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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Reader Comments

  1. FINIKY

    Let's all take a second to remember Christians don't believe any of this happened at the dates she is saying it did… They think the earth is around 6 thousand years old.

    Let that ignorance sink in for a second.

  2. Briana Allbright

    This is cool ๐Ÿ˜€ I'm a sophomore high schooler in AP World History and we've been learning about this kind of thing. It's super interesting. Thank you for uploading!

  3. King

    Why does this lady think people would travel this distance to make some spots and lines on a wall? They didn't. They were traveling in groups and the group just happened to seek shelter and one of them got bored. Haven't you ever seen a 3rd graders notebook on a boring field trip? It's not rocket science.

  4. Kairu Sky

    What i imagined what happened:

    Caveman 1: Ooh ooh, Me draw ass!!

    Caveman 2: Ooh ooh!! I touch the ass! puts hand on the wall

    Caveman 1: Ooooh your hand on wall!

    Caveman 2: Ooh ooh my hand on wall!

  5. dreamt the earth was a molten ball

    This is a pathetic presentation on prehistoric art … someone 'dipped their finger in paint?' Maybe she had a10 minute time limit but there was very little depth here.

  6. tikiirving

    aboot she's Canadian lol but very interesting! thank you for sharing. i find pictographs and petroglyphs all over my local area and it's fascinating to see and compare from around the world.

  7. Joseph Fuller

    Could the geometric patterns be adopted by tribal or family groups to mark out the 'exploits' of family groups? My ancestors did something similar with patterns on buffalo hides; some symbols were adopted by a family and then around that they would paint buffaloes to show large kills made by a family hunter or triangles to show houses built by family members, perhaps the hands would be as part of a rite of passage into adulthood as reaching that age was likely difficult and the habit went out as the family died or the culture changed, etc.

  8. Kong Chang

    kinda irritates me when she said they were learning symbolism. Why cant you just said they created symbolism in that part of the region and time?

  9. ร–mer Can Arpaรง

    I can't believe that our ancestors do not have an interest in sexuality. All they think is Bisons! I mean seriously, it is hard to believe that there wasn't any fuck boy who exaggerates things and draw some boobs on the walls.

  10. Jason Michael

    My 8yr old said to me last night after her story that she remembers when she was a baby that she saw red dots. She said she could see them at night in the dark. That reminded me that there was a time when I was very young that I too could see red dotd and would occasionally bring them into focus, especialy in dim or dark. I then thought of the red repeating dots on the cave wall. Maybe there's a correlation.

  11. #ALIENDANCEMUSIC

    interesting. I first off think these were neanderthal, not human, as that was the culture present for a lot longer for a sophisticated artistic consciousness to develop. I feel they must have been much for left handed, right-brained culture. They definitely had language, but it must have been very different, more symbolic, so maybe like a sign language that the deaf use.

  12. Chester Liwosz

    well yeah… Lewis-Williams (and Dowson) established a 3-stage model of image acquisition, progressing towards iconic and stylistically conventionalized forms recognizable from the painters' cultural training. Surely seriation on such a small set of motifs should demonstrate more standardization within each motif, and an increasingly broad lexicon of motifs, over time. How does the dataset compare with this prediction? I want some stats, stat!

  13. ryu hayabusa

    You got to remember it was dangerous times so while the parents went to gather the children stayed in the cave so those are beautiful youngling drawings as well and yea them kids were very skilled in drawing hahahahahaaa

  14. Harold Schaevitz

    Firstly I know nothing about cave art but since this is the internet anyone can make stupid comments and get away with it… mostly. To add to Joseph Fullers comments It struck me that maybe these have to do with links of marriage between tribes, each symbol is a unique identifier of each tribe or group of individuals or possibly a specific area or other commonality within specific individuals like shaman of the same ilk . How about "gifts"of bride or grooms between tribes" making a permanent record of the transaction. In the attempt to keep the information safe they purposely put the information deep within the caves. Or somebody got bored and decided to doodle on the wall.

  15. Kelly Dittus

    I don't understand why these paintings were not painted over hundreds of times over the thousands of years. How come those caves aren't totally littered with pics.
    After being used for many generations.

  16. mrglasecki

    these are all "mapping" symbolic images, moon, stars, water, geography, seasons, barren/laden trees, family,clan, tribe.. some others that will come to me, event's, I'm sure,
    think engineering or music the schematics is a language, be that sheet, electrical, mechanical, cartography, that wasn't done by someone bored, artistic yes, looking to pass on a linear time and events simply through a language need only be data based and mapped.

  17. Hugo Moreno

    Since she was there,it is an error that she says the cave,Cullalvera,is in the Pyrenees Mountains.
    It is not,the Pyrenees end in the border with France.The cave is in the Cantabrian Mountains.

  18. Aser Rodriguez

    It shouldn't be too hard with the technology we have now. Awesome idea let's do it. I'm sure it will show some kind of language or consistency

  19. superfluous pastry

    Abstract Expressionism wasn't as avante garde as we thought it was. Rothko and company just had a better variety of pigments.

  20. Johnathon Broad

    They are words aren't they?
    Hand = Me. Tree = the place of the trees.
    Do you have children? do you give them bracelets with their names on? Or necklaces?
    Were the people tattooed? Are the symbols names of local tribes?
    The Egyptians wrote in pictures, so did these guys.

