Aviform Sign

Bird-shaped, Placard-type symbol
Used in paleolithic cave art

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Prehistoric Aviform Symbol, Placard-Type Sign
A Paleolithic aviform motif. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is an Aviform?

In prehistoric art, an "aviform sign" is a linear bird-shaped symbol, also known as a "butterfly sign", or a "Placard-type sign" due to its association with Le Placard Cave, which contains 12 of these motifs - more than any other cave.

It is one of the more complex pictographs found in Franco-Cantabrian cave art, and has four typical elements: a horizontal band with a downward extension at each end and an upward extension in the middle.

Unlike other signs, it does not appear during the later Mesolithic or Neolithic eras, and is not found in nature, despite its vague resemblance to a flying creature.

Its importance stems from the fact that it's one of only 32 abstract symbols, which were used uring the era of Upper Paleolithic art between 40,000 and 10,000 BC. That's according to Genevieve von Petzinger, a leading authority on non-figurative signs of the Stone Age.

How Prevalent are Aviforms?

"Aviforms" are relatively rare. They are present in only twelve French caves; about 8 percent of the total. More common signs include Penniforms (25%), Quadrangles (19%), Half-Circles (18%), and Hand Stencils (16%).

What Caves Contain Aviforms?

French caves and rock shelters that contain "aviform signs", include:

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Dating and Location

Aviforms are found in all four phases of the Upper Paleolithic: Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC), Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC), Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC) and Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC).

"Aviform signs" can also be found in two major paleolithic caves, in Spain, namely Altamira and La Pasiega, in Cantabria.

According to Petzinger, it's possible the sign-type migrated across the Pyrénées into Spain, before returning north during the later Solutrean or Magdalenian periods.

Meaning of Prehistoric Cave Signs

Paleoanthropologists have a number of theories about what these prehistoric cave signs mean, although no clear evidence exists to prove or disprove these theories.

In our view, the most interesting hypotheses concern the relationship between abstract signs and the rock art they accompany, or annotate.

Deciphering this connection is proving extremely difficult, but some progress has been made with regard to certain claviform (club-shaped) symbols at Trois Frères.

Meta analysis of the types of cave painting most (and least) associated with Placard-type signs, might shed light on the meaning and function of these signs, but such research takes time.

As it is, Petzinger is in the process of systematically cataloguing the key abstract signs across France and the rest of Europe: a mammoth task, but one that will surely shed light on this fascinating issue.

Related Articles

For details of other rare cave signs and geometric symbols, see the following articles:


(1)"Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.
(2) "A place in time: Situating Chauvet within the long chronology of symbolic behavioral development." Genevieve von Petzinger, April Nowell. Journal of Human Evolution. 2014/09/01.
(3) "Paleolithic techniques and tools used to calculate space and time." Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewiez. Part 3: Pleistocene Coalition News, Volume 4, Issue 1, January – February 2012, p.2

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