The origins of graphic communication

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In a 12:05 TED talk filmed in August, 2015, cave art researcher Genevieve von Petzinger asks:

"Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves all over Europe?"

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.

For a thorough introduction to von Petzinger's work, see "Geometric Signs – A New Understanding" here and here.

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]


  1. Tim Finin said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

    Paleolithic emojis?

  2. Ken Miner said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

    Many thanks for posting about this. I've wondered for many years why some of the earliest human inscriptions are abstract symbols rather than pictures, since it seemed reasonable to me that abstraction and stylization ought to come after concrete representations. Like Von Petzinger I was surprised that no work had been done on this. The book will be out next year, apparently. I'm preordering it at once.

  3. maidhc said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 4:13 am

    Very interesting. It sounds like she's made a big contribution already, just by cataloging these. Also it seems she's made some start to relating them in time and location.

    I don't know if we'll ever know what they're for. If a body from this period thawed out of a glacier with tattoos of some of these symbols, that would be exciting.

    No one really knows why those people went to the trouble of clambering into those inaccessible caves. It may be to demonstrate physical prowess required for some initiation, and some people have speculated that psychoactive drugs might be involved.

    Australian aborigines have created a lot of rock art over the last 50,000 years or so. Luckily we still have them around to explain it to us, and it reveals a very sophisticated and complex belief system that we never would have known otherwise. Ice Age humans could quite possibly have had equally complex beliefs, but we don't have them here to tell us about it.

    There are a number of abstract symbols found on megalithic sites from a much later period (3000-5000 BCE). I wonder if anyone has built up a similar catalog? I've seen a few collections of examples, but nothing really organized.

  4. mary apodaca said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 4:31 am

    I guess, Tim, back to emojis.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 8:25 am

    Until emojis — interesting phenomenon though they be — develop for a few thousand more years, it is premature to compare them to the paleolithic symbols discussed in this post.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 8:27 am

    As I was reading maidhc's thoughtful reflections, I was moved to think of the many Taoist and other stories and legends in Chinese tradition about going through a cave opening (often significantly narrow and requiring an effort to squeeze through) and then coming out into another world. The most famous of these is the quintessential utopic tale, "The Peach Blossom Spring", written by the outstanding poet Tao Yuanming in AD 421.

    Raoul Birnbaum, the historian of religion and visual culture, gave a memorable illustrated lecture on this subject at Penn about thirty or thirty-five years ago. In it he discussed the concepts, rituals, and practices involved in entering caves, and not just in Taoism, and not just within China, since he brought in comparative materials from other parts of the world.

    Around five years later, Professor GONG Zhebing (School of Humanities Wuhan University), came to Penn to give a series of lectures. One was about cave lore in South China, especially among the Yao people. Interestingly, Professor Gong also introduced the latest materials on Nüshu (Women's Script), which had just been discovered in the same region (that was probably the first lecture on the subject outside of China).

    Roughly fifteen years later, somebody — perhaps it was a graduate student — gave a talk about the religious and folkloristic aspects of caves in Korea that touched upon some of the same issues that were raised by Professor Birnbaum and Professor Gong.

  7. Bill Benzon said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 8:30 am

    Is there any consideration given to the work of David Lewis-Williams and the like, who began arguing that “the painted motifs referred to the supernatural visions and experiences that medicine men received while in altered states of consciousness” (James L. Pearson, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind, Altamira 2002, p. 49). The idea is that such visions typically go through phases. In the first of these phases imagery is dominated by geometric forms of various kinds, such as grids, spirals, and zigzags. That imagery seems endogenous the the visual nervous system (phosphenes, entopic forms) and so is likely to be found in widely scattered sites.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 9:44 am

    When I began the last comment, in the back of my mind I was thinking that those narrow passageways of caves that the Paleolithic spelunkers had to wriggle through were like vaginal entrances to the womb of mother earth. In the context of the numinous aspects of cave rites mentioned above, the desire to enter deep into holy spaces inside earth and leave behind sacred symbols (perhaps all the more sacred because of their abstractness) is understandable.