  21. David'sSon

    5000 years ago max. People back then were uneducated and could be the writers of this art. Why 40,000 years ago? Because it sounds cooler and more important. Why doesnโ€™t she talk about the extremely clear dinosaur depictions? They drew what they saw and its that simple. Same with Cambodia carvings of dinosaurs.
    Lastly they stopped the kids from doing hand prints, because it was graffiti not art. Dam kids just want their hands known, no bone marrow cake for you!

  22. Peter Grant

    I think the key to understanding all of this prehistoric art is to consider it as part of the education system of people with no written language. With no written language, all knowledge must be transferred from 1 generation to the next verbally. As demonstrated by the Australian Aboriginal culture, this can be done very effectively by encoding knowledge in the form of colourful stories which can be very memorable. Such stories can be very effectively supported by music, dance, rituals, actions and pictorial supports. Such an education system is far from simple. While it is age graduated, much like modern education systems, it is not divided into 'subjects'. Cultural, religious, scientific, family, historical, geographical, botanical, zoological, etc. etc, are all blended into holistic knowledge appropriate for the age group and gender. Cave and rock art can (at least in part) be viewed as visual aids and actions to support the education system. Of course, despite surviving very effectively for tens of thousands of years, the education system fails when whole generations and cultures are destroyed. The stories, language, music, dance and meanings of art and symbols are lost together with all the knowledge they conveyed. The loss of this world knowledge is the legacy our colonial history leaves.

  23. James Olivito

    As far as animal nature, humans are the only species which exhibits this behavior. The closest are bear deer and such , that will scratch trees to mark territory . This usually done by male of species , warning other male and inviting female of their species . The cave paintings represent a more complex thought process. With the animal painting, it was what they were seeing . I believe the geometric shapes were somthing they were seeing, so what were they seeing. They showed skill in being able to represent the animals ,so the geometric shapes should be on the same level. Only other aspect to consider is if they were made on the ssme timeline or were the geometric shapes created created earlier by a less advance cave dweller.

  24. Jonathan Ryals

    Ignored: microlithic imagery deemed "just rocks". Sure, not every rock face was carved, but if we can see faces in the rocks so could they. There's something to it. I believe they are part of teaching stories to help guide people through the reduction sequence to make proper tools from various types of stone.

  25. Keith Busch

    Do did the Indians live I ancient Spain and Chase the buffalo? Anyone can look at the continants and see that they were connected at one time.

  26. FlatlandMando

    What a relaxed, natural speaker. Doing what she loves. You'd have to think " we're not there yet" ie. language, but the impulse is the same…striving or allowing consistency of symbols to develop. Are there chinese caves with the beginning of calligraphic symbols?

  27. Yeah ok

    The only way anybody MIGHT ever understand the โ€˜artworkโ€™ is to go in the cave where the drawings or symbols are and build a fire and eat psilocybin mushrooms or the local equivalent and stay all night

  28. Analogous to Tower 7 : EPSTEIN 2020

    "The sudden appearance in the high Neolithic of a geometrically composed art form, wherein disparate elements were brought and held together as a balanced whole, seems to me to indicate that some such psychological problem must already have begun to emerge."

    [The Masks of God:Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell, 1958, Ch. 10: Mythological Threshold of the Neolithic , Sec. 2: The Birth of Civilization in the Near East, p. 403]

  29. roland george

    Looks very much to me like the first groups of geometric marks are actually groups of humans and not 'mysterious' geometric markings.

  30. k1w1

    It kinda bums me out that some ancient caveman could draw a horse better than I can ever imagine doing. I'd struggle to even copy that drawing.

  31. Guess 123

    If those were interesting wait to you see these โœŒ๏ธ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป๐Ÿ’ฆ๐Ÿ’ฉ๐Ÿ‘พ๐Ÿคฒ๐Ÿป๐Ÿ‘Œ๐Ÿคœ๐Ÿค›๐ŸปโœŒ๏ธ๐ŸคŸ๐Ÿป๐Ÿ™Œ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿค™๐Ÿ‘€๐Ÿฆท๐Ÿ—ฃ๐Ÿฆ๐Ÿ—๐ŸŒ๐Ÿ•ธ๐Ÿฆ€๐Ÿฆ–๐Ÿช๐Ÿซ๐ŸฆŒ๐Ÿฒ๐ŸŒด๐ŸŒฒ๐ŸŒฟ๐ŸŽ„๐ŸŒตโญ๏ธ๐ŸŒœ๐ŸŒ›๐ŸŒš๐ŸŒ๐ŸŒ•๐ŸŒ‘๐ŸŒŽ๐ŸŒ๐Ÿ”ฅโ˜„๏ธโ„๏ธ๐Ÿ’ง๐ŸŒงโ˜€๏ธ๐ŸŒค๐ŸŒˆ๐Ÿ’จ๐ŸŽ๐Ÿ•๐ŸŒฝ๐Ÿช๐Ÿถโšพ๏ธ๐ŸŽฑ๐Ÿฅ๐ŸŽผ๐ŸŽฎ๐Ÿงฉ๐Ÿšฒ๐Ÿ›ด๐Ÿ›ต๐Ÿš—๐Ÿš๐Ÿ—ฟ๐Ÿ—ฝโš“๏ธ๐Ÿ•‹โ›ฉ๐Ÿ•๐Ÿฅ๐Ÿฆ I found these almost 1gb in to this sacred tablet………. ๐Ÿ‘‰( ๐Ÿ“ฑ ) enjoy ๐Ÿ‘€

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