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Why are these 32 symbols found in caves all over Europe | Genevieve von Petzinger

There’s something about caves — a shadowy opening in a limestone
cliff that draws you in. As you pass through the portal
between light and dark, you enter a subterranean world — a place of perpetual gloom,
of earthy smells, of hushed silence. Long ago in Europe, ancient people also entered
these underground worlds. As witness to their passage, they left behind mysterious
engravings and paintings, like this panel of humans, triangles
and zigzags from Ojo Guareña in Spain. You now walk the same path
as these early artists. And in this surreal, otherworldly place, it’s almost possible to imagine that you hear the muffled footfall
of skin boots on soft earth, or that you see the flickering of a torch
around the next bend. When I’m in a cave, I often find myself wondering
what drove these people to go so deep to brave dangerous and narrow
passageways to leave their mark? In this video clip, that was shot half a kilometer,
or about a third of a mile, underground, in the cave of Cudon in Spain, we found a series
of red paintings on a ceiling in a previously unexplored
section of the cave. As we crawled forward, military-style,
with the ceiling getting ever lower, we finally got to a point
where the ceiling was so low that my husband
and project photographer, Dylan, could no longer achieve focus
on the ceiling with his DSLR camera. So while he filmed me, I kept following the trail of red paint
with a single light and a point-and-shoot camera
that we kept for that type of occasion. Half a kilometer underground. Seriously. What was somebody doing down there
with a torch or a stone lamp? (Laughter) I mean — me, it makes sense, right? But you know, this is the kind of question that
I’m trying to answer with my research. I study some of the oldest
art in the world. It was created by these
early artists in Europe, between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. And the thing is that I’m not just studying it
because it’s beautiful, though some of it certainly is. But what I’m interested in
is the development of the modern mind, of the evolution of creativity,
of imagination, of abstract thought, about what it means to be human. While all species communicate
in one way or another, only we humans have really
taken it to another level. Our desire and ability
to share and collaborate has been a huge part of our success story. Our modern world is based on a global
network of information exchange made possible, in large part,
by our ability to communicate — in particular, using graphic
or written forms of communication. The thing is, though, that we’ve been building
on the mental achievements of those that came before us for so long that it’s easy to forget that certain
abilities haven’t already existed. It’s one of the things
I find most fascinating about studying our deep history. Those people didn’t have the shoulders
of any giants to stand on. They were the original shoulders. And while a surprising number
of important inventions come out of that distant time, what I want to talk to you about today
is the invention of graphic communication. There are three
main types of communication, spoken, gestural —
so things like sign language — and graphic communication. Spoken and gestural are
by their very nature ephemeral. It requires close contact
for a message to be sent and received. And after the moment
of transmission, it’s gone forever. Graphic communication, on the other hand,
decouples that relationship. And with its invention,
it became possible for the first time for a message to be
transmitted and preserved beyond a single moment in place and time. Europe is one of the first places that we start to see graphic marks
regularly appearing in caves, rock shelters
and even a few surviving open-air sites. But this is not the Europe we know today. This was a world dominated
by towering ice sheets, three to four kilometers high, with sweeping grass plains
and frozen tundra. This was the Ice Age. Over the last century, more than 350 Ice Age rock art sites
have been found across the continent, decorated with animals, abstract shapes
and even the occasional human like these engraved figures
from Grotta dell’Addaura in Sicily. They provide us with a rare glimpse into the creative world and imagination
of these early artists. Since their discovery, it’s been the animals that have received
the majority of the study like this black horse
from Cullalvera in Spain, or this unusual purple bison
from La Pasiega. But for me, it was the abstract shapes,
what we call geometric signs, that drew me to study the art. The funny this is that at most sites the geometric signs far outnumber
the animal and human images. But when I started on this back in 2007, there wasn’t even a definitive list
of how many shapes there were, nor was there a strong sense of whether the same ones
appeared across space or time. Before I could even
get started on my questions, my first step was to compile a database of all known geometric signs
from all of the rock art sites. The problem was that while they were
well documented at some sites, usually the ones
with the very nice animals, there was also a large number of them
where it was very vague — there wasn’t a lot
of description or detail. Some of them hadn’t been visited
in half a century or more. These were the ones
that I targeted for my field work. Over the course of two years, my faithful husband Dylan and I
each spent over 300 hours underground, hiking, crawling and wriggling
around 52 sites in France, Spain, Portugal and Sicily. And it was totally worth it. We found new, undocumented geometric signs
at 75 percent of the sites we visited. This is the level of accuracy
I knew I was going to need if I wanted to start answering
those larger questions. So let’s get to those answers. Barring a handful of outliers,
there are only 32 geometric signs. Only 32 signs across a 30,000-year time span
and the entire continent of Europe. That is a very small number. Now, if these were random
doodles or decorations, we would expect to see
a lot more variation, but instead what we find
are the same signs repeating across both space and time. Some signs start out strong,
before losing popularity and vanishing, while other signs are later inventions. But 65 percent of those signs stayed
in use during that entire time period — things like lines, rectangles
triangles, ovals and circles like we see here
from the end of the Ice Age, at a 10,000-year-old site
high in the Pyrenees Mountains. And while certain signs
span thousands of kilometers, other signs had much more
restricted distribution patterns, with some being limited
to a single territory, like we see here
with these divided rectangles that are only found in northern Spain, and which some researchers have speculated could be some sort
of family or clan signs. On a side note, there is surprising degree
of similarity in the earliest rock art found all the way from France and Spain
to Indonesia and Australia. With many of the same signs
appearing in such far-flung places, especially in that 30,000
to 40,000-year range, it’s starting to seem increasingly likely that this invention actually traces back
to a common point of origin in Africa. But that I’m afraid,
is a subject for a future talk. So back to the matter at hand. There could be no doubt that these signs
were meaningful to their creators, like these 25,000-year-old
bas-relief sculptures from La Roque de Venasque in France. We might not know what they meant,
but the people of the time certainly did. The repetition of the same signs,
for so long, and at so many sites tells us that the artists
were making intentional choices. If we’re talking about geometric shapes, with specific, culturally recognized,
agreed-upon meanings, than we could very well be looking at one of the oldest systems
of graphic communication in the world. I’m not talking about writing yet. There’s just not enough
characters at this point to have represented all of the words
in the spoken language, something which is a requirement
for a full writing system. Nor do we see the signs
repeating regularly enough to suggest that they were
some sort of alphabet. But what we do have
are some intriguing one-offs, like this panel from La Pasiega in Spain,
known as “The Inscription,” with its symmetrical markings on the left, possible stylized representations
of hands in the middle, and what looks a bit
like a bracket on the right. The oldest systems of graphic
communication in the world — Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs,
the earliest Chinese script, all emerged between 4,000
and 5,000 years ago, with each coming into existence
from an earlier protosystem made up of counting marks
and pictographic representations, where the meaning
and the image were the same. So a picture of a bird would really
have represented that animal. It’s only later that we start to see
these pictographs become more stylized, until they almost become unrecognizable and that we also start to see
more symbols being invented to represent all those other
missing words in language — things like pronouns, adverbs, adjectives. So knowing all this, it seems highly unlikely that
the geometric signs from Ice Age Europe were truly abstract written characters. Instead, what’s much more likely is that these early artists
were also making counting marks, maybe like this row of lines
from Riparo di Za Minic in Sicily, as well as creating
stylized representations of things from the world around them. Could some of the signs
be weaponry or housing? Or what about celestial objects
like star constellations? Or maybe even rivers, mountains,
trees — landscape features, possibly like this black penniform
surrounded by strange bell-shaped signs from the site of El Castillo in Spain. The term penniform
means “feather-shaped” in Latin, but could this actually be
a depiction of a plant or a tree? Some researchers have begun
to ask these questions about certain signs at specific sites, but I believe the time has come
to revisit this category as a whole. The irony in all of this, of course, is that having just carefully classified
all of the signs into a single category, I have a feeling that my next step
will involve breaking it back apart as different types of imagery
are identified and separated off. Now don’t get me wrong, the later creation
of fully developed writing was an impressive feat in its own right. But it’s important to remember that those early writing systems
didn’t come out of a vacuum. And that even 5,000 years ago, people were already building
on something much older, with its origins stretching back
tens of thousands of years — to the geometric signs
of Ice Age Europe and far beyond, to that point, deep
in our collective history, when someone first came up with the idea
of making a graphic mark, and forever changed the nature
of how we communicate. Thank you. (Applause)

