Ice Age Cave Art: Unlocking the Mysteries Behind These Markings | Nat Geo Live

Genevieve Von Petzinger:
This incredible art that mostly
dates between 10 and
40,000 years ago.
What we often think of,
of course, is the animals.
But there’s this other
enormous group called the
geometric signs that outnumber
the animals and the humans
at most sites by a ratio
of two to one or more.
( applause ) So, June, 2014, myself
and my husband and project photographer, Dillon,
we were in Northern Spain.We were at a site called
Cullavera Cave and we were so
excited to finally be there.Cullavera, the entrance is
30 meters up, it’s 100 feet,
it’s a cathedral entrance
in a wooded hillside in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There’s like a whole wreath
of dangling green vines coming down, it’s inviting. It wants you to come in. And so I can understand
why people might’ve decided to go in there 14,000 years ago. What’s a little more
difficult to understand is why they decided to go so far in. Because the very first art
is 780 meters, half a mile,into the cave.You can probably just see some
faint pigment markings on the
wall that is not
modern graffiti.
These are not animals, but
they’re not writing either,these are the geometric signs.They came half a mile through
the cave to make these.If we enhance it, you can
see a little bit more.
This is a very cool color
enhancement program created
by American rock-art
researcher, Jon Harman,
and suddenly you can see more. But still no animals. Nothing as far as the eye can
see and this is very unusual. Animals are normally
found everywhere. But don’t worry, we’ve
just got to keep going a little farther.So we keep going, three quarters
of a mile in and there’s
another little passageway
here with two horses.
So the animals are represented,
they’re just in a completely
different section of the cave.And as you can see they’re
very simple, but we also have all this detail that kind
of lets you know that there’s something going on. There’s a hint here that
there’s some artistic ability that’s underlying what
they’re doing here. So we’ve got two
horses, that’s it. You keep going a little
farther and now there’s a little crevice off to the
right this time.And somebody went up there
to make these little dots.
Let me enhance it for you.But these little dots.Somebody took their finger
and dipped it in paint and made those marks. And as so often happens when
I find myself in these places, I’m like, “What were
you doing here?” Why did you come three quarters
of a mile, or 1.2 kilometers in a cave to make dots?So let me introduce you to
some of this Paleolithic,
or stone age, art that mostly
dates between 10 and 40,000
years ago.What we often think of,
of course, is the animals.
The animals are by far the
majority of what we call
figurative or
representational art.
And a lot of it is hunting
animals so we’ve already
seen a horse, here’s a deer we
have a fabulous purple bison.
It’s the only one of it’s
kind because most of the art,
when it’s painted, is
either red or black.
And so this fabulous purple
bison, I just love him, he’s like this unique
little guy hanging out in northern Spain. So we’ve got him and then
also we do have a few other figurative images of humans.And this is engraving, this
is the other way that they
made the art.But there’s this other
enormous group called the geometric signs that
outnumber the animals and the humans at most sites by a
ratio of two to one or more.They can be simple
things, like the circle.
They can be more complex
things like this incredibly
complicated sign that was
located in this panel in Spain,
which is a one-off.It’s the only one of
it’s kind in the world. They can be dots, they can be
lines, they can be triangles. You’ll see there’s a full range,
everything that’s abstract and that’s kind of how they’ve
been defined over the years.Abstract characters that
don’t represent anything from
the mundane world.So, let me tell you
some of my fun results.
There are only 32 signs
across an entire continent and a 30,000 year time period. My friends, these are not
random doodles or decorations. So, what I noticed was that
this, each one of them has its own distinct patterning, too. These are not all
doing the same things, they’re doing different
things in different places. So there were patterns
across space and time. And that’s what’s so
intriguing and exciting. So let me show you a
couple of those patterns.This is a child’s hand.This is 27,000 year
old child’s hand.
Now, hands are a fascinating
one because they were at
their most popular at the
very earliest time period. So between 25 and 40,000
is when we find hands. After that they start to
fade out of popularity until they vanish towards
the end of the ice age, they just go away,
people stop making them. So that’s one pattern.Another pattern that’s very
interesting is this is called
a tectiform.So this is like a roof-shaped
and these are only made
in the Dordogne region of
France between 13,000 and 17,000 years ago. It’s where they’re all
located except for one site 250 miles to the south across
the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain. And it is exactly the same. I’ve
talked to the researcher at that site,
we’ve looked at pictures, even down to the little dots that you can see, the
technique that was used, it’s the exact same thing. How did it get there? This is what’s so fun about
the signs is that we can actually follow people and
ideas at these incredible time depths and get a sense of how
their culture was developing. How were they learning
about symbolism? What was going on?So, we’ve got these signs
that were being used very
purposefully by people who
obviously know what they meant.
The obvious question people
always want to know is, is it writing? And I’m sorry, I’m here today
to shatter that it’s not writing yet. Though, this inscription as
it’s called, it’s called the inscription of La Pasiega.This is a one-off.And this is the thing, we
don’t have the consistency yet.
We don’t have enough
characters to represent spoken
language, we’re not there yet.But that doesn’t mean that
there’s not very interesting
things going on.It’s really funny ’cause
I just spent all this time building my nice little list
of 32 and now my next job is probably going to be
to smash it back apart. Because there’s some
major omissions there. Where’s the landscape features? Where’s the weaponry?
Where’s the daily life? Did nobody look up
at the sky? You know? And so I think that, personally,
and this is what we’re starting to dig into now,
I think a lot of these geometric signs might
actually be representational, as well. And it could give us
some fascinating insight into thematic categories and how these people were
understanding their world. Quick example, the penniform.So penniform means
feather-shaped in Latin
and it’s being treated
as a geometric sign,
but there are contexts suchas this where people have
muttered it kind of looks
like a tree.So my response would be,
maybe a tree sometimes is just a tree. ( laughter ) Maybe we don’t have to
over-complicate this. And so this is the kind of
thing we’re looking at as well as questions about clusters
of dots potentially being constellations or other
things which would make really good sense and we see
in other rock art traditions.What I’ve done so far
is just the baseline.
This was the start, those
were some really simple
questions. There is so much
left to be done. In Europe, one big category
that we’re still missing here is that my database does
not have any of the portableart in it yet.And yet, the 16,000 year
old necklace, for instance,
from a burial in France
has 45 different geometric configurations on it. Think about how that can
help me understand what I’m seeing on a big panel on a wall. They seem to be starting
to group them up. The line, the cross, the
line, I’ve seen that on a cave wall about 50 miles from there. So, this is part of the
story and there are dusty artifacts loitering all over
Europe in museums waiting to be documented. So this is very much the start. And imagine if we can start
expanding the work that I’d been doing in western
Europe to a global level. Now those would be
some very big patterns. Thank you. ( applause )


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