Chauvet cave artIncredible article in New Scientist this week, about prehistoric symbols discovered in caves in southern France.

Whilst artwork on the cave walls has been studied intensively, new research has shown that previously-ignored ‘doodles’ could be evidence of a primitive precursor to writing. A postgraduate student at the University of Victoria, Canada, built a database of signs from caves all over France and the results were striking – signs drawn in the same style, appeared at numerous different sites, which could indicate the beginnings of a simple language system. The earliest recorded pictograph writing systems are thought to date to 5,000 years ago, but this discovery may change current thought.

..One of the most intriguing facts to emerge from von Petzinger’s work is that more than three-quarters of the symbols were present in the very earliest sites, from over 30,000 years ago.

“I was really surprised to discover this,” says von Petzinger. If the creative explosion occurred 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, she would have expected to see evidence of symbols being invented and discarded at this early stage, with a long period of time passing before a recognisable system emerged. Instead, it appears that by 30,000 years ago a set of symbols was already well established.

That suggests we might need to rethink our ideas about prehistoric people, von Petzinger says. “This incredible diversity and continuity of use suggests that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.” If she is right, it would push back the date of the creative explosion by tens of thousands of years.

Read the rest of the article here.