Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing at the beginning

Given the time I've spent on the road the past several weeks, I didn't at the time find occasion to take note of it, but last month NewScientist ran an intriguing article about the work of Genevieve von Petzinger. While working on her masters degree at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, she set about to collect in a database all the glyphic signs found in the caves which served early humans as habitations and sanctuaries. She found that while the spectacular paintings in the caves had received considerable attention, of course, these early signs, perhaps the initial instance of writing as such, had not.

When faced with such spectacular beauty [as the paintings], who could blame the visiting anthropologists for largely ignoring the modest semicircles, lines and zigzags also marked on the walls? Yet dismissing them has proved to be something of a mistake. The latest research has shown that, far from being doodles, the marks are in fact highly symbolic, forming a written "code" that was familiar to all of the prehistoric tribes around France and possibly beyond. Indeed, these unprepossessing shapes may be just as remarkable as the paintings of trotting horses and tussling rhinos, providing a snapshot into humankind's first steps towards symbolism and writing.

For anyone involved with the complex process of writing - and to some degree, in this literate age, we all are - it's an important recognition. Give the article a look.

Photo: Dozier Marc/Photolibrary, via the NewScientist. The article also includes some images of the signs themselves, and on one of them they're mapped to the countries (or continents, in some cases) where they were used; those locations include North America.

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Blogger Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Fascinating, Jeff. These are wonderful posts. I'm following their links....

8:10 PM  

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