    This is something that Victor Turner, the impresario of liminality, would have been able to eloquently expatiate upon.

    Someone, I hope, will tell us how Marija Gimbutas' The Language of the Goddess fits into all of this.

    Also, please take a look at the list of Vinča symbols that have been extensively studied by Harald Haarmann, as introduced in this article:

    "Is the Danube Valley Civilization script the oldest writing in the world?" (2/15/14)

    It would be interesting to compare the Neolithic Vinča symbols (ca. 5300-4000 BC) with von Petzinger's Paleolithic symbols.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

    From Raoul Birnbaum:

    Thanks for the note and the memory to 30+ years ago; that leap in time seems hardly possible.

    On caves, in this regard you may want to take a look at R.A. Stein’s last monograph (1988), Grottes-matrices et lieux saints de la deesse en Asie orientale (Publications de l'Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient).

    I did not quite agree with a number of his central points when he looked to China in this work, but certainly he is always worth paying attention to. It was Stein in 1986 who urged me to visit the Wutaishan Cave of the Mother of the Buddhas and report back to him.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

    From a former student of Marija Gimbutas:

    Marija introduced several of us to Marshack in the '80s; since the Upper Palaeolithic symbols are abstract, I assume that we must look to even earlier carvings — in Africa? — for pre-abstract writing. Harald Haarman does good work presenting the Danube Script, following the research of Shan Winn (whom Marija asked to do his dissertation on the script, in the '70s) and then the catalogues of Gheorghe Lazarovici and his student Marco Merlini.

    Even though there is a short catalogue of symbols from the Upper Palaeolithic, I don't think that there is any chance of the symbols forming an alphabet. The symbols were probably not meant to represent complete speech, so one should not look for phonological correspondences. Even the much later Sumerian was a shorthand.

  11. Genevieve von Petzinger said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

    Hi Victor – just wanted to thank you for the lovely summary of my work and so glad that all of you enjoyed my talk!

    Re: Lewis-Williams and shamanism – I have certainly examined this possibility (only so much you can cram into a 12 minute talk right?), and there should be a journal article coming out on this in the near future.

    And totally agree with comments about possible linkages to later systems like the Vinca symbols – there is some definite crossover there, especially with the earliest marks…

    Best wishes from Canada!


  12. Mike Maxwell said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 11:14 pm

    @Victor: "in the back of my mind I was thinking that those narrow passageways of caves that the Paleolithic spelunkers had to wriggle through were like vaginal entrances to the womb of mother earth." In my earlier years, I was a caver. I assure you that a narrow passage of cold mud and rock is nothing like a soft, warm vagina.

    I'm speculating about this, but it's also possible that there were other entrances to some of these caves in the past, entrances that would have made them more accessible. Caves commonly have what appear to be side passages, which are full of mud or broken down rocks.

  13. Bill Benzon said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 9:58 am

    And then there's Mark Changizi's work: The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes, The American Naturalist > Vol. 167, No. 5, May 2006:

    Abstract: Are there empirical regularities in the shapes of letters and other human visual signs, and if so, what are the selection pressures underlying these regularities? To examine this, we determined a wide variety of topologically distinct contour configurations and examined the relative frequency of these configuration types across writing systems, Chinese writing, and nonlinguistic symbols. Our first result is that these three classes of human visual sign possess a similar signature in their configuration distribution, suggesting that there are underlying principles governing the shapes of human visual signs. Second, we provide evidence that the shapes of visual signs are selected to be easily seen at the expense of the motor system. Finally, we provide evidence to support an ecological hypothesis that visual signs have been culturally selected to match the kinds of conglomeration of contours found in natural scenes because that is what we have evolved to be good at visually processing.

  14. KeithB said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    Next she can go after First People's petroglyphs in North America. I understand that no one knows what those symbols mean, either. Or at least the extant natives are not telling.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2015 @ 9:52 pm

    Genevieve’s FB page:

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