100 Replies to “Why are these 32 symbols found in caves all over Europe | Genevieve von Petzinger”

  • We get strange caves in England like Kent's cavern. How ancient humans went deep to escape what ? Now we have milatery bases deeper and deeper in fact I've heard of one in Brazil two miles deep and big enough for thousands of people or a few hundred with generators, food stores and fresh water . Things from space and great floods clearing many generations in one sudden hit! Do we all need to be prepared for the next tragic event ?

  • 3rd eyes were open hormones were rushing like humans nowadays will never experience. Sounds amazing. We have zero fear of dieng or surviving these days. Our body and mind have become calloused in lazy from the inside out.

  • How is the dating done? She says the signs were written over the course of 30,000 years; how is that determined? When she says that some signs started out strong, being used a lot, but then lost popularity, how does she know when the signs were painted?

  • Caves caves caves kept mankind alive many now cease to be. Destroyed by mans own hand. That place of safety many ran to escape what came from the sky. Centuries old told in fairytales of all old times. Signs given there in stone of happenings been. Maps and references all be there as crop circles to be seen. Messages passed there on. What’s being counted now
    End times my oh my but no one seems concerned centuries old told to all of what now be.

  • from the time of Gods – Ancient period – Roman period – pre historic – medieval period -to this current modern world

  • Far more elaborate and well-spoken than Becker and Fagen in "The Caves of Altamira." And she is a spelunker! What a fascinating human being. Lucky husband (maybe). I hope he was a spelunker too.

  • All of you so call white people which came from Esau are Edom Idumea were from the caucus mountains Mt seir meaning cave dwellers : This is your true history : Shalom 💕

  • Waste of time. Why is the spiral everywhere along with the X(cross) which means the same thing…? In this spiraling galaxy where everything spirals into creation as well as out of it.

