In her book The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols, archaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger poses a query: When did our ancestors first become modern humans? What makes a human a human, apart from physical markers like brain size? By mapping and analyzing abstract geometric signs left by Ice Age humans across Europe, von Petzinger literally connects the dots to give meaning to what nearly everyone else in her field had overlooked.

Von Petzinger’s work is remarkable, but what might be more remarkable is that she is essentially alone in her field. Until she arrived, geometric Ice Age markings was an orphaned topic. That’s not to say we didn’t know nor care about these ancient signs: Archaeologists have always found them vaguely interesting, but frequently dismissed them as doodles. Geometric signs are, the basic thinking has long been, less important than figurative signs — animals, suns, etc. Von Petzinger believes it’s a bit more complicated than that.

She completed the first Europe-wide comparison of geometric signs and identified 32 that crop up over and over, across space and time. While some might have taken on more than one meaning over the years, their consistency could point to a system of communication. She has now created the world’s largest database of Ice Age-era geometric signs. Inverse spoke to her about her work and what she thinks it might mean.

People once thought that art didn’t appear until after humans set foot in Europe, but now we’re seeing evidence that it dates back to before we left Africa. When you began this project, you believed that graphic art popped up in Africa long before many of your colleagues believe it did. Are you winning people over?

It’s really changing and it’s been amazing. I see a lot more people saying, ‘Hey, maybe this does have an earlier start.’ It opens up this whole new chapter, it’s a whole new adventure in itself.

If it did originate in Africa, there’s so much work waiting to be done there. There’s new dating technology now that can open this up, there are new methods and we’re getting new insight into where to look.

Ice age humans really were modern humans. So it’s not that they didn’t have the cognitive capacity to develop a system of writing — it’s that they just never needed one. These signs aren’t complex enough to be called writing, but can they be called vocabulary?

Yeah, that’s really the key to understanding people from the ice age: They were us. And vocabulary is probably a little more associated with writing, but we can definitely call this graphic communication. We can trace writing back to this, writing would not exist without this.

We see writing as at the top of this pinnacle, but there are lots of other more modern societies that didn’t develop writing either. But everyone in the world has graphic communication when they had complex hierarchical societies, you need it for religious rules, for taxation.

So writing isn’t necessarily this be-all end-all everyone reaches for. It all just depends on people’s lifestyle choices. A community of 50 probably had other priorities than setting people aside to be full-time scribes — what did they really need writing for? We call people “cavemen when we want to [call them primitive], but you really have to go back a heck of a lot farther than that before they werent us.

Some of these 32 geometric signs might actually turn out to be figurative signs — like meandering lines that could be two rivers converging, or what could be arrows and other kinds of weaponry. Is it possible we’ll ever have enough context to be able to say about some of them for sure?

Can we be 100-percent sure? Probably not. Can we be more sure? I think there are ways to do it. With the weaponry, maybe we can’t always be sure something looks like an arrow, but when it’s sticking out of a horse’s side? Come on, people. I think we need to go back and take a look through. We know they had arrows; we know they had spears. It doesn’t all have to be abstract and fuzzy.

With celestial objects, it’s interesting to think about what we could do with computer programs and pattern-recognition software. I don’t know if it’s doable, but I’d be very interested to look at the archeo-astronomy and try to match the patterns of dots to the constellations [that we could extrapolate existed at the time]. I mean, did they never look up? Every other culture in the world used the stars for daily life, to keep track of the seasons … and with no light pollution, they would have been able to see everything. I really do think there’s figurative imagery hiding in that category, there’s no question.

The landscape features are huge. Things from the physical world — mountains, rivers. Are we missing a huge subset of that? Things that look suspiciously like plants and trees are often classified as penniforms, but I mean, these people were hunter-gatherers — where’s the gather? Plants were important to them as well. It’s a weird thing to have completely missing. Some of it will probably forever remain a mystery, but that’s the fun part. Although you do have to be careful about just finding what you’re looking for.

No one’s ever studied whether some of the red dot markings were actually just functioning as breadcrumbs to help people find their way back out of the caves — is that what’s next? Or are there so many projects for this new data that it’s hard to choose?

Oh, definitely. There’s a really complicated multi-leveled cave in Basque country, and there are little red dots in there, and it seems only logical, right? We want to know how to get out, maybe they did too. But oh my gosh, there are so many projects. I’m wrapping up the academic side now, but at the end of this, were open-sourcing all of it. I want people to be able to build on what I’ve done. I want to see people able to use this data, and who knows what projects they could come up with? The future is in collaboration and encouraging people. This is a really rich area, a rich field, in a time when most fields are very full, you know? And ours just isn’t. I’m on a first-name basis with almost all my colleagues because that’s just how small a group we are. The database is probably going to come online in 2017. There are still blank spots on the map, and I don’t think they’re blank because there’s nothing there.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


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