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Line Signs

Lines Drawn in Prehistoric Caves
Upper Paleolithic cave art

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Line Signs in Paleolithic Caves
A Paleolithic line symbol - often seen in groups of parallel or sub-parallel lines. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is a Line Sign?

In paleolithic art, a line sign is simply a single stroke of paint or charcoal. Along with dots - linear signs are the simplest type of pictograph seen in caves across Europe.

It is one of only 32 abstract motifs that were used during the era of Upper Paleolithic art, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

Linear motifs are also found on items of mobiliary art. See, for instance, the famous lines incised on an elephant's shin bone, known as the Bilzingsleben Engravings (350,000-400,000 BC).

How Prevalent are Line Signs?

This sign is the most prevalent motif in Franco-Cantabrian art, being present at 111 sites - or about 72 percent of the total.

In contrast, some of the least popular signs include: the Zigzag (4.5%), Cordiform (1.9%), Scalariform (1.9%), and Spiral (1.3%) signs.

[Source: "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.]

Dating

The line sign appears throughout all four periods of the Upper Paleolithic, including the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Geographical Distribution

[Source: Petzinger (2005)]

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Which Caves Contain Line Signs?

According to Petzinger, lines are found in the following French caves:

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Meaning of Cave Signs

One can only speculate about the significance and meaning of lines and other geometric cave signs.

The locality and habitat surrounding most caves will have changed beyond recognition, and we have little or no idea of the local conditions, problems and customs of the communities involved.

We look back 30,000 years from a position of relatively stress-free luxury, hoping our superior resources can somehow unlock the mysteries of this strange cave art, painted on cave walls by the light of a dim candle.

We come up with what we consider to be feasible explanations, involving shamanism, initiation ceremonies, animal/hunting magic, archaeoacoustics, hallucinogenic shapes, lack of oxygen, primitive systems of communication, and much more.

Do we have any way of testing these hypotheses about the meaning of painted signs in caves? Err, no.

Heck, we don't even understand why they suddenly decided to paint caves in the first place.

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

Related Articles

For more information about ideomorphs in ice age caves, see the following articles:

References

"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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