Spanish Tectiform Sign

Prehistoric abstract symbol used
in Upper Paleolithic cave art

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Spanish Tectiform Prehistoric Sign
A Paleolithic Spanish tectiform sign. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Spanish Tectiform Sign?

In prehistoric art, a "Spanish Tectiform" is a geometric pictograph, typically consisting of a slightly curved rectangle divided into three or six sections.

It is referred to as a "Spanish tectiform" only because it is found exclusively in Northern Spain. Please note that its shape is quite different from the regular roof-shaped tectiform sign found in France.

According to Canadian scholar Genevieve von Petzinger, an international authority on geometric symbols created by Ice Age humans, it is one of only 32 abstract signs to be used during the era of Upper Paleolithic art.

How Were They Made in Caves?

Spanish tectiforms were nearly always painted on the walls of caves, usually in red ochre but occasionally in black mananese dioxide. Engravings would only be done on bone or ivory.

Characteristics of Spanish Tectiforms

These symbols are commonly rectangular in shape. Both the long sides of the rectangle can be curved, while the inside of the rectangle can differ significantly.

Most commonly, it is divided lengthways down the middle into two sections, and then divided shortways into three, thus forming six internal compartments.

However, sometimes it is only divided into three sections, and other times not divided at all.

The internal dividing lines may be left bare, or else embellished in various ways, altering the internal shape accordingly.

In short, "Spanish tectiforms" appear in many different varieties with few standard characteristics.

The origins of this symbol, found in paleolithic art, is anyone's guess. Its shape is too variable and no two examples are the same.

The fact it is seen only in caves in Northern Spain, suggests its origins are local and not imported, and its overall complexity suggests it was developed in stages.

The sign may have started out as a quadrangle, before being elongated and gradually divided into segments, to which more and more intricate details were added over time.

Who Created Prehistoric Spanish Tectiforms?

Unlike figurative paintings of (say) rhinos or horses, "Spanish tectiforms" could be painted by almost anyone. That said, there was more to cave painting than simple brushwork.

Sometimes images required careful placement or alignment, to blend with the contours of the rock, or to avoid interfering optically with other paintings. In such cases, the symbols would almost certainly be painted by an artist.

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Why are Abstract Signs So Important?

  1. Because they outnumbered all other types of cave art by 2 to 1. They can be seen in caves, on open-air rock surfaces, and on items of mobiliary art, including necklaces made from animal teeth, water containers, stone tools and weaponry. Such ubiquity commands our attention because it shows the symbols represented something of importance to their makers, or else they wouldn't have continued to paint them.

  2. Abstract symbols account for a large part of the world's oldest art, dating far back into the Lower Paleolithic. Some, like cupules, zigzags, parallel lines and crosshatch symbols, were produced by Homo erectus, our distant ancestor.

    Examples include: the Trinil Shell Engravings (540,000 BC) (zigzags on marine shells) and the Bilzingsleben Engravings (400,000 BC) (two groups of 7 and 14 parallel lines engraved on an elephant's shin bone). Crosshatching was a favoured technique among modern humans in Africa. The Klasies River Cave Engravings (100,000 BC) and the Blombos Cave Engravings (71,000 BC) are cases in point. And cupules at various sites go back even further.

  3. Of all rock art, symbols like "Spanish tectiforms" have the greatest potential for graphic communication - meaning, the use of visual symbols to relate ideas. Each compartment in a "Spanish tectiform", for instance, can represent and convey a parcel of information. To anthropologists, cave signs may help to unlock the story of how early modern man developed conceptual thought - a key indicator of cognitive progress.

  4. Some paleoanthropologists believe that certain complex sign panels are prima facie evidence of primitive writing. A good example is "The Inscription" at La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria, which is sometimes cited as a precursor of systems of writing, like Egyptian hieroglyphics. More mainstream scientists are not convinced.

  5. Irrespective of their connection with writing, the pattern of proliferation and use of these abstract symbols can tell us a lot about how early hunter-gatherers co-operated with neighbouring communities, and what trading links were formed across the regions.

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

How Prevalent are Spanish Tectiforms in Caves?

These symbols are only seen in the caves of Northern Spain - notably Cantabria and the Azurias.

See, for instance, the black "Spanish tectiforms" at Altamira Cave, Santillana del Mar, and Las Chimeneas Cave, at Monte Castillo; and the red versions in La Pasiega Cave and El Castillo Cave at Puente Viesgo.

At least one Spanish tectiform is present at La Garma Cave in Cantabria.

They are the most abundant signs in La Pasiega, and make up a specific 'Tectiform Corner' at El Castillo.

They are yet to be documented at: Atxurra Cave (Berriatua), Ekain Cave (Zestoa), Altxerri Cave (Aya) and Santimamiñe Cave (Kortezubi) in the Basque region of Northern Spain.

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What is the Meaning of "Spanish Tectiforms"?

Some anthropologists have suggested that these symbols were used as identity markers for certain clans or family groups.

If true, the visual flexibility of the symbol allows plenty of scope to express the structure and membership of the group in graphical terms.

That said, most prehistorian scholars agree that we know almost nothing about the origins, authorship, cultural context or meaning of these signs, and have no real leads to explore, except possibly the habits and customs of modern day hunter-gatherers, surviving in remote jungle areas of South America or SE Asia.

See also our article on the Purpose of Cave Art.

Related Articles

For details of other rare cave signs and symbols, 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) "La Pasiega à Puente Viesgo." (Cave of La Pasiega at Puente Viesgo.) Breuil, H., Obermaier, H., and Alcalde del Río, H., , Ed. A. Chêne (Monaco, 1913).

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