Monday, July 12, 2010


On February 17, 2010, an article by Kate Ravilious in New Scientist magazine entitled “The Writing On The Cave Wall” made the ambitious claim that writing had been discovered on the walls of the painted European caves. According to this report a pair of scholars at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, student Genevieve von Petzinger and her supervisor April Nowell undertook as a Master’s project a numerical analysis of all the signs found in 146 sites in France covering a date range from 37,000 to 12,000 B.P. The signs were compiled in a database for analysis. They found that 26 of these signs appeared frequently in numerous sites. The most common sign was a line that was found at 70 percent of the sites and across all time periods. The next most common symbols were what they called “open angles” and dots being found at 42 percent of the sites. They had two versions of the so-called “open angle” sign. One, they illustrate as an upside-down “V”, in other words what we often call a chevron, and the other is the “V” with a third line up the center, often identified as a bird track or an arrowhead. At this point we have to ask ourselves if we can assume that a sign which has more than one version and that has been identified as at least three different things by various researcher always has the same meaning, or might all the researchers be correct and this sign represent different things at different times.

Symbol Grouping, Chauvet cave, photo-Jean
Collins, from New Scientist magazine,

Australian rock art specialist Ian Davidson from the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia, believes that these findings show that “these people had a similar convention for representing something.” Davidson, who has found 18 of the symbols in Australian rock art does not believe that they indicate a common origin, but stated that “the creative explosion occurred independently in different parts of the globe around 40,000 years ago.” Well I agree, yes people around the world had similar conventions for representing dots, most of them represent dots by making dots. This tells us absolutely nothing about what they mean by making dots.

Symbol grouping, illustration from New Scientist
magazine, February, 2010.

One illustration accompanying the article is captioned “A Potent Grouping: At the Les Trois-Freres caves in the French Pyrenees, the following four signs are frequently grouped together”. This illustration shows a negative hand print, a grouping of six dots, four short straight lines side-by-side called finger fluting, and a curled line they have dubbed the thumb-stencil and classify as a sub-category of the negative hand print.

I believe that we need to be cautious in leaping to any conclusions from these. To begin with those symbols can be found all over the world in contexts that cannot possibly have anything to do with the cultures that produced them in the French caves. In many instances there have been claims that associated sets of symbols constituted a form of notation or “writing” and the anthropological/archaeological community has previously responded negatively. The main difference as far as I can see is that this time the supposed discovery is being announced by insiders from the anthropological/archaeological community, not outsiders. It is an interesting story which bears watching, but so far I am not convinced.

No comments:

Post a Comment