The markings found in caves in France may have been ancient man’s first attempts to write, a new study has suggested.
Until now, it’s believed that our ancestors underwent a “creative explosion” around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, when they suddenly began to think abstractly and create rock art.
Writing came much later, with the earliest records of a picot-graphic writing system just 5,000 years ago.
Now, a team at Victoria University has claimed that the lines, dots, zig-zags and semicircles indicate prehistoric men in France, as long ago as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, may have been trying to communicate through symbols rather than pictures, the New Scientist reported.
For their research, the team, led by Genevieve von Petzinger, compiled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France, covering 25,000 years of prehistory from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.
What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again at numerous sites. Some of the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles, but there were other, more complex symbols repeated as well.
“It was a way of communicating information in a concise way. For example, the mammoth tusks may have simply represented a mammoth, or a mammoth hunt, or something that has nothing to do with a literal interpretation of mammoths.
“Other common forms of synecdoche include two concentric circles or triangles (used as eyes in horse and bison paintings), ibex horns and the hump of a mammoth. The claviform figure — which looks somewhat like a numeral 1 — may even be a stylised form of the female figure,” said team member April Nowell.
At one site, Les Trois Freres in the French Pyrenees, there were four different pairings of signs. This sort of grouping is typically seen in pictographic languages and led the researchers to believe the prehistoric Europeans had adopted a similar system.
“The consistency of the pairings indicate that they could really have had a meaning. We are perhaps seeing the first glimpses of a rudimentary language system,” Mr. Nowell said.
Suspecting they were on the verge of a significant discovery, the pair moved on to track where and when the symbols emerged. The line was the most popular symbol — at 70 per cent of the sites and occurring across all time periods from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The next most common were the open angle symbol and dots — both featuring at 42 per cent of sites. The majority of the rest were seen in around a fifth of the French caves.
Most signs seem to have appeared in the Rhone Valley and Lot regions in the south before spreading around the country. None ever emerged in northern France because through large tranches of this time, it was covered in ice.
Intriguingly, more than three-quarters of the symbols were at the very earliest sites which include those over 30,000 years ago.
“I was really surprised to discover this. This incredible diversity and continuity of use suggests that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe,” Mr. Petzinger said.