After analyzing dozens of Ice Age cave websites throughout Europe, paleoarchaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger found our ancestors repeatedly used 32 indicators. Why? She walks us by way of her eye-opening discoveries — and their implications.
The title for the world’s oldest dated cave artwork is presently held by an unassuming crimson disk, at the very least 41,000 years previous, painted on a wall inside a rock formation in El Castillo, Spain. “It’s the size of a teacup’s saucer,” says paleoarchaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger (TED Talk: Why are these 32 symbols present in historic caves throughout Europe?). “It’s this very innocuous little thing.”
For centuries, the main focus of paleoanthropology (and the favored creativeness) has been the representational artwork that our ancestors left behind in caves: eye-catching drawings of deer, horse, bison and human figures. But when she was a senior in faculty, von Petzinger, a TED Fellow and a researcher on the University of Victoria in Canada, was drawn to the often-overlooked summary indicators: the disks, triangles, dots, circles and contours. “There was something about them that I found much more interesting than the animals and the people,” she says. “Those are nice too, but it seemed like there were some patterns going on there, and yet there was not even enough information to even delve into it.”
Five years in the past, von Petzinger got down to doc and systematically catalogue the geometric indicators that have been created tens of 1000’s of years in the past in Europe throughout the Ice Age. She began by compiling a database of the geometric indicators discovered on the almost 370 identified rock artwork websites throughout the continent. From there, she recognized gaps within the inventories at many websites and by exploring the hardly ever documented websites — along with her husband, photographer/filmmaker Dillon von Petzinger, to seize the photographs — she made discoveries that maintain tantalizing implications in regards to the origin of artwork and the evolution of human cognition.
Though they made cave artwork, early people weren’t precisely “cavemen.” Homo sapiens — fashionable people, anatomically similar to us at present — first appeared 200,000 years in the past in Africa. Early people in all probability didn’t reside in caves, extra probably within the entrances to caves. “Caves were almost like their backyard,” von Petzinger says. And whereas we primarily know them by their artwork on cave partitions, early Homo sapiens probably embellished their total environment. “Caves are probably a fraction of what used to be decorated,” she says. Cave artwork stays as a result of it was protected against the weather — providing paleoanthropologists a novel and well-preserved take a look at the work of our ancestors.
How can we all know the age of a cave drawing? Von Petzinger research artwork made 10,000 to 40,000 years in the past, within the Upper Paleolithic interval of the Ice Age. (The final Ice Age spanned from roughly 110,000 years in the past to 10,000 years in the past.) The foremost strategies utilized by paleoarchaeologists to this point cave artwork from this time interval are carbon-14 and uranium-series relationship. Carbon-14 relationship can decide the age of decaying natural matter, akin to bones and charcoal-based paint, that’s as much as 40,000 years previous. It works by measuring the ratio of radioactive carbon-14, which decays, to carbon-12, which stays fixed even after natural matter dies. Uranium-series relationship is a newer addition to the relationship software package, and it might probably discover dates that go even additional again. Uranium relationship works in caves that comprise calcite, a mineral that’s typically present in stalactites and different options of residing, rising caves. Calcite, carried alongside by dripping water on a cave wall, can typically kind a clean, translucent sheet over older cave work. Calcite comprises uranium, which decays over time — which signifies that if there’s calcite on a cave wall over a cave portray, that uranium decay may be measured to set the minimal age of a bit of cave artwork, or the date at which the calcite first lined it. “Uranium dating is where a lot of these exciting new discoveries are coming from,” von Petzinger says, “because it’s opened up a whole world of engravings and types of paintings we couldn’t date before.”
How to search out the frequent indicators that bridged dozens of caves and 30,000 years of human habitation. Over seven months in 2013 and 2014, von Petzinger and her husband visited and documented 52 cave websites in Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. She chosen websites the place researchers had famous geometric indicators however hadn’t recorded particulars. After her fieldwork was full, she analyzed all of the indicators she’d catalogued. And what she noticed made the hair on the again of her neck rise up: throughout 30,000 years and your complete continent of Europe, a mere 32 indicators repeated themselves again and again. How may she clarify this continuity? “That really small number tells you that they must have been meaningful to the people who were using them, because they were replicating them,” she says.
These discoveries have overturned the standard timeline of people and artwork. Paleoanthropologists had lengthy believed that artwork was invented throughout a “creative explosion” 40,000 years in the past in Europe — the primary Homo sapiens are thought to have migrated there from Africa throughout an Ice Age heat spell roughly 45,000 years in the past. But von Petzinger’s analysis challenges this standard knowledge. “I realized that two-thirds of the signs were already in use when humans arrived in Europe,” she says, suggesting the symbols are a continuation of an present custom somewhat than the beginning of one thing new. This radically strikes again the believable timeline for when humanity started creating and utilizing symbols. “Some of these signs could potentially be part of a larger system that they brought with them when they left Africa,” von Petzinger says, “and then moved with them as they spread across the world.”
