Archaeology / Book Review

Vol. 3, NO. 1 / April 2017

Decoding the Earliest Symbols

Ian Tattersall

Letters to the Editors

In response to “Decoding the Earliest Symbols

The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols
by Genevieve von Petzinger
Atria Books, 200 pp., US$27.00.

Human beings are all about symbols. While we are unusual in many physical respects, largely due to our bipedal way of getting about, our most remarkable and consequential peculiarity is the manner in which we process information. Uniquely, it seems, we deconstruct our exterior and interior worlds into a vocabulary of mental symbols. When combined and recombined according to quite specific rules, these allow us to make statements about things not only as they are, but as they might be. To the best of our knowledge, all other organisms live in the world that nature presents. For much of the time, human beings are able to live in worlds of their own imagining.

Our curious symbolic ability seems to be of rather recent origin. The archaeological record, which begins at two and a half million years ago with the first stone tools, shows a pattern of step-wise elaboration over time. It is clear both from increasing brain volumes and behavioral innovations that over the tenure of our genus, Homo, our predecessors were, on average, getting smarter. For the early hominids, each conceptual advance in stone-working technology almost certainly reflected a cognitive refinement of one kind or another. But it is far from clear what those refinements meant in terms of their understanding of the world.

The material record can provide us, at best, with only a shadowy view of our preliterate ancestors’ lives. Our ability to imagine a sensibility that was evidently close to ours, but not quite the same, is also limited. We are intellectually constrained by our own particular way of perceiving and understanding the world. What does emerge clearly from the archaeological record is that there is more than one way to be intelligent; you can be very smart, very resourceful, and very skillful, without being any of these things in the manner of modern humans. A close analysis of the record shows just how misleading it is to view our ancestors and close extinct relatives as merely simpler versions of ourselves. They need to be understood in their own terms. Brain enlargement and the increasing intelligence it implies seems to have been a theme in multiple lineages of our genus over the past couple of million years. But, as far as can be told, it was only our own lineage that achieved symbolic intelligence, with all of its (unintended) consequences.

Genevieve von Petzinger begins her informal and engaging book, The First Signs, by seeking the origins of the symbolic sensibility in the material record. This is a tricky task, because cognitive style is an abstract quality that cannot be directly read from the bones that are all the fossil record offers. Brain size is clearly an indicator of intelligence in some general sense, but is evidently not a reliable gauge of symbolic cognition. The external anatomy of the brain, as reflected in casts of the interior of the cranial vault, turns out to be equally unhelpful. It is the brain’s internal organization that seems to be the key to its intellectual potential. All we can do in seeking the advent of symbolic behavior is to look for proxy indicators in the material evidence that our predecessors left behind.

Past students of human evolution have varied wildly with regard to the types of artifacts they have been prepared to accept as the work of hominids with symbolic minds. Von Petzinger takes a narrow view, opting to see such minds reflected only in objects with overtly symbolic functions. This more concentrated focus leaves only one gray area, the use of powdered ochre, a substance that may have functional purposes—in disinfection or hide preparation, for instance—as well as in symbolic bodily decoration. Ochre may have been used in functional contexts by archaic humans well over two hundred thousand years ago, roughly the age of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils. Around one hundred thousand years ago, modern people in southern Africa and the Mediterranean region were using it to color small marine shells. These were then pierced and used for bodily decoration—a symbolic function in all human societies. By eighty thousand years ago, pierced and colored shells had been joined by objects that had been deliberately and geometrically engraved with signs that clearly bore symbolic meaning. Von Petzinger specifically relates these objects to the possession of “fully syntactic language.”1 All were the product of our own symbolic species, Homo sapiens, which remarkably soon thereafter left its birthplace in Africa and spread throughout the world. In the process of dispersing, Homo sapiens rapidly displaced all of its resident hominid relatives: the Neanderthals in Europe, Homo erectus in eastern Asia, and the hobbits on the island of Flores. As a result, and probably for the very first time since the human family appeared, the uniquely symbolic Homo sapiens soon found itself the only hominid on the planet.

Nowhere is the early arrival of the modern human sensibility illustrated more dramatically than in southern France and northern Spain, areas into which our species first ventured a little over forty thousand years ago. Known as Cro-Magnon after a site in southwestern France, these early peoples were hunter-gatherers. They arrived in their new habitat just as the climate was cooling prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, when the northern polar ice cap expanded as far south as England, Germany, and Belgium, and smaller ice caps formed on the Alps and the Pyrenees. For members of a hunting culture, cold times did not necessarily mean hard times. The forests were replaced by endless steppes and tundra on which vast numbers of large-bodied mammals grazed, providing an unparalleled dietary resource. Von Petzinger points out that the resulting way of life involved a lot of leisure time, particularly during the long winters, that could be devoted to symbolic and artistic pursuits.

