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Triangle Sign

Geometric triangular symbols
In Franco-Cantabrian cave art

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Prehistoric Triangle Geometric Symbol
A Paleolithic triangle motif. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Triangle?

In prehistoric art, a "triangle sign" is based on the three-cornered geometric symbol, consisting of a plane figure with three sides and three angles.

It is one of the easiest pictographs to draw and can be created with the least amount of lines.

It is also found in nature, in a wide range of phenomena, ranging from river deltas to the female pubic triangle.

The "triangle sign" is one of 32 abstract symbols which are found in Upper Paleolithic art (40,000-10,000 BC).

That's according to prehistorian Genevieve von Petzinger, an expert in Stone Age cave signs, who is in the process of systematically cataloguing them into a master database in order to assess usage and patterns of distribution.

How Prevalent are Triangles?

"Triangle signs" are relatively plentiful. They are present in thirty-four French caves; about 22 percent of the total.

Less common signs include Pectiforms (5%), Zigzags (4.6%), Cordiforms (2%), and Reniforms (2%).

What Caves Contain Triangles?

Paleolithic caves in France that contain "triangle signs", include:

Geographical Breakdown

The geographical breakdown of triangles changes with time. During the Aurignacian, they are produced only in the Ardèche.

During the Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC) they are clustered in the Dordogne/Lot region, with two individual sites some distance north.

During the Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC) they are found only in the Ardèche region, while in the Magdalenian triangles are produced in about 20 sites, but none in the Ardèche.

Instead, we find a large cluster of sites in SW France, a smaller cluster along the edge of the Pyrénées, and then a series of three sites that extend northwards ending at Gouy Cave, in Normandy. In fact the sequence continues into England, as far as Creswell Crags on the Notts/Derby border.

Dating

Triangles appear in cave painting throughout the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian periods of the Upper Paleolithic, between about 35,000 and 10,000 BC. They occur most frequently during the Magdalenian era.

The earliest example of this sign type occurs around 34,500 BC at Chauvet Cave - the benchmark of Aurignacian cave art - in the Ardèche département of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.

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

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Meaning of Cave Signs

Right now, scientists are at a loss to know what these signs mean, or what their intended function was.

Nonetheless, the fact that paleolithic art relied on a small core of 32 abstract signs for a period of 30,000 years, strongly implies that the markings had genuine significance for the artists who used them, and also (presumably) for their audience.

British archaeologist Dr Paul Bahn suggests that this non-figurative category of cave symbols may have equal, if not greater, importance to its creators than the animal figures that continue to grab the highlights.

Bahn believes that although these strange markings may be indecipherable to us, the meaning must have been clear to those who produced them, and their contemporaries who saw them.

Related Articles

For details of other prehistoric signs and symbols, see the following articles:

References

(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) "Journey Through the Ice Age." P.G. Bahn, J. Vertut. (1997). Berkley: University of California Press, 1st edition. ISBN-13:‎ 978-0520213067.

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