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Flabelliform Sign

Prehistoric Fan-shaped Sign
Franco-Cantabrian cave art

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Prehistoric Flabelliform Fan-shaped Sign
A Paleolithic flabelliform symbol. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Flabelliform?

In prehistoric art, a "flabelliform" refers to a fan-shaped abstract sign, similar to the "open-angle" symbol but with additional fingers. They can appear on their own or in small groupings.

According to prehistoric sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, who has investigated hundreds of caves in France and Spain, Flabelliforms are one of only 32 abstract sign types used in Upper Paleolithic art, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

How Prevalent are Flabelliform Signs?

Flabelliforms are not a common feature of Stone Age caves in France, being present at 28 sites - or approximately 18 percent of the total.

More common signs include: Line signs (72%), Open-Angle signs (42%), Ovals (29%), and Penniforms (24%).

Dating

Flabelliform pictographs occur throughout the four periods of the Upper Paleolithic: the Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC) the Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC), the Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC), and the Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC).

The oldest example is found in Chauvet Cave and dates to between 34,500 and 30,000 BC.

For more about the chronology of non-figurative imagery in caves, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Geographical Distribution

This fan-shaped sign occurs only in SE France during the Aurignacian period (2 sites), but becomes more dispersed during the Gravettian (1 site) and Solutrean (5 sites).

It reaches a highpoint during the Magdalenian period (20 sites), with two large clusters, one in the Dordogne/Lot region and the other in the French Pyrénées.

With large groupings of this sign type in the southwest and along the southern border, it may have been taken up in areas outside France, such as Cantabria and the Asturias along the northern coast of Spain. See: Franco-Cantabrian cave art.

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Which Caves Contain Flabelliforms?

According to Petzinger, this sign type is found in the following paleolithic caves in France:

Meaning of Fan-shaped Signs

We are still in the dark when it comes to deciphering cave signs used in paleolithic art.

We lack detailed knowledge of the customs and values of the period, which could provide the cultural context for why these signs were created.

All we know, is that Paleolithic Man kept painting and scratching 32 sign types on the walls of different caves, sometimes thousands of years and hundreds of miles apart.

Some signs, like cruciforms, spirals and triangles, have travelled the world.

The flabelliform motif is far less common, but even so it has appeared in several early civilizations, notably that of Ancient Egypt, around 2,500 BC.

It was here, for example, that the "palmette" - a decorative motif which resembled the fan-shaped leaves of a palm tree - first appeared.

Later, this motif, (renamed the anthemion) was used to embellish ancient buildings in Ancient Greece and also Rome.

See also: Meaning of Cave Art.

Related Articles

For more information about abstract signs and ideomorphs in Stone Age cave art, 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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