40,000-Year-Old Symbols Found in Caves Worldwide May Be the Earliest Written Language

We may take it for granted that the earliest writing systems developed with the Sumerians around 3400 B.C.E. The archaeological evidence so far supports the theory. But it may also be possible that the earliest writing systems predate 5000-year-old cuneiform tablets by several thousand years. And what’s more, it may be possible, suggests paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, that those prehistoric forms of writing, which include the earliest known hashtag marks, consisted of symbols nearly as universal as emoji.

The study of symbols carved into cave walls all over the world—including penniforms (feather shapes), claviforms (key shapes), and hand stencils—could eventually push us to “abandon the powerful narrative,” writes Frank Jacobs at Big Think, “of history as total darkness until the Sumerians flip the switch.” Though the symbols may never be truly decipherable, their purposes obscured by thousands of years of separation in time, they clearly show humans “undimming the light many millennia earlier.”

While burrowing deep underground to make cave paintings of animals, early humans as far back as 40,000 years ago also developed a system of signs that is remarkably consistent across and between continents. Von Petzinger spent years cataloguing these symbols in Europe, visiting “52 caves,” reports New Scientist’s Alison George, “in France, Span, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, hand stencils, something called a tectiform that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feather shapes called penniforms.”

She discovered 32 signs found all over the continent, carved and painted over a very long period of time. “For tens of thousands of years,” Jacobs points out, “our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used.” Von Petzinger sees this system as a carryover from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” she writes in her book The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols.

In her TED Talk at the top, von Petzinger describes this early system of communication through abstract signs as a precursor to the “global network of information exchange” in the modern world. “We’ve been building on the mental achievements of those who came before us for so long,” she says, “that it’s easy to forget that certain abilities haven’t already existed,” long before the formal written records we recognize. These symbols traveled: they aren’t only found in caves, but also etched into deer teeth strung together in an ancient necklace.

Von Petzinger believes, writes George, that “the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestor’s mental skills,” toward using abstract symbols to communicate. Not everyone agrees with her. As the Bradshaw Foundation notes, when it comes to the European symbols, eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes argues “the signs in the caves are always (or nearly always) associated with animal figures and thus cannot be said to be the first steps toward symbolism.”

Of course, it’s also possible that both the signs and the animals were meant to convey ideas just as a written language does. So argues MIT linguist Cora Lesure and her co-authors in a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. Cave art might show early humans “converting acoustic sounds into drawings,” notes Sarah Gibbens at National Geographic. Lesure says her research “suggests that the cognitive mechanisms necessary for the development of cave and rock art are likely to be analogous to those employed in the expression of the symbolic thinking required for language.”

In other words, under her theory, “cave and rock [art] would represent a modality of linguistic expression.” And the symbols surrounding that art might represent an elaboration on the theme. The very first system of writing, shared by early humans all over the world for tens of thousands of years.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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Comments (17)
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  • Richard Lyon says:

    Perhaps from the survivors of the event that caused the previous civilization to collapse.

  • Sarah says:

    So there was a single group of people with a single language. Interesting. Note also that most people in the world have similar myths such as a creation and flood myths. You can start to wonder…

  • Pliadies Child says:

    Interesting that the seven sisters or the Plieiadies star system is depicted on every continent. Again and again.
    Why? There are other symbols, but I am interested in the representation of the Pleiades .
    Everywhere…. interesting

  • Red Rix says:

    All humans eventually descend from one tribe in ancient africa that had the ability of basic oral communication, yes. It is possible that they had some form of nonverbal communication as well, carving or painting commonly understood signs to express ideas. for example a wiggly line could say ‘water’ and a wigly line crossedout couldmean ‘bad water’ , a circel could meaan ‘sun’ and a half circle ‘moon’ , a V shape could mean a horned animal etc. However these signs/symbols are so simple that nay person, or people, with some basic understanding can come up with them, so there does not have to be any direct connection between them.

  • Deborah Guy says:

    That was my thoughts as well.

  • Antonio says:

    The Pleiades everywhere…
    The explanation may rest on the idea of new year dawn.

