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TED Fellows Retreat 2015

Genevieve von Petzinger: Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves all over Europe?

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Written language, the hallmark of human civilization, didn't just suddenly appear one day. Thousands of years before the first fully developed writing systems, our ancestors scrawled geometric signs across the walls of the caves they sheltered in. Paleoanthropologist, rock art researcher and TED Senior Fellow Genevieve von Petzinger has studied and codified these ancient markings in caves across Europe. The uniformity of her findings suggest that graphic communication, and the ability to preserve and transmit messages beyond a single moment in time, may be much older than we think.

- Paleoanthropologist and rock art researcher
Genevieve von Petzinger studies the geometric signs found in early European Ice Age rock art sites. Full bio

There's something about caves --
00:12
a shadowy opening in a limestone
cliff that draws you in.
00:16
As you pass through the portal
between light and dark,
00:21
you enter a subterranean world --
00:25
a place of perpetual gloom,
of earthy smells, of hushed silence.
00:28
Long ago in Europe,
00:34
ancient people also entered
these underground worlds.
00:36
As witness to their passage,
00:39
they left behind mysterious
engravings and paintings,
00:41
like this panel of humans, triangles
and zigzags from Ojo Guareña in Spain.
00:44
You now walk the same path
as these early artists.
00:52
And in this surreal, otherworldly place,
00:55
it's almost possible to imagine
00:58
that you hear the muffled footfall
of skin boots on soft earth,
01:00
or that you see the flickering of a torch
around the next bend.
01:05
When I'm in a cave,
01:09
I often find myself wondering
what drove these people to go so deep
01:11
to brave dangerous and narrow
passageways to leave their mark?
01:17
In this video clip,
01:20
that was shot half a kilometer,
or about a third of a mile, underground,
01:22
in the cave of Cudon in Spain,
01:25
we found a series
of red paintings on a ceiling
01:27
in a previously unexplored
section of the cave.
01:30
As we crawled forward, military-style,
with the ceiling getting ever lower,
01:33
we finally got to a point
where the ceiling was so low
01:37
that my husband
and project photographer, Dylan,
01:41
could no longer achieve focus
on the ceiling with his DSLR camera.
01:43
So while he filmed me,
01:47
I kept following the trail of red paint
with a single light
01:49
and a point-and-shoot camera
that we kept for that type of occasion.
01:52
Half a kilometer underground.
01:57
Seriously.
02:00
What was somebody doing down there
with a torch or a stone lamp?
02:01
(Laughter)
02:04
I mean -- me, it makes sense, right?
02:06
But you know,
02:08
this is the kind of question that
I'm trying to answer with my research.
02:09
I study some of the oldest
art in the world.
02:13
It was created by these
early artists in Europe,
02:16
between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago.
02:18
And the thing is
02:23
that I'm not just studying it
because it's beautiful,
02:24
though some of it certainly is.
02:27
But what I'm interested in
is the development of the modern mind,
02:29
of the evolution of creativity,
of imagination, of abstract thought,
02:33
about what it means to be human.
02:38
While all species communicate
in one way or another,
02:43
only we humans have really
taken it to another level.
02:46
Our desire and ability
to share and collaborate
02:49
has been a huge part of our success story.
02:52
Our modern world is based on a global
network of information exchange
02:55
made possible, in large part,
by our ability to communicate --
03:00
in particular, using graphic
or written forms of communication.
03:04
The thing is, though,
03:08
that we've been building
on the mental achievements
03:09
of those that came before us for so long
03:12
that it's easy to forget that certain
abilities haven't already existed.
03:15
It's one of the things
I find most fascinating
03:20
about studying our deep history.
03:23
Those people didn't have the shoulders
of any giants to stand on.
03:25
They were the original shoulders.
03:29
And while a surprising number
of important inventions
03:32
come out of that distant time,
03:35
what I want to talk to you about today
is the invention of graphic communication.
03:37
There are three
main types of communication,
03:42
spoken, gestural --
so things like sign language --
03:44
and graphic communication.
03:48
Spoken and gestural are
by their very nature ephemeral.
03:50
It requires close contact
for a message to be sent and received.
03:54
And after the moment
of transmission, it's gone forever.
03:58
Graphic communication, on the other hand,
