks:
Von Petzinger, a paleoanthropologist associated with the University of Victoria (British Columbia), is concerned primarily with symbols in Ice Age European cave art dating to the Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BP), but she also has her eye on possible predecessors in Africa and parallels across Asia all the way to Indonesia.
Von Petzinger posits three main types of communication — spoken, gestural, and graphic — and, of these, she focuses on the last.
She does not claim that the relatively small group of signs that she has discovered constitute writing, in the sense of being able to record language, but she does hold that the signs convey information and that they may provide the foundation for the subsequent development of writing.
I have been following von Petzinger's work for about five years and am quite impressed with what she has achieved, both because it is based on extensive archival research and exacting fieldwork recorded in large visual and textual data bases and because she is judicious in making careful hypotheses without overstating the case. I am also pleased that she situates her own work in a more than century old tradition of earlier investigations by the likes of Alexander Marshack and André Leroi-Gourhan.
We can also look forward to her book on the subject, The First Signs: My Quest to Unlock the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols, due out from Simon and Schuster in May, 2016
I have long been interested in the size of alphabets versus syllabaries and other types of writing systems. Alphabets range between about 15 and 50 symbols, while syllabaries range from around 50 to over 1,000 symbols, and logographic / morphosyllabic writing systems such as Chinese can soar to staggering numbers in the tens of thousands of discrete symbols. I have been planning to write a post on "Lexical limits" that will touch on this issue from another angle. For the time being, I am intrigued by the fact that von Petzinger's list of basic, recurring symbols in terms of its size is at about the middle of the range for an alphabet. Of course, I am by no means saying that von Petzinger's list constitutes an alphabet, but I find it fascinating that, in terms of cognitive load, it is comparable to an alphabet.
[h.t. John Rohsenow; thanks to Heather Pringle]