Did ancient cave artists share a global language?

The same 32 symbols show up in prehistoric European cave art.

Did ancient cave artists share a global language?
Photo credit: PIERRE ANDRIEU / AFP / Getty Images
  • 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.


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Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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