Saturday, June 3, 2017


La Pasiega inscription, Spain.

The perennial question of the origin(s) of writing has been long debated and argued over. Perhaps the earliest nominee for the title of earliest writing is a row of symbols found in La Pasiega Cave, in Spain.  This was discussed by Genevieve von Petzinger in her 2016 book The First Signs, Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols, from Atria Books, New York.

 Close-up, La Pasiega inscription, Spain.

"The 'La Pasiega inscription' is probably the most unusual sequence of signs found anywhere in Palaeolithic art. La Pasiega is part of the same mountain complex where we find El Castillo and several other important Ice Age sites, but even in this company, features like its grinding stone and purple bison make it unusual. And these pale in comparison to the strange row of signs situated high on a wall of their own, deep inside the complex, multileveled warren of passageways that make up La Pasiega. With the dark-red paint of the characters still standing out starkly from the pale, sloping wall, these abstract images are over twelve feet above floor level - the artist would have had to scramble up a steep, slippery incline to even create this series of signs.

What first struck me when I saw these images was how organized and purposeful they looked: they seem to be organized into three closely spaced units. The most complex is on the left and consists of a pair of horizontal lines with other markings extending upward vertically from this base. There is a symmetry to the arrangement: in the center is a single line, flanked on either side by two stacked circles, with a pair of lines on each end. The center unit consists of two images that have been described as 'stylized feet' and are made up of oval shapes each topped with five short lines extending upward (kind of like the toes on a foot). And, finally, on the right is a single sign most easily described as a reversed capital E, but with two lines in the center instead of one. Henri Breuil described these markings as 'cabalistic figures' after visiting La Pasiega in 1913, and was one of the first pre-historians to refer to it as an inscription. Whether these signs should be considered as part of a writing system is something that continues to generate discussion and is really part of the larger question that I'm about to try to answer for you, namely: "Is it writing?" (Von Petzinger 2016: 182-3)  

La Pasiega inscription, Spain.

" So in answer to the question 'Is it writing?' I'm afraid the answer is no. However, I do feel confident that Ice Age rock art was meaningful to those who created it and did have communicative properties; it's just that no clear recording of language is evident yet. Does this make the sequence of signs at La Pasiega an accidental occurrence? I certainly don't think so. In fact, I lean in the opposite direction. My guess is that those particular abstract markings represent an early attempt to string multiple signs together in order to create a more complex message. And while it does show that at least some Paleolithic people already understood the potential of combining signs, when it comes to the 'writing question,' the problem is that this row of geometric images was a highly unusual occurrence, not part of a flourishing system.
The question now, of course, is: If the signs were meaningful and meant to transmit information, then exactly what were they trying to say?" (Von Petzinger 2016: 189-90)

For me, the most significant part of Von Petzinger's analysis is her phrase "those particular abstract markings represent an early attempt to string multiple signs together in order to create a more complex message." (p. 189-90). It seems to me that any serious observer would have to conclude that this string of signs were purposely carefully planned and executed for exactly that purpose, to create a more complex message. I do not know if the two foot/paw prints(?) and the backward-E shape are intended to be included with the grouping on the left. Von Petzinger apparently does lump them all together based upon their proximity and identical pigment shade and color. Here, in North America, the two footprints would probably be considered to be bear paw prints, the symbol on the right I wouldn't know about. What really interests me is the grouping on the left.

First, notice that the symbols in that group on the left are lined up on top of a large rectangle as if on a stage or pedestal for a special presentation, but better than that, if they were a word precursor (that is, a group of symbols that represent an object, idea, or concept) they would be a palindrome - the same when read from either side (such as madam, or race car) - and that, I am quite sure, is no accident. From which ever side you start you have a double vertical line, truncated figure 8, a single vertical line in the middle, another truncated figure 8, and another double vertical line. Whatever these symbols represent, it is certain that their creation was the result of a deliberate and complicated cognitive process. They represent something, I just do not know what it is.

Genevieve Von Petzinger has presented her ideas in a Ted Talk, available through the following link (copy the following address and paste it into your browser):

I do recommend the Von Petzinger book, The First Signs, Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols, it is an interesting and fun read.

NOTE: Illustrations in this column were retrieved by a Google 10 search of the Internet for La Pasiega Inscription Public Domain. If any results were used that are not meant to be public domain I apologize and will be happy to give credit if you let me know.


Von Petzinger, Genevieve,
2016    The First Signs, Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols, Atria Books, New York, London


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