The Cro-Magnons arrived in Europe equipped with the full range of key modern human behaviors. The record they left behind was extraordinary, showing a complexity of existence and a relationship to the environment that was unprecedented. The Cro-Magnons are most famous for the beautifully observed and executed animal drawings, paintings, and engravings that they left on the walls of deep limestone caves. Von Petzinger emphasizes how much broader their symbolic achievement was than this, embracing a huge array of artistic activities that included the decoration of everyday utensils and living areas, as well as the production of both animal and anthropomorphic statuettes and musical instruments. While other mammals were usually represented with great precision, human representations were typically cartoonish or otherwise distorted, and sometimes combined with those of other animals. Von Petzinger takes particular notice of a lion-headed human figure from a German site some forty thousand years old, making it the earliest known figurine. She considers the figurine to be the ultimate symbolic object, representing an entity that could only exist in the human imagination. Similar renderings have been found at multiple sites, suggesting that the lion-human theme possessed a widely-understood social significance. As with all Paleolithic art, that encoded meaning lapsed into obscurity with the passing of the society that had produced it, although there is no shortage of speculation about what it might have been.

One of the most remarkable aspects of European Ice Age cave art is that it was consistently produced over a period of some thirty thousand years, even as a variety of distinct cultures, recognizable from characteristic stone and bone tool kits, came and went. Some of its most impressive expressions came right at the beginning of this period, although in sheer quantity the greatest outpouring came close to the end. Warming climates around twelve thousand years ago saw forest creep once again over the landscape, forcing the vast herds of grazing mammals that had underpinned the Cro-Magnon economy to retreat northwards, and largely to disappear.

Von Petzinger devotes a short but interesting chapter to discussing how the cave paintings were made. She points out an apparent preference for reddish ochre pigments, although black was also a favorite. The latter were mainly derived from naturally-occurring manganese oxides, though in some places charcoal, dateable using radiocarbon techniques, was also used. Many other shades of ochre were also employed. Pigments were often ground and mixed into a liquid paint that could be blown, brushed, or dabbed on to the cave walls. Solid lumps of pigment were also used as crayons. Prior to paint being applied, outlines of animals were often engraved with flint burins. At certain localities, where there is a light covering of mud on the walls, outlines and details were sketched by finger—a few of those flutings are so delicate that it is reckoned they were made by children! For illumination in the dark cave interiors, the artists used remarkably simple lamps, mostly hollowed slabs of stone that burned animal fat or marrow using smokeless juniper wicks. Burning torches were apparently also employed.

What most attracts von Petzinger’s attention is the array of geometric symbols that can be found in association with the phenomenal animal images at Lascaux, Chauvet, El Castillo, Niaux, Tito Bustillo, Pech Merle, and hundreds of other less well-known later sites. Because many of the animal figurations are so powerful and compelling, the less striking and inscrutable abstract signs that invariably accompany them have received less attention. But it is clear that for those who made them, these signs were, at least, equally redolent with symbolic significance and social meaning. Von Petzinger sagely warns against placing all the non-figurative markings in a single homogeneous category, like letters of the alphabet, for example. It is likely that the import of these signs was much more diverse and layered than this would imply.

Both representational art and hand stencils, a common early European motif, have now been reported from Sulawesi, in eastern Asia, at a date as early as anything known from Europe. This prompts von Petzinger to wonder whether there might be continuity of some kind between the non-figurative signs documented earlier in Africa, and later in Europe. The question is all but unanswerable on the slender evidence currently available, but von Petzinger clearly suspects that the answer is yes. She then goes on to ask a question that has nagged at students of Ice Age art since the nineteenth century: are the signs a form of writing? Although their symbolic content is undeniable, von Petzinger reluctantly concludes that they are not. The signs certainly encode information in a durable form, and may in combination even make complex statements. But it is highly improbable that they are a visual representation of the spoken language the Cro-Magnons undoubtedly possessed.

Figure 1.

