The 40,000-year-old symbols found in caves around the world may be the earliest written language.
We can take it for granted that the earliest writing systems came from the Sumerians around 3400 B.C. Archaeological evidence so far supports this theory. But it is also possible that the earliest writing systems existed several thousand years earlier than the 5000-year-old cuneiform tablets. Moreover, paleoanthropologist Geneviève von Petzinger believes that these prehistoric forms of writing, consisted of universal symbols, almost as universal as emoji.
The study of symbols carved into cave walls around the world – including pennyforms (shapes of feathers), claviforms (shapes of keys) and hand stencils – may eventually prompt us to “abandon the popular narrative of history” – history as complete darkness until the Sumerians turned off the switch. Although these symbols may never be truly deciphered, and their purposes obscured by thousands of years of temporal separation, they clearly show that people ” did not turn off the lights many thousands of years earlier.”
Having gone deep underground to create animal cave paintings, early humans as early as 40,000 years ago also developed a system of signs that remarkably overlap on different continents.
Von Petzinger spent years cataloguing these symbols in Europe, visiting 52 caves – in France, Spahn, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms such as staircase shapes, hand stencils, something called tectiform, which looks like a pillar with a roof, and feather shapes called pennyforms.”
She found 32 signs found across the continent, carved and painted over a very long period of time. “For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors seem to have been remarkably consistent in the symbols they used.” Von Petzinger sees this system as the result of the migration of modern humans to Europe from Africa. “It does not look like the initial stage of a completely new invention,” she writes in her book “The First Signs: Unlocking the Secrets of the World’s Most Ancient Symbols.”
Geneviève 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 have for so long relied on the mental achievements of those who came before us,” she says, “that it is easy to forget that some abilities existed long before the formal written records that we recognize. These symbols have traveled: they are found not only in caves, but also engraved on deer teeth strung on an ancient necklace.
Geneviève von Petzinger believes that “simple forms represent a fundamental shift in the mental capacity of our ancestors” toward using abstract symbols to communicate.
Her research “suggests that the cognitive mechanisms necessary for the development of cave and rock art are probably similar to those used to express the symbolic thinking necessary for language.”
In other words, according to her theory, “cave and rock art represents the modality (is a linguistic universal) of linguistic expression. And the symbols surrounding this art may represent a development of this form of communication – it is the very first writing system used by early humans around the world for tens of thousands of years.