Scalariform Sign

Ladder-shaped abstract symbol
In Upper Paleolithic caves

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Scalariform Prehistoric Symbol
A Paleolithic scalariform symbol. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Scalariform?

In prehistoric art, a "scalariform" is an abstract linear sign, shaped like a ladder lying on its side. It consists of two sub-parallel lines connected at right-angles by a series of struts that look like rungs.

It is one of 32 abstract signs used in paleolithic caves in France and Spain during the period 40,000-10,000 BC.

How Prevalent are Scalariforms?

The "scalariform sign" is present in approximately three French caves; less than 2 percent of the total.

As the numbers show, these signs are extremely rare. More common ones include Line signs (73%), Dots (42%), Open-Angle signs (42%), and Ovals (29%).

Where are Scalariforms Located?

In France, scalariform pictographs are present at two sites in the Périgord and one (Grotte du Colombier) in the Ardèche.

One site belongs to the Gravettian period (c.30,000-20,000 BC), two to the Magdalenian period (c.15,000-10,000 BC).

Elsewhere, scalariforms have been documented in at least two important cave complexes in Spain and one in South Africa.

When Did Scalariforms First Appear?

The oldest scalariform in paleolithic art - found in La Pasiega Cave in Spain - has been dated to 62,000 BC during the Neanderthal Mousterian culture of the Middle Paleolithic.

For more about the chronology of abstract signs in caves, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

Which Sites Contain Scalariforms?

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Cave Signs are a Mystery!

One of the most mysterious forms of cave painting is the abstract sign or geometric symbol.

During the Stone Age, these signs reoccured in caves across Europe, without any obvious explanation.

Sometimes, thousands of years passed before some of them were repeated.

Why were these sign paintings created? How did the same designs spread from region to region?

What was so important about these particular signs that made artists want to repeat them, over and over?

Nobody knows.

Meaning of Signs

Paleoanthropologists still don't know what abstract signs meant, or what their function was. Which is hardly surprising, given the time lapse. We were not the intended audience.

However, there are several theories about the meaning and purpose of these strange symbols.


Paleolithic archaeoacoustics focuses on the correlation between cave art and sound resonance.

Tests in certain caves have shown that animal paintings and signs were positioned in locations with the strongest acoustic resonances. What was the reason for this?

Animal Paintings

This theory explores the connection between the signs and the cave paintings or engravings at the site.

Why are signs typically placed next to paintings? Were they created at the same time?

Graphic Communication

Other scientists explore the graphic communication attributes of signs. Were these strange pictographs an early form of writing? Were they ideograms?

If we are ever to understand this unique form of cave art, much more structural research is needed, hopefully combined with Artificial Intellience (AI) analysis, and greater knowledge of hunter-gatherer culture.

See also our article on the Purpose and Meaning of Cave Art.

Related Articles

For details of other caves with abstract markings, see the following articles:


(1) "The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols." Genevieve von Petzinger. Atria; Illustrated edition (28 Mar. 2017) ISBN-10: 1476785503. ISBN-13: 978-1476785509.
(2) "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.

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