Stone Diary

Spelunking to categorize the world’s oldest symbols.

Caves are apertures for inward travel into realms we associate with the dream state. Half-seen revelations proliferate. We angle into surreal environs that summon our own nascence, now approached in reverse, from the detailed and edged world in the light without to the shrouded evocations within. This is the sticky, primal birthplace of the collective unconscious, where inchoate traces of shape and colour move in and out of the mind’s view.

Werner Herzog tied such elements of obscured imagining together in titling his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, on the archaeological finds at Chauvet, France. Using movie lights that briefly banished the enveloping shadow, Herzog caught Chauvet’s exquisitely rendered depictions of animal figures. The images dazzled. Yet these works were fully realized manifestations of human consciousness. In Canadian scholar Genevieve von Petzinger’s debut book, The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols, we do not need beautifully detailed bison to tantalize us. We go further into the origins of the human mind, back so far that a couple of faded dots are enough to prompt the thrill of encountering a distant, alien world that yet belongs to us—and to which we belong.

Long before Homo sapiens reached their present form as a species, our evolutionary precursors started to behave in puzzlingly non-utilitarian ways. As much as 160,000 years ago, they travelled distances from their dwellings to seek red ochre, a naturally occurring pigment found in soil. They learned to treat this substance with heat, to mix it with fluids such as urine and blood to make a paste of it. They coloured their tools and marked rock surfaces with it.

Later, paleoanthropologists have found, these early humans would range forth in coastal Africa to the ocean edge where shells were collected and brought back. They started to bury their dead with grave objects that might include those shells or a bone from a hunted animal. They gathered such materials as animal teeth that were used as personal adornment. And perhaps most mystifying and remarkable of all, they began to mark the objects of their world with symbols.

We do not yet know the meaning of the parallel lines, zigzags and dots that were engraved or painted on stone tools, ostrich egg shells and cave walls, but we can see unmistakable signs of purpose in their presence. Or at least von Petzinger can. The University of Victoria–trained paleoanthropologist has asserted that she can see in those ambiguous scratches evidence of “fully modern people living in a cultural world overlying the natural one,” tens of thousands of years before even the affirmed beginnings of agriculture, let alone writing.

Having crawled through tight and dank rock spaces with her photographer husband Dillon, von Petzinger burst into prominence within her professional community half a dozen years ago by delving into traces of our evolutionary path that were in plain sight but largely ignored within her academic world. Although abstract markings are present in twice the proportion of representational designs in the 367 known Ice Age cave sites found in Europe, they had largely been dismissed as decorative afterthoughts or even random doodles. As von Petzinger interested herself in these Paleolithic motifs, she was astonished to find little published inquiry on the matter and nothing resembling a systematic investigation. And so, sometimes wriggling on her back in mud to reach rocky apertures so tight that the stone was just centimetres from her nose, von Petzinger launched her own, creating the first database of symbolic markings in all the European sites dating roughly from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago—that is, from the beginning to the abatement of the last Ice Age. For her efforts, she was made the only Canadian TED Global Fellow in 2011, and last year she became a TED Senior Fellow, delivering a TED talk on cave symbols that has now been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

The nub of the von Petzinger eureka was her discovery that there are only 32 different symbols recurring over a span of 30,000 years and across the entire Old World, to which the genus Homo had migrated from Africa. The find strongly suggested that not only were these gestures not random, incidental or “parasitic” markings to the figurative images, as one prominent archeologist had dubbed them, but spoke to the presence of a culture and even comprised a precursor to the advent of writing, not known to appear until 6,000 years ago. Von Petzinger’s excitement is palpable in the book as she travels to relatively little-visited sites such as the Riparo di Za Minica caves in Sicily, where she finds open-angled shapes reminiscent of others she has seen elsewhere. She encounters fan-shaped vertical lines in Chufin, Spain, and engraved rectangles surrounding abstract markings in Dordogne, France. There are triangles, feather designs, spirals and hand prints that bluntly declare “I am here.” But nowhere is the scalp tingle for the reader more vivid than when she signals the existential breakthroughs she experiences on the journey. Purposeful geometric signs meant that abstract thinking had arrived: these ancestors of our species had developed a form of self-awareness and personal identity. They had become, in a word, human. Or, in another word the author favours, us.

Von Petzinger believes the advent of these signs to be an evolutionary milestone comparable to the harnessing of fire, the invention of tools and the development of spoken language. What is unavoidable in The First Signs is that while speech may have existed at any time since the known presence of the hyoid bone in the Homo throat some 300,000 years ago, paleoanthropologists must piece together the emergence of human consciousness through the physical evidence von Petzinger seeks. Between the natural realm in which humanity had its coarse primate birth and the cultural realm toward which Homo erectus was first groping, these early creatures “interacted with these two worlds through a symbolic framework. In many ways the rock art can be seen as the ultimate end product of this new way of perceiving and being in the world.”

Meanings are an ongoing and perhaps ultimately unresolvable discussion within the professional archeological community. Symbolic Ice Age markings may have represented a tally for a hunt, signalled binaries such as male-female or even been evocations of shamanic states, with rock surfaces functioning as what von Petzinger calls “the veil, or membrane, between the real world and the supernatural.” She playfully suggests her own lineage may have positioned her for such decoding work, citing a British grandmother who worked on the Enigma project to crack the German military cipher during the Second World War. But while there remain volumes of the particular to be determined, the unmistakable presence of a transformative leap of awareness in the human mind firmly marks an anthropological enormity. At some point far earlier than we may have imagined, “they” had become “us.” Von Petzinger finds resonance in Picasso’s reflection on modern art after seeing the 17,000-year-old paintings in the Lascaux caves in France: “We have invented nothing.”