  • Asterisk

  • Aviform

  • Circle

  • Claviform

  • Cordiform

  • Crosshatch

  • Cruciform

  • Cupule

  • Dot

  • Finger Fluting

  • Flabelliform

  • Half Circle

  • Line

  • Negative Hand

  • Open Angle

  • Oval

  • Pectiform

  • Penniform

  • Positive Hand

  • Quadrangle

  • Reniform

  • Scalariform

  • Segmented Cruciform

  • Serpentiform

  • Spanish Tectiform

  • Spiral

  • Tectiform

  • Triangle

  • Unciform

  • W-Sign

  • Y-Sign

  • Zigzag

The Geometric Signs of Ice Age Europe: Genevieve von Petzinger has identified thirty two distinct types of symbols used over a period of thirty thousand years.2

By painstakingly documenting the signs and small decorative pieces at hundreds of sites, making this among the most comprehensive surveys to date, von Petzinger arrives at a remarkably compact classification of Ice Age geometric signs. There are about thirty categories: hand stencils, roof-shaped tectiforms, feather-like penniforms, key-like claviforms, and so forth. Most are repeated at multiple sites, many of which are geographically grouped, hinting at distinctive local symbolic traditions. Occasionally a far-flung outlier suggests geographically extensive trading patterns, something also implied by the presence of valuable materials far from their nearest possible points of origin.

A particularly striking example is the tectiforms, dated to between eleven and seventeen thousand years ago, found at nine sites, eight of which are in close to proximity to the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Dordogne. “There were other sites inhabited by other groups of people in neighboring regions at that time,” von Petzinger notes, “yet we don’t find tectiforms at any of their rock sites.” She suggests that this could mean that the tectiform was “some sort of clan sign or other marker of a specific group’s identity, and it may have been that no one else was allowed to use it.”3 The ninth site is over two hundred and fifty miles away, on the other side of the Pyrenees in Spain. Despite the distance and terrain between the sites, it seems unlikely, due to the specific nature of the symbol, that there was no relationship between the people at each site.

In terms of their referents, the categories themselves remain largely inscrutable. After all, if they are not pictographic, visual symbols are by their nature arbitrary. While most recent opinion has rejected any Ice Age signs as pictographic, von Petzinger is less sure. She cites a small number of cases in which rock engravings might represent features of the landscape, and suggests that some apparently abstract images might, in fact, be realistic representations. Dismissing André Leroi-Gourhan’s thesis that cave decorations are forms of sexual imagery, she yet rejects the interpretation of the widely-occurring open circle as a representation of a disembodied vulva. “[S]ometimes a cigar,” she remarks, “is just a cigar.”4 Despite von Petzinger’s diligence, the symbols retain their enigmatic nature.

A popular recent interpretation of Ice Age geometric symbols is that they are the work of shamans, or religious leaders. In chemically- or physiologically-induced trance states, human vision becomes dominated by the perception of certain entoptic shapes. These happen to include the grids, dots, and curves that are seen in many caves. In some cases, they can be found in association with images that have been interpreted as depicting human shamans disguised as animals. Von Petzinger concludes that although some of the symbol classes are, indeed, both entoptic and widely distributed, they are not generally grouped as would be expected had they been produced by individuals in trance states. She does not find much support for the shaman theory, though she has no doubt that the Cro-Magnons possessed spiritual beliefs, or that the decorated caves played a key role in the expression of those beliefs.

“Right now,” von Petzinger writes in the concluding chapter, “I would have to say that the likelihood of ever knowing for sure what any of the Ice Age signs meant is extremely unlikely.”5 She might well have said the same for the elements of Ice Age art that appear realistic to our eyes. By this point, it hardly matters. Von Petzinger has already taken us on a delightful and very personal tour of some of the most obscurely but profoundly moving places that it is possible for any human being to visit. She has vividly evoked what it is like to confront this ancient art that remains, after tens of millennia, profoundly moving. Our symbolic human minds constantly demand explanations. But the art of the caves nonetheless speaks to you most directly once you have accepted that it is art to be experienced, not art to be explained.


  1. Genevieve von Petzinger, The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols (New York: Atria Books, 2016), 70. 
  2. Genevieve von Petzinger, The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols (New York: Atria Books, 2016). 
  3. Genevieve von Petzinger, The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols (New York: Atria Books, 2016), 142. 
  4. Genevieve von Petzinger, The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols (New York: Atria Books, 2016), 222. 
  5. Genevieve von Petzinger, The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols (New York: Atria Books, 2016), 266. 

Ian Tattersall is a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

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