Could a handmark imply “I was here”? Once thought-about decorative and of secondary curiosity, geometric indicators outnumber representational pictures in caves by at the very least two to at least one. The 32 indicators documented by von Petzinger embody dots, asterisks, spirals and adverse palms. Negative palms, or the adverse picture of a handprint, are one of many oldest indicators to look in caves, and so they have been hottest throughout the earlier a part of the Ice Age (between 22,000 and 40,000 years in the past). “They may have been a signal that a particular person had been at a site or a symbolic representation of a person or a group of people,” von Petzinger says. “They may even have been some sort of early sign language.” The penniform, named after the Latin time period that means “feather” or “plume-shaped,” was a later creative invention, first showing between 28,000 and 30,000 years in the past, and may need been used to depict weaponry or bushes and crops. Tectiforms, named from the Latin phrase for “roof-shaped,” seem solely between 13,000 and 17,000 years in the past and are solely discovered at 9 cave websites, indicating it was in all probability a localized invention and even perhaps a clan signal or marker of a selected group’s id.
Ice Age artists adored the colour crimson. Von Petzinger has noticed outstanding efforts by early people to regulate the colours of their creations, and so they exhibited a powerful choice for crimson ochre (created from iron oxide). “At times, they were using fairly elaborate heat-treating systems to heat the ochre up to these very specific temperature ranges, which causes a chemical change and makes it a really vibrant red,” she says. “We’re almost seeing them engineering with fire.” Ancestral Homo species began utilizing ochre over 250,000 years in the past, probably for sensible issues — to tan and remedy animal hides, or to repel bugs. “You wonder if somehow the practical and the mundane may have been their starting point, but over time, you start to see them making decisions based more on what they liked as opposed to what was the easiest or the most practical solution,” von Petzinger says. This proof of shade choice may be a sign of the early human mind creating advanced, symbolic cognitive processes.
Were Neanderthals artists, too? Another query that von Petzinger hopes to reply sometime is whether or not Neanderthals — the unique inhabitants of Europe, who lived there till going extinct roughly 30,000 years in the past — have been additionally making graphic marks. Traditionally, all Ice Age artwork has been attributed by scientists to our human ancestors. However, a lately recognized crosshatch engraving from a collapse Gibraltar seems to have been made by Neanderthals, elevating the intriguing risk that this intently associated species was creating artwork. “Since the 2 species overlapped in Europe for at the very least 10,000 years, it could be that a few of the indicators relationship 30,000 years or older have been made by Neanderthals as a substitute of Homo sapiens, which might add a totally new dimension to the examine of Ice Age artwork,” von Petzinger says.
Linked symbols is perhaps the precursor of extra sophisticated communication. It’s tempting to search for an alphabet or glossary in von Petzinger’s indicators, but it surely wasn’t till 5,000 years in the past that people began to develop subtle methods for graphic communication. However, the 32 indicators do appear to have communicative properties, and von Petzinger suggests we are able to probably hint the origins of our first writing methods again to those historic symbols. Take northern Spain’s “La Pasiega Inscription,” which dates again roughly 16,000 years and options plenty of indicators strung collectively. While a sequence like this was extremely uncommon, the “La Pasiega Inscription” simply is perhaps a really early try and create a extra advanced message, she explains. “Humans were starting to experiment in ways that may have helped lead to sentences and to the creation of writing later.”
What can artwork inform us in regards to the evolution of human cognition? “Art is a really interesting window into the mind,” von Petzinger says, “It’s this very abstract, cognitively complex thing to do.” If early people have been creating indicators with particular meanings throughout the Ice Age, it might mark an enormous step ahead in once we developed advanced writing methods. After all, our skill to speak graphically is without doubt one of the issues that units us other than the remainder of the animal kingdom. “Once you can store information outside of an individual, think about what the potential is to be able to pass that information onto larger groups of people and to preserve important information,” von Petzinger says. “I think those very first little steps actually helped put us on this incredible path that we’ve ended up on.” She is presently working to broaden her database to incorporate websites within the Balkans and Caucasus, earlier than increasing additional east into Eurasia. And she’s planning an expedition in spring 2018 to go to the coast of Spain and seek for submerged caves that simply may need intact Ice Age artwork, a collaboration with underwater robotic entrepreneur and fellow TED Fellow David Lang (TED Talk: My underwater robotic).
For extra details about von Petzinger’s work, learn her 2016 ebook The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols.
All pictures courtesy of Dillon von Petzinger.