Scientists are reexamining pictographs scattered amoung the illustrations of animals which adorn the walls of many Stone Age cave dwellings. Some surprising common symbols have been found in caves across the world.
When faced with such spectacular beauty, who could blame the visiting anthropologists for largely ignoring the modest semicircles, lines and zigzags also marked on the walls? Yet dismissing them has proved to be something of a mistake. The latest research has shown that, far from being doodles, the marks are in fact highly symbolic, forming a written “code” that was familiar to all of the prehistoric tribes around France and possibly beyond. Indeed, these unprepossessing shapes may be just as remarkable as the paintings of trotting horses and tussling rhinos, providing a snapshot into humankind’s first steps towards symbolism and writing.
Until now, the accepted view has been that our ancestors underwent a “creative explosion” around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, when they suddenly began to think abstractly and create rock art. This idea is supported by the plethora of stunning cave paintings, like those at Chauvet, which started to proliferate across Europe around this time. Writing, on the other hand, appeared to come much later, with the earliest records of a pictographic writing system dating back to just 5000 years ago.
Few researchers, though, had given any serious thought to the relatively small and inconspicuous marks around the cave paintings. The evidence of humanity’s early creativity, they thought, was clearly in the elaborate drawings.