  • The very simple reason why graphic signs were similar throughout different and distant sites is the fact that mass human consciousness was a unit active constantly to preserve and enhance survival of the intellect, a fact no longer feasible nowadays simply due to the dominance of individuality!

  • How can you study the development of the human mind without studying te symbols of a sophisticated and highly evolved culture as the Vedic culture? The Yantras are very complex. You can see them in modern India. Look at Tibet.
    Perhaps , looking at your study, you can say its the development of the European mind

  • People in those days were travelling hunters following prey animals North. Once winter approached they had to find their way back to base camp in the South were winter was less severe. Many of the marks might have been trail markings or containing useful information about that specific area.

  • Maybe those caves weren't filled with sand when the images were created. Maybe there were high walls back then.

  • Today a cave may be the most uncomfortable place to go, but by those times, they were home, the most comfortable and safe places in the harsh pre historical wild world – HOME – and tell the photographer he can buy a macro ring adapter for 15$ and a top yongnuo flash for 100$ that can be tunned to very close subjects, lol

  • Those pictures could mean something so simple and some of us are over analyzing them…. They should show those images to children and get there information on what they think they are…. I bet we would get great answers and of course some funny ones too

  • why did they get down there? well, tens of thousands of tectonic activity might mean that in that time the passages were larger. or maybe they were hiding.
    as for the 32 symbols, more than half are basic shapes: lines, crosses, circles and very slight variations. i would not read too much into them. maybe they had some meaning to the author, but just as well, maybe they didn't, just as not every modern man's daydreaming scribble has. maybe they just looked funny.

  • Get a Time Travel Expert on Ted Talks and let's get a traveler who can substantiate these claims. Maybe then some more people will believe that's happening too? I mean at :48 secs you can see the ash on the ground from where they burned the stuff in.

  • If you want signs and symbols…check out 'ThunderboltsProject'…David Talbott has spent years documenting and categorizing the symbols he's found and their meanings.Amazing.REALLY amazing.

  • Seriously? Are YOU of all people asking "what was somebody doing down there… " ? probably the same reason you do it. Curiosity, right?

  • There is no evidence that we have 'developed' since God created Adam. The earliest humans we've found built shelters, weapons, had other tools and pouches, etc. Thousands of years after the building of the pyramids, we're still debating how they accomplished it. There isn't a shred of evidence for this evolution narrative when trying to apply it to humans. Every human we've ever found had a good mind and used it.

  • The oldest art in the world?

    Pretty sure the Chinese had ketchup and poetry at the time those cavemen were scratching on cave walls.

    "Original shoulders"?

    Why not give credit to the culture that domesticated caucasians?

  • I found so many caves and art that nobody has seen but only the makers,the benefit of being a helicopter Pilot.
    And there,s some weird stuff out there believe me.

  • Genevieve is such of a pleasure to listen to! What an intelligent and well spoken human being, she articulated the compelling nature of her work well.

  • This is a great talk. I love to hear what drives people to discover new things. I think it must be incredible to spend time inside these places.

  • Part 2/3 deals with a great number of related aspects to the story however the ways in which humans have attempted to share their experience with the future is spread throughout the video. Even today we are attempting to do the same yet one can only imagine how we'll make the same attempt should the global infrastructure and all forms of electronics become useless.

  • What are you talking about, evolution of the mind of artist! There was no evolution! It was immediatly there in our minds at the very creation of the human brain, lit by the spark of the eternal!
    Those cave people could've made the monalisa just the same as leonardo. They only lacked the material. ie…Brushes & paint.

  • Wow. Great work! Your findings are lining up to everything I’m thinking as well with the bird language.
    The #32 is very interesting. It’s the # of teeth in our mouth and the # of ego parts we have as well.

  • Australian indigenous peoples were also painting in caves that long ago. Just to shift the Eurocentric view a little.


  • Why do these European reaearchers always ignore Australia? Aborigines have been creating graphical communication for over 40,000 years. Sadly European white researchers ignore this work quite often because it doesn't come from their continent so it isn't seen as important. Same with history, the West goes on about the importance of Greece and Rome, but China was streets ahead of their roads and many of their construction techniques.

  • As another reply has said anyone remotely interested in this subject check out the Thunderbolts Project plasma cosmology/ electric universe theory they are finding very interesting things particularly the Alien symbols in a human sky.

  • Why do you intellectuals insist on quoting prehistoric dates you know nothing about beyond 4500 years is pure assumption & speculation that has no basis in reality false prophets of the past are present day priests of evolution dogma!

  • Not 32 but are 36 symbols, Secretes symbols letters alphabet, Humane mouth can only make 36 letters sounds, This is are still used Albania alphabet 36 letters, English and rest of world don't have letters alphabets. On alphabet has words on the letter and this makes problems to read and listen and writers.

  • The dots on walls could be humans keeping a record of days in the cave. It's a language/communication system.

  • There is no modern mind. That's an illusion. It's also now clear to me; that the apex of civilisation has long since past.

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