Thursday, February 18, 2010

Early Writing, Early Magic

Here's a fascinating article about French cave art. I don't know about you, but I've always felt a deep connection to those amazing paintings of horses, rhinos, cows, and human hands, likely viewed in flickering firelight by our many-times-great-grandmothers. Now, there's evidence that some of the smaller symbols that generally accompany the paintings may have been an early attempt at writing.

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.

A closer look confirmed their suspicions. When von Petzinger went back to some of the records of the cave walls, she noticed other, less abstract signs that appeared to represent a single part of a larger figure - like the tusks of a mammoth without an accompanying body. This feature, known as synecdoche, is common in the known pictographic languages. To von Petzinger and Nowell, it demonstrated that our ancestors were indeed considering how to represent ideas symbolically rather than realistically, eventually leading to the abstract symbols that were the basis of the original study.

And, no surprise, this early writing may well have been associated with early magic.

One huge question remains, of course: what did the symbols actually mean? With no Rosetta Stone to act as a key for translation, the best we can do is guess at their purpose. Clottes has a hunch that they were much more than everyday jottings, and could have had spiritual significance. "They may have been a way of relating to supernatural forces. Perhaps they had special symbols for special ceremonies, or they may have been associated with the telling of special myths," he says.

The whole article is well worth a read. And I had to laugh, knowing how possessive the French are about their language (which I love), thinking of those early French women and men, writing the first French on cave walls. I'm betting the signs say: D'abord, vous faites un cercle.
Picture found here.

1 comment:

Cari said...

Yes, yes and yes. Thank you for posting this information, Hecate. It has been an ongoing theme of my work for the last five years, beginning with "The First Writing" limited edition book, "Alphabet Ancestors" and the source of an alphabet style I designed that I call the Goddess Alphabet. I'm working on an essay right now for the San Francisco calligraphy journal about this exact subject, have Joan Marler's books (as well as all of Gimbutas' books),and this gives me yet another source of material. Pictures of my book art on my website, which is linked on my blog which will come up from my Google account identity on this comment. A writing system that predates Sumerian cuneiform by a few thousand years at least! And as a calligrapher, knowing in my bones that writing comes from a spiritual place and was not just invented to keep accounts. Here's the link to the most relevant blog post:
Cari Ferraro