Coincidentally, the first New Scientist that I picked up after my visit to the Valencia museum of prehistory contained an interesting article about Stone Age symbols and the possibility that they might represent the earliest form of encoding and transmitting information. (Not writing – that’s far more sophisticated.)
I was very much taken with the drawings in the museum, but there were also all kinds of marks too regular to be merely scratches. So I was fascinated to read about a palaeoanthropologist, Genevieve von Petzinger, who has studied marks on cave walls from 40,000-20,000 years ago and made the discovery that only 32 types of signs were used in Europe. This consistency suggests that the signs (dots, lines, zigzags, ladders, hands, feather shapes called penniforms, etc.) had some sort of significance. Moreover, there were “trends” in their use: hand stencils started 40,000 years ago, but tailed off 20,000 years later; penniforms appeared in northern France 28,000 years ago, then spread west and south. Perhaps their use spread with migration or along trade routes.
Goodness knows what the signs mean; there are even theories that they may have been made during hallucinogenic trips.