40,000-Year-Old Symbols Discovered In Caves Around The World Might Be The Earliest Written Language


40,000-Year-Old Symbols Discovered In Caves Around The World Might Be the Earliest Written Language

We might take it for granted that the earliest writing systems developed with the Sumerians about 3400 B.C.E. The archaeological evidence so far supports the theory. However, it might also be possible that the earliest writing systems predate 5000-year-old cuneiform tablets by several thousand years. It may even be possible, suggests paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, that those ancient forms of writing, that include the earliest known hashtag marks, consisted of symbols approximately as universal as emojis.

The study of symbols carved into cave walls all over the world 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.” Although the symbols might never be truly decipherable, their purposes obscured by thousands of years of separation in time, they clearly show humans “un-dimming 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 cataloging these symbols in Europe, visiting “52 caves,” reports New Scientist’s Alison George, “in France, Span, Italy, and Portugal. The symbols she discovered 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 penniform.”

She found 32 signs discovered all over the continent, carved and painted over a very long period. “For tens of thousands of years,” Jacobs points out, “our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used.”

In her TED Talk at the top, von Petzinger described 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 said, “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 are not only discovered 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 everybody 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) linked to animal figures and thus can't be said to be the first steps toward symbolism.”

It is also possible that both the signs and the animals were meant to convey ideas just as a written language does. So argue MIT linguist Cora Lesure and her co-authors in a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. Lesure said 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.”

Reference: Open Culture


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Thinking Humanity: 40,000-Year-Old Symbols Discovered In Caves Around The World Might Be The Earliest Written Language
40,000-Year-Old Symbols Discovered In Caves Around The World Might Be The Earliest Written Language
We might take it for granted that the earliest writing systems developed with the Sumerians about 3400 B.C.E.
Thinking Humanity
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