decouples that relationship.
04:02
And with its invention,
it became possible for the first time
04:06
for a message to be
transmitted and preserved
04:10
beyond a single moment in place and time.
04:13
Europe is one of the first places
04:16
that we start to see graphic marks
regularly appearing
04:18
in caves, rock shelters
and even a few surviving open-air sites.
04:21
But this is not the Europe we know today.
04:26
This was a world dominated
by towering ice sheets,
04:28
three to four kilometers high,
04:31
with sweeping grass plains
and frozen tundra.
04:33
This was the Ice Age.
04:37
Over the last century,
04:40
more than 350 Ice Age rock art sites
have been found across the continent,
04:41
decorated with animals, abstract shapes
and even the occasional human
04:46
like these engraved figures
from Grotta dell'Addaura in Sicily.
04:51
They provide us with a rare glimpse
04:54
into the creative world and imagination
of these early artists.
04:56
Since their discovery,
05:01
it's been the animals that have received
the majority of the study
05:03
like this black horse
from Cullalvera in Spain,
05:07
or this unusual purple bison
from La Pasiega.
05:10
But for me, it was the abstract shapes,
what we call geometric signs,
05:14
that drew me to study the art.
05:20
The funny this is that at most sites
05:23
the geometric signs far outnumber
the animal and human images.
05:25
But when I started on this back in 2007,
05:30
there wasn't even a definitive list
of how many shapes there were,
05:33
nor was there a strong sense
05:37
of whether the same ones
appeared across space or time.
05:38
Before I could even
get started on my questions,
05:44
my first step was to compile a database
05:47
of all known geometric signs
from all of the rock art sites.
05:49
The problem was that while they were
well documented at some sites,
05:53
usually the ones
with the very nice animals,
05:56
there was also a large number of them
where it was very vague --
05:59
there wasn't a lot
of description or detail.
06:02
Some of them hadn't been visited
in half a century or more.
06:05
These were the ones
that I targeted for my field work.
06:08
Over the course of two years,
06:11
my faithful husband Dylan and I
each spent over 300 hours underground,
06:13
hiking, crawling and wriggling
around 52 sites
06:19
in France, Spain, Portugal and Sicily.
06:23
And it was totally worth it.
06:26
We found new, undocumented geometric signs
at 75 percent of the sites we visited.
06:27
This is the level of accuracy
I knew I was going to need
06:34
if I wanted to start answering
those larger questions.
06:37
So let's get to those answers.
06:40
Barring a handful of outliers,
there are only 32 geometric signs.
06:43
Only 32 signs
06:47
across a 30,000-year time span
and the entire continent of Europe.
06:49
That is a very small number.
06:55
Now, if these were random
doodles or decorations,
06:58
we would expect to see
a lot more variation,
07:00
but instead what we find
are the same signs
07:03
repeating across both space and time.
07:05
Some signs start out strong,
before losing popularity and vanishing,
07:08
while other signs are later inventions.
07:12
But 65 percent of those signs stayed
in use during that entire time period --
07:15
things like lines, rectangles
triangles, ovals and circles
07:20
like we see here
from the end of the Ice Age,
07:25
at a 10,000-year-old site
high in the Pyrenees Mountains.
07:27
And while certain signs
span thousands of kilometers,
07:31
other signs had much more
restricted distribution patterns,
07:34
with some being limited
to a single territory,
07:37
like we see here
with these divided rectangles
07:39
that are only found in northern Spain,
07:42
and which some researchers have speculated
07:44
could be some sort
of family or clan signs.
07:46
On a side note,
07:49
there is surprising degree
of similarity in the earliest rock art
07:51
found all the way from France and Spain
to Indonesia and Australia.
07:54
With many of the same signs
appearing in such far-flung places,
07:59
especially in that 30,000
to 40,000-year range,
08:03
it's starting to seem increasingly likely
08:06
that this invention actually traces back
to a common point of origin in Africa.
08:09
But that I'm afraid,
is a subject for a future talk.
08:14
So back to the matter at hand.
08:17
There could be no doubt that these signs
were meaningful to their creators,
08:18
like these 25,000-year-old
bas-relief sculptures
08:22
from La Roque de Venasque in France.
08:25
We might not know what they meant,
but the people of the time certainly did.
08:28
The repetition of the same signs,
for so long, and at so many sites
08:33
tells us that the artists
were making intentional choices.
08:39
If we're talking about geometric shapes,
08:43
with specific, culturally recognized,
