Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Did ancient cave artists share a global language?
The same 32 symbols show up in prehistoric European cave art.
- Many of these symbols are found in caves in Africa, Asia, Australia and America as well.
- At least 40,000 years old, the set of symbols may have been a universal communications tool.
- Among these symbols is the iconic hashtag.
A flash of prehistoric magic transports a cave painter 40,000 years into the future. Landing in the here and now, he's left frightened and bewildered by the bombardment of modernity. But there's one ubiquitous symbol the ancient artist instantly recognises: the hashtag. He's painted it on many a cave wall.
In fact, as this map shows, the # was almost as universal back then as it is now. The symbol crops up on cave walls in Europe and North America, across Africa and India, in Southeast Asia and as far away as Australia. And this is many millennia before the advent of broadband. Why? How? #DeepHistoryMystery.
Let's start with that hashtag. 'Deep history' is a term that wants to examine the past of modern humans as a single unit, negating the usual, strict division of humanity's past into prehistory and history. The difference between both is the written record, the oldest known examples of which date back to around 3400 BC in ancient Sumeria, present-day Iraq.
True, being able to write is a huge step forward: it gives humans the ability to record information and thus transmit it independent of space and time. But the prehistory/history dichotomy implies that the invention of writing was a light-switch moment: suddenly it was there, and then it changed everything.
New research into the geometric symbols that show up alongside ancient ('prehistoric') cave art offer the tantalising possibility that humans have been experimenting with writing for many, many millennia more than we usually give them credit for.
Perhaps the world's foremost expert in these symbols is the Canadian paleoanthropologist Geneviève von Petzinger, who as a PhD student at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) focused on Ice-Age rock art in Europe and elsewhere.
In 2013 and 2014, she visited 52 caves in France and southern Europe, taking note of the squares and triangles, straight and zigzag lines and other symbols usually ignored by earlier researchers, who were entranced by the painted wildlife also found on those cave walls. The signs are repeated and combined into what surely must constitute some kind of message.
Amazingly, the range of symbols was pretty narrow: no more than 32 in all of Europe. Von Petzinger also discovered that some of these symbols were subject to trends: hand stencils were all the range from 40,000 BC and are originally often found in combination with dots.
Later, hand stencils plus thumb stencils and parallel lines are all the range. Around 20,000 BC, hand stencils finally fall out of fashion. Penniforms (feather-shaped symbols) start in northern France around 26,000 BC and eventually spread south through Spain all the way to Portugal.
Although European caves have produced the widest range of ancient rock symbols, new research reveals that humans were already using about two-thirds of the symbols when they trekked from Africa to Europe. The symbols travelled with the spread of humanity itself, and not just in one direction.
Hashtags surface on multiple continents, as do penniforms (feather shapes), claviforms (key shapes), hand stencils and many other types.Image: New Scientist
As the map shows, at least some of Europe's set of 32 symbols also crops up on rock walls in other parts of the world. This suggests that the symbols are part of a very stable, extremely ancient and fairly easy system for fixing and transmitting knowledge.
Will we ever know what those symbols mean? In all probability, no. But as some earlier theories suggest, it's fun to guess.
- In the early 20th century, French prehistorian Henri Breuil suggested the symbols represented traps and weapons associated with the hunt for the larger animals also depicted on the cave walls.
- In the 1960s, French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan posited that hooks and lines were male symbols, whereas ovals and circles were female ones. "It's interesting that it was predominantly male archaeologists doing this work early on, and there were a whole lot of vulvas being identified everywhere", says Von Petzinger in New Scientist.
- More recently, South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams said that hallucinogenic trips by shamen might have been the inspiration for some cave art.
Even though we'll probably never be able to 'read' these cave symbols in the way the original artists intended, perhaps their greatest legacy will be that we abandon the powerful narrative of history as total darkness until the Sumerians flip the switch. These rock symbols show humans slowly but surely undimming the light many millennia earlier.
This map illustrates an article on Geneviève von Petzinger's work featured in Becoming Human, a special issue of New Scientist bringing together updated versions of articles on human evolution that have appeared in the magazine throughout the past few years.
Von Petzinger also wrote a book, and here's a TED talk she gave on her work.
Strange Maps #961
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Cave paintings linked to early use of hallucinogens - Big Think ›
- Ancient Puebloans used ice caves to survive droughts - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.