Geometric symbols & handprints
in Franco-Cantabrian cave art:
Main sign types and meaning
This article offers a brief introduction to the fascinating world of abstract signs found throughout the era of Upper Paleolithic art between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.
Our sign typology and much of our data on the prevalence of signs in French caves, is based on groundbreaking research conducted by Genevieve von Petzinger, an international authority on Ice Age symbols in France.
Her acclaimed thesis (Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art), and recent book (The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols), constitute an essential first-stop for anyone keen to explore the world of geometric symbolism in the rock art of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic.
It's worth remembering that humans only began to paint animals about 44,000 BC. By comparison, geometric symbols and other abstract markings date back to the time of Homo erectus. Here's a short list of the oldest examples:
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Werner Herzog's inspiring documentary film on the art of Chauvet Cave in the French Ardèche, the film director paid no attention to the abstract symbols on the walls, preferring to focus entirely on the cave paintings that seemed so alive.
Indeed, for centuries, the focus of paleoarchaeology as a whole has been the eye-catching paintings of lions, rhinos, horses, bison and deer, left behind by our early ancestors.
It's not that scientists aren't intrigued by these strange symbols. On the contrary, paleolithic scholar Jean Clottes maintains that "geometric signs and indeterminate marks constitute one of the most significant and mysterious characteristics of European cave art".
The trouble is, their 'meaning' is too obscure. We can recognize and appreciate the drawing of a horse or a lion, but a collection of cupules, a row of dots or a series of lines, appears meaningless, and therefore boring.
As a result, the importance of abstract signs in Stone Age culture has been largely overlooked if not ignored.
In the context of prehistoric art, the term "abstract signs" (or "abstract symbols" or "geometric symbols") refers to a wide range of non-figurative markings seen in both parietal art (caves) and mobiliary art (portable objects).
Typically, (so far as we know) these signs or 'pictographs' do not depict anything from the world around us. Instead they use shape, colour, combination and number to express some kind of message.
According to Petzinger, there were only 32 types of signs in use across Europe during the Upper Paleolithic period (40,000-10,000 BC), as follows:
Star-shape with 3 lines
Simple spherical sign
Intersecting parallel lines
Cupule Signs in French Caves
Point, disk, or blob symbol
Finger tracings/ "macaroni"
Incomplete circular sign
Negative handprint symbol
Drawn with single stroke
Like a horizontal V-sign
Includes any 4-sided symbol
Cross without a centre
Big rectangular tectiform
Any spiral-shaped form
Regular geometric symbol
aka Chauvet-type signs
Named after the letter
Shaped as it sounds
Source: "Making the Abstract Concrete". Genevieve von Petzinger (2005)
Note: Positive and negative handprints are not abstract shapes, but are commonly included in the category. Cupules are also commonly included even though their method of manufacture - typically involving thousands of man-made percussion-blows per cupule - is a lengthy and laborious process.
Abstract symbols from the above list of Main Sign Types are seen in almost all sites of paleolithic art in Western Europe.
Very few paleolithic caves are devoid of these markings. In fact, at many sites they outnumber animal paintings by at least two to one.
They are frequently superimposed on cave paintings or added to painted panels in caves. Excellent examples include:
The same signs are also seen on engraved items of portable art. See, for instance, the Bilzingsleben Engravings (lines on elephant shin bone, 400,000 BC).
So far, approximately 530 mobile objects bearing geometric signs from 65 Aurignacian sites in Europe and the Near East, are registered in "SignBase", the open access database for geometric motifs on mobile objects from Prehistory.
Cupules are the most widely distributed of all signs, and are by no means limited to sites of Stone Age art. They have spread to every continent except Antarctica, and occur almost everywhere there is a reasonably large population of rock carvings.
As explained above, geometric symbols have been used since the Lower Paleolithic era.
Cupules, for instance, were almost certainly created by Homo erectus in India, as early as the beginning of the Acheulian tool culture, around 1.6 million BC, while zigzags were made by 'Java Man' during the Middle Paleolithic, as early as 540,000 BC.
When it comes to the Upper Paleolithic - the era of dazzling cave art - Petzinger believes that two-thirds of all the main sign types were introduced during the Aurignacian culture, between 40,000 and 30,000 BC, shortly after the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.
This rapid introduction of geometric motifs into European cave art suggests that knowledge of this form of symbolism was already part of modern man's cognitive toolkit when he arrived on the Continent, around 40,000 years ago.
However, to complicate matters, new Uranium/Thorium dating tests conducted recently in Spain, show that Neanderthals (the precursor of modern man) also created abstract symbols: witness the hand stencil in the Maltravieso Cave (64,700 BC), and the scalariform image in La Pasiega Cave (62,000 BC).
Previously, only the Gorham's Cave Engravings in Gibraltar were accepted as the work of Neanderthals. Now these new discoveries have put the issue of Neanderthal creativity beyond doubt.
So when exactly did humans first develop the capacity for abstract or symbolic thought? A reasonable answer to this question might consist of four parts, as follows:
For details of the earliest paintings and sculptures from prehistory, see: World's Oldest Art.
Abstract signs were produced just like any other parietal image. They were painted (typically in red ochre or black manganese dioxide, less often in yellow, white or brown), or incised on a rock surface with a sharp stone tool (engraving) or with the finger (finger fluting). More rarely, they were painted and incised.