agreed-upon meanings,
08:46
than we could very well be looking
08:50
at one of the oldest systems
of graphic communication in the world.
08:52
I'm not talking about writing yet.
08:57
There's just not enough
characters at this point
08:59
to have represented all of the words
in the spoken language,
09:01
something which is a requirement
for a full writing system.
09:04
Nor do we see the signs
repeating regularly enough
09:07
to suggest that they were
some sort of alphabet.
09:09
But what we do have
are some intriguing one-offs,
09:12
like this panel from La Pasiega in Spain,
known as "The Inscription,"
09:15
with its symmetrical markings on the left,
09:19
possible stylized representations
of hands in the middle,
09:22
and what looks a bit
like a bracket on the right.
09:25
The oldest systems of graphic
communication in the world --
09:29
Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs,
the earliest Chinese script,
09:31
all emerged between 4,000
and 5,000 years ago,
09:36
with each coming into existence
from an earlier protosystem
09:40
made up of counting marks
and pictographic representations,
09:43
where the meaning
and the image were the same.
09:47
So a picture of a bird would really
have represented that animal.
09:49
It's only later that we start to see
these pictographs become more stylized,
09:53
until they almost become unrecognizable
09:58
and that we also start to see
more symbols being invented
10:01
to represent all those other
missing words in language --
10:04
things like pronouns, adverbs, adjectives.
10:06
So knowing all this,
10:10
it seems highly unlikely that
the geometric signs from Ice Age Europe
10:11
were truly abstract written characters.
10:15
Instead, what's much more likely
10:18
is that these early artists
were also making counting marks,
10:20
maybe like this row of lines
from Riparo di Za Minic in Sicily,
10:24
as well as creating
stylized representations
10:28
of things from the world around them.
10:31
Could some of the signs
be weaponry or housing?
10:33
Or what about celestial objects
like star constellations?
10:36
Or maybe even rivers, mountains,
trees -- landscape features,
10:40
possibly like this black penniform
surrounded by strange bell-shaped signs
10:45
from the site of El Castillo in Spain.
10:49
The term penniform
means "feather-shaped" in Latin,
10:52
but could this actually be
a depiction of a plant or a tree?
10:55
Some researchers have begun
to ask these questions
10:59
about certain signs at specific sites,
11:02
but I believe the time has come
to revisit this category as a whole.
11:05
The irony in all of this, of course,
11:10
is that having just carefully classified
all of the signs into a single category,
11:12
I have a feeling that my next step
will involve breaking it back apart
11:16
as different types of imagery
are identified and separated off.
11:20
Now don't get me wrong,
11:24
the later creation
of fully developed writing
11:25
was an impressive feat in its own right.
11:28
But it's important to remember
11:30
that those early writing systems
didn't come out of a vacuum.
11:32
And that even 5,000 years ago,
11:35
people were already building
on something much older,
11:37
with its origins stretching back
tens of thousands of years --
11:41
to the geometric signs
of Ice Age Europe and far beyond,
11:44
to that point, deep
in our collective history,
11:49
when someone first came up with the idea
of making a graphic mark,
11:52
and forever changed the nature
of how we communicate.
11:56
Thank you.
11:59
(Applause)
12:00

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About the speaker:

Genevieve von Petzinger - Paleoanthropologist and rock art researcher
Genevieve von Petzinger studies the geometric signs found in early European Ice Age rock art sites.

Why you should listen

Genevieve von Petzinger is a Canadian paleoanthropologist and rock art researcher finishing up her doctorate at the University of Victoria. She studies some of the oldest art in the world -- Ice Age cave art created by early humans in Europe between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Genevieve's specific focus is on the geometric signs found at many of these sites, and she's interested in how these images can help us to better understand human cognitive evolution as well as track ancient patterns of migration and explore the origins of symbolism and graphic communication. Her research has been featured both nationally and internationally in print, radio and television. In 2013, Genevieve was selected as a TED Senior Fellow.

Genevieve has a book about her latest research and this fascinating period in our human history coming out from Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., in May 2016. 

More profile about the speaker
Genevieve von Petzinger | Speaker | TED.com