THE first intrepid explorers to brave the 7-metre crawl through a perilously
narrow tunnel leading to the Chauvet caves in southern France were rewarded
with magnificent artwork to rival any modern composition. Stretching a full
3 metres in height, the paintings depict a troupe of majestic horses in deep
colours, above a pair of boisterous rhinos in the midst of a fight. To the
left, they found the beautiful rendering of a herd of prehistoric cows. "The
horse heads just seem to leap out of the wall towards you," says Jean
Clottes, former director of scientific research at the caves and one of the
few people to see the paintings with his own eyes.
When faced with such spectacular beauty, who could blame the visiting
anthropologists for largely ignoring the modest semicircles, lines and
zigzags also marked on the walls? Yet dismissing them has proved to be
something of a mistake. The latest research has shown that, far from being
doodles, the marks are in fact highly symbolic, forming a written "code"
that was familiar to all of the prehistoric tribes around France and
possibly beyond. Indeed, these unprepossessing shapes may be just as
remarkable as the paintings of trotting horses and tussling rhinos,
providing a snapshot into humankind's first steps towards symbolism and writing.
Until now, the accepted view has been that our ancestors underwent a
"creative explosion" around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, when they suddenly
began to think abstractly and create rock art. This idea is supported by the
plethora of stunning cave paintings, like those at Chauvet, which started to
proliferate across Europe around this time. Writing, on the other hand,
appeared to come much later, with the earliest records of a pictographic
writing system dating back to just 5000 years ago.
Few researchers, though, had given any serious thought to the relatively
small and inconspicuous marks around the cave paintings. The evidence of
humanity's early creativity, they thought, was clearly in the elaborate
While some scholars like Clottes had recorded the presence of cave signs at
individual sites, Genevieve von Petzinger, then a student at the University
of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, was surprised to find that no one
had brought all these records together to compare signs from different
caves. And so, under the supervision of April Nowell, also at the University
of Victoria, she devised an ambitious masters project. She compiled a
comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France,
covering 25,000 years of prehistory from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.
What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared
again and again at numerous sites (see illustration). Admittedly, some of
the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles,
but the fact that many of the more complex designs also appeared in several
places hinted to von Petzinger and Nowell that they were meaningful -
perhaps even the seeds of written communication.