Over the weekend, the Guardian reported on new findings in the caves of Pech Merle, Font-de-Gaume and Rouffignac in southern France known mostly for their spectacular cave paintings. Scientists are now focusing on recurring patterns of symbols inscribed next to the paintings and speculate that these markings may be a primitive form of writing:

Not surprisingly, these paintings attract tens of thousands of visitors every year. However, there is another aspect to this art that often escapes attention, but which is now providing scientists with fresh insights into our recent evolution. Instead of studying those magnificent galloping horses and bisons, researchers are investigating the symbols painted beside them.

These signs are rarely mentioned in most studies of ancient cave art. Some are gathered in groups, some appear in ones or twos, while others are mixed in with the caves' images of animals. There are triangles, squares, full circles, semicircles, open angles, crosses and groups of dots. Others are more complex: drawings of hands with distorted fingers (known as negative hands); rows of parallel lines (called finger flutings); diagrams of branch-like symbols known as penniforms, or little sketches of hut-like entities called tectiforms. In total, 26 specific signs are used repeatedly in these caves, created in the millennia when Europe descended into – and emerged from – the last great Ice Age.

The article goes on to report that work has been done to create "a database of all the signs found in more than 200 caves and other shelters in France and Spain. The aim was to study where and when they were first used, and in what combinations, and to compare them with markings found on other ancient artefacts. The results are startling, for the database shows many symbols are frequently arranged in specific clusters repeated over and over again in different caves (a negative hand with finger fluting, for example)." Have we stumbled upon the earliest poet/painter collaborations?

Originally Published: March 12th, 2012