    Near June 05, the Pleiades can be observed for only a few minutes, about an hour before sunrise, near the horizon line.That moment we call the heliacal birth of Pleiades. Then, due to the Earth’s rotational motion from west to east, the sun rises on the east side, overshadowing the Pleiades vision.

    Following its orbit the Earth move from west to east; and the stars advance on average 3 minutes and 56 seconds a day, relative to the Sun.
    Thus, the observation of the Pleiades in the days following the heliacal birth is easier because they are visible longer before sunrise and at the same time they are higher in the sky and can be observed earlier in the day.
    On November 10, approximately, they are born at sunset. From that day, we can no longer observe the birth of the Pleiades because, at dusk, they are already above the horizon, moving to the west side until they disappear to the sunset (heliacal sunset).
    The heliacal sunset occurs near April 30, and the Pleiades no longer are visible at night until near June 5 when his heliacal birth occurs again.So the observation and accurate recording of the birth of this constellation for brazilian indians was of utmost importance, because this event governed all its annual activity: from sowing the seeds to the type of hunting available and their festivities.

  • Antonio says:

    The Pleiades everywhere…
    The explanation may rest on the idea of new year dawn.

    Near June 05, the Pleiades can be observed for only a few minutes, about an hour before sunrise, near the horizon line. That moment we call the heliacal birth of Pleiades. Then, due to the Earth’s rotational motion from west to east, the sun rises on the east side, overshadowing the Pleiades vision.

    Following its orbit the Earth move from west to east; and the stars advance on average 3 minutes and 56 seconds a day, relative to the Sun.
    Thus, the observation of the Pleiades in the days following the heliacal birth is easier because they are visible longer before sunrise and at the same time they are higher in the sky and can be observed earlier in the day.
    On November 10, approximately, they are born at sunset. From that day, we can no longer observe the birth of the Pleiades because, at dusk, they are already above the horizon, moving to the west side until they disappear to the sunset (heliacal sunset).
    The heliacal sunset occurs near April 30, and the Pleiades no longer are visible at night until near June 5 when his heliacal birth occurs again. So the observation and accurate recording of the birth of this constellation for brazilian indians was of utmost importance, because this event governed all its annual activity: from sowing the seeds to the type of hunting available and their festivities.

  • mark says:

    you ever looked at the sky? it’s a VERY prominent cluster

  • LARRY CALDWELL says:

    If you include rock face pictograms in addition to caves, there are more symbols common to North America. For instance, the spiral is common in rock art all over North America.

  • oroo says:

    The Atomic Theory and the Fundamental Principles underlying the Description of Nature
    [What is interesting, the orbits for celestial bodies can be accurately vectored by mathematical equation whereas at the subnuclear (atomic spaces) this is presently impossible due to (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – Simple English …)].

    |

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    Exploring time – positive and negative (POLARITY) create [i.e. feather shapes – key shapes]
    and augment the boundaries for any direction for all directions… (an eternal language).

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    Why not just go ahead and prove the theory! CHANGE DETECTION Ronald A. Rensink – Description – University of …

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    Videos: Paul Dirac – WikiVisually

    After judge erupts, plaintiff lawyer in Roundup case at trial pleads for no sanctions

  • Robert Barrett says:

    The method used for dating these at 40,000 years is flawed. It is based on circular reasoning.

  • william says:

    1st writing was Harrapian civilization 3500+

  • pieter prall says:

    Well…There are just so many simple line configurations one can draw. and, by the way…It doesn’t tale a genius to figure out how to pile rocks into a pyramid shape either…yu pile rocks up unto they start to tumble off the top of the heap…voilla…a pyramid.

  • Michael H Cargal says:

    Or it could be that migraine auras are similar everywhere.

  • Jerry May says:

    It’s the world’s first shared poem.

  • Matt says:

    She needs study a bit more.

  • Sudip Chaudhuri says:

    What about the rock paintings of Bhimbhetka near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh in India ? These paintings started from the time of Paleolithic Age and continued through the Neolithic Age and till 2000B.C.

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