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Zigzag Sign

Prehistoric geometric symbol
Paleolithic and mesolithic eras

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Prehistoric Zigzag Symbol
A Paleolithic zigzag motif. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Zigzag?

In prehistoric art, a "zigzag sign" is an abstract symbol based on a geometric pattern consisting of alternating series of connected parallel lines. It is also known as a "sawtooth" pattern.

Zigzags appear widely in nature (animal teeth, snake skins), are easy to draw, and were first used by humans during the early Stone Age.

Since then, they have been adopted in one form or another by most cultures around the world.

In addition, according to Canadian prehistorian Genevieve von Petzinger, the "zigzag symbol" is one of only 32 abstract signs which were used in Upper Paleolithic art between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

How Prevalent are Zigzags?

The zigzag pattern and pictograph is one of the most popular and enduring motifs of the ancient world.

The earliest known example is the pattern incised on the Trinil Shell Engravings (540,000 BC) by Homo erectus.

Other examples include, the Blombos Cave engravings (71,000 BC) in South Africa; the Bacho Kiro engraved bone (43,000 BC) in Bulgaria; the decorations on the Shigir Idol (10,000 BC); and the zig-zag symbols (10,000 BC) at Çatalhöyük proto-city in southern Anatolia, Turkey.

However, in contrast to their use in various forms of ancient art, zigzags appear in only seven French sites - less than 5 percent of the total.

By comparison, more widespread signs include Lines (73%), Dots (42%), Open-Angle signs (42%), and Ovals (29%).

Which Caves Contain Zigzags?

According to Petzinger, only seven paleolithic caves in France have this particular motif. They include:

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Dating

Of the seven caves with zigzag signs, one (Cosquer Cave) dates to the Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC) while the other six date to the Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC).

Geographical Breakdown

The majority of the Magdalenian sites are located in the southwestern Lot/Dordogne area, along with three sites futher south.

The relatively short span of this sign's usage contradicts its popularity in later European cultures.

Further research into the cave art of Northern Spain might boost the overall number of zigzags within the region of Franco-Cantabrian art.

What's the Meaning of Zigzags?

No one really knows the meaning or significance of these ancient abstract signs.

But some scientists believe that zigzags exemplify the theory that paleolithic art (or some of it) had a protective, magical purpose.

A good illustration of this 'magical theory', is the Krapina Eagle Claw Jewellery, made by Croatian Neanderthals, around 130,000 BC.

By choosing to wear the fearsome claws of the white-tailed eagle - the apex predator of the air - as necklaces and earrings, hunters thought it would ward off danger and keep them safe.

Don't forget, Stone Age hunters were surrounded by nature and would have drawn ideas and inspiration from the flora and fauna around them.

By wearing the body parts of powerful animals (such as wolves' teeth, or eagles' claws, or mammoth tusks), or engraving similar designs on amulets, necklaces, daggers and antler axes, hunters believed they were acquiring the presumed power and protective qualities offered by such items.

Thus, for example, they used zigzag motifs to mimic the natural sawtooth patterns they observed in the teeth, fur, shells and skins of prehistoric animals, like wolves, vipers, turtles and fawns.

In fact, zigzag or sawtooth motifs are among the most prevalent decorative elements in Paleolithic and Mesolithic art.

For example, almost a quarter of the 854 pieces of mobiliary art listed in Tomasz Płonka's book "The Portable Art of Mesolithic Europe", are decorated with zigzag lines.

A good illustration is the abundance of zigzag patterns found on antler batons, bone daggers and clubs uncovered at settlements and burial sites belonging to the Danish Maglemose, Kongemose and Ertebølle cultures, during the period 9,000-4,000 BC.

This decorative trend of using art as an ingredient of pre-scientific medicine, was part of a wider cultural tradition, in which symbols and signs were used along with music, song and dance, in order to counter supernatural forces that were seen as threats to individuals or the community.

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

Related Articles

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

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

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) "Zigzag lines and other protective patterns in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic art." Peter Vang Petersen. Quaternary International Volume 573, 30 January 2021, Pages 66-74.
(3) "The Portable Art of Mesolithic Europe". Tomasz Płonka. Wydawnictwo Universytetu Wroclawskiego (2003)
(4) "Decoding Prehistoric Art and the Origins of Writing." Emmanuel Anati. Publisher: Atelier, 2015. ISBN:8898284128 - 9788898284122

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