Dot Signs

Prehistoric disks and points
Red/black painted cave symbols

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Prehistoric Dot Signs and Disks
Painted dots or blobs seen in Paleolithic caves. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Dot Sign?

In paleolithic art, a "dot sign" refers to differing sized disks, points or spots, typically painted in red-ochre.

They are never engraved, and they can appear on their own or as part of a cluster of dots. It is the easiest of all the pictographs to create, requiring literally a blob of paint.

Dots are one of only 32 abstract signs used in cave art between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

That's according to prehistoric sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, who has investigated hundreds of caves in France and Spain, dating to the era of Upper Paleolithic art.

How Prevalent are Dot Signs?

Dots are the second-most common sign in France, being present in 65 caves - approximately 42 percent of the total.

Other common signs include: Lines (72%), Open-Angles (42%), Oval (29%), and Triangle (22%).

Geographical Distribution

The main groupings of dot signs are located in the Ardèche, the Dordogne/Lot region and the French Pyrénées.

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Which Caves Contain Dot Signs?

According to Petzinger, who is in the process of compiling a master database of non-figurative cave signs in Europe, dots are present in the following paleolithic caves in France.

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Dot signs occur in all periods of the Upper Paleolithic, namely: the 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).

During the Gravettian, we see a large cluster of this sign type in the Dordogne/Lot region, with one site in Charente, and three sites further north. In the south, there are also two sites near the Pyrénées.

The Solutrean witnesses a contraction of this sign's distribution, while it reappears at five sites in the Ardèche region for the first time since the Aurignacian. The other two major clusters of this period are in the Dordogne/Lot region and along the Pyrénées.

In the Magdalenian, the sign appears in 33 sites, arranged in two huge clusters - one in the Dordogne/Lot region, and the other along the Pyrénées. There is also a single site to the north, and one in the Ardèche.

With many sites located around the edges of France, it suggests the sign was taken up outside the country. We know it appears throughout the region of Franco-Cantabrian art because recent Uranium/Thorium dating tests at El Castillo Cave in Spain, have directly dated a red disk to 38,000 BC, making it the oldest dot sign in the world.

For more about the chronology of cave painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Meaning of Dot Signs

Paleoanthropologists and other scientists have found absolutely no hard evidence that explains why Paleolithic Man decorated his underground sanctuaries with non-figurative signs and symbols, like dots. But theories continue to multiply.

A particularly interesting theory concerns archaeoacoustics - the relationship between sound and art in Stone Age caves.

It is believed that red dots were sometimes used to indicate areas of exceptional sound resonance within the cave, thus indicating where paintings should be located in order to support cave ceremonies.

Some dots, it is said, function as warning signs of changes in cave topography.

In 2011, a group of geneticists who studied the Spotted Horses Panel in Pech Merle Cave (dated 22,640 BC), concluded the dots were not signs or symbols, but simply markings used to express the horse's spotted coats.

This 'naturalistic theory' was subsequently undermined by evidence that the spotted horses being 'painted' were not present in the region until 10,000 years later.

In addition, analysis of the complex process involved in adding the dots to the images of the horses, showed they were likely not added for purely representational reasons.

Instead, a new theory has been advanced that the dots were added to the Pech Merle Horses (and to other 'dotted' animals in other cave sanctuaries) for their optical effects - for the psychological effect of the perception of dots on the mind of the viewer, when seen in the flickering light of an oil lamp or fire.

Flickering light, it is claimed, may have caused the images to shimmer or scintillate, making it appear more powerful and lifelike.

See also: Purpose and Meaning of Cave Art.

Related Articles

For more information about cave symbols and ideomorphs, 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) "The Meaning of the Dots on the Horses of Pech Merle." December 2013. Arts 2(4):476-490.
(3) "Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain." Zeki, S. Oxford University Press: New York, NY, USA, 1999; p.10.

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