Sometimes artists heated up their red ochre in order to produce an extra vibrant red colour.
How do we date an abstract symbol? Answer: with great difficulty. Nearly all paint pigments are mineral based and therefore not datable. In fact a painted sign is only datable if drawn in charcoal. Engraved signs are even more difficult to date, since there's really nothing to actually date.
The two main methods used to establish the age of cave art (whether animal images or abstract signs) are carbon-14 and uranium-series dating.
Carbon-14 dating can determine the age of decaying organic matter, like bones and charcoal, up to about 40,000 BC.
Uranium-series dating is a more modern method, and is able to go back further in time. It is used mostly in caves with flowstone - a smooth, translucent sheet of calcite that forms over cave walls and the paintings they contain. Calcite contains uranium, which decays over time. This decay can be measured to determine when the calcite first covered the art in question and can thus establish a minimum age.
Recent uranium-series tests of calcite sheets in Maltravieso Cave and La Pasiega Cave in Spain, have produced startling dates as old as 60,000 BC.
Let's start by asking: Who made these abstract markings? Clearly artists created the animal paintings, but abstract sign-painting doesn't need the same level of skill. So, in general, the sign-makers who painted dots or simple lines could have been almost anyone - young or old. This opens up the issue somewhat.
As you can see, some of these possible meanings are laughably 'modern'.
The truth is, the closest we are likely to get to our cave ancestors is to research the cultures of hunter-gatherer groups who survive in remote areas of South America, Africa and Papua New Guinea. There seems to be a lack of academic crossover between research into these groups and paleolithic imagery.
Getting to know their values and priorities, might conceivably help us to understand why paleolithic people decorated caves with strange signs and symbols.
See also: Meaning of Cave Art.
Petzinger thinks not. She doubts that the current number of signs is large enough to support a written language. However, certain panels in some of the deep caves contain dense arrangements of signs, suggesting a higher information content and a more complex message.
The panel in La Pasiega Cave, known as "The Inscription", is a case in point.
Dating to 14,000 BC, it consists of a number of symbols organized into three closely spaced units.
The most complex unit is on the left and includes of a pair of horizontal lines with other markings extending vertically upwards.
The centre unit is composed of two images akin to 'stylized feet' and consist of oval shapes each topped with five short lines leading upwards, like the toes on a foot.
The right-hand unit is a single sign, which resembles a reversed capital E, but with two lines in the middle instead of one.
Although the meaning of the "Inscription" is unknown, scientists believe it represents an important cognitive step and may be one of the oldest pieces of graphic communication in history.
A one-off example, perhaps, but it surely marks a huge step forward in the direction of writing.
The point is, once we are able to store information we can preserve it and/or pass it on to other groups of people across a region or continent.
Thus we begin the process of graphic communication, a cognitive process from which, ultimately, writing evolves.
So, even though we’ll never be able to ‘read’ these cave symbols, we can at least modify the prevailing narrative of man as a completely illiterate species until the Sumerians invent writing. These signs and symbols show that humans were slowly but surely learning how to inscribe information on cave walls, some ten thousand years earlier.
(1) Abstract signs are the oldest and most widely distributed type of cultural marking in the world.
(2) Although still a mystery to us, they were ever-present during the migration and settlement of modern man in Europe, and were used to communicate a range of information to the select audiences invited into the cave sanctuaries.
(3) We don't know who created these signs and symbols, or why, but their repetition over 20,000 years or more surely indicates they were taken seriously by early modern man.
(4) Not all signs would have been equally important - some may have been utterly trivial - but well-planned groupings of symbols are reasonable evidence of conceptual thinking, and an indication of cognitive development.
(5) Insofar as certain panels of signs served as posters for the storage and dissemination of information, they were an important - albeit small - first-step in the development of a system of writing.
(6) In short, the abstract signs and geometric symbols we find in cave art of the Upper Paleolithic, hold tantalizing implications about the evolution of human cognition.
(7) More cross-fertilization of ideas is required between researchers exploring surviving groups of hunter-gathers, and those studying paleolithic cave symbols.
(1) "The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols." Genevieve von Petzinger. Atria; Illustrated edition (28 Mar. 2017) ISBN-13: 978-1476785509.
(2) "A question of style: reconsidering the stylistic approach to dating Palaeolithic parietal art in France." Genevieve von Petzinger. Antiquity, Volume 85, Issue 330, December 2011, pp.1165-1183.
(3) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(5) "Journey Through the Ice Age." P.G. Bahn, J. Vertut. (1997). Berkley: University of California Press, 1st edition. ISBN-13: 978-0520213067.
(6) "The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting." A. Leroi-Gourhan (1982). Cambridge University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0521244596.
(7) "Prehistoric Signs." G. Sauvet (1993), in "Palaeolithic Parietal Art. Study Techniques and Methods." (GRAPP), ed. of the CTHS, 219-2.
(8) "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art". D. L. Hoffmann; C. D. Standish; M. García-Diez; P. B. Pettitt; J. A. Milton; J. Zilhão; J. J. Alcolea-González; P. Cantalejo-Duarte; H. Collado; R. de Balbín; M. Lorblanchet; J. Ramos-Muñoz; G.-Ch. Weniger; A. W. G. Pike (2018). Science. 359 (6378): 912–915.