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2018-11-01 15:42:54   •   ID: 2046

Is there a Symbolic Significance of Graphic Patterns during the Paleolithic ?

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This is a single beveled, 12 cm long bone sagaie from the Solutrean from the Fourneau de Diable site in the Dordogne. It shows parallel lines with a "zig-zag"-pattern. While early 19th century researchers** interpreted such graphic expressions as property marks, a symbolic interpretation seems to be equally or even more probable.

A symbol means something, whose meaning is determined by arbitrary relationship. This relationship is a socially construction, a convention which implied a shared ideological understanding.

Engravings in stone or organic materials can never be proven to be of symbolic significance per se.

Alternative explanations, for example the use of graphical signs or as property marks, are also possible. The discussion, when, how and why Paleolithic people used Symbols remains open for Discussion.

Christopher S. Henshilwood and & Francesco d’Errico defined criteria, that can be used to support a symbolic use of engravings during the Paleolithic.

(i) an absence of obvious functional reasons behind the production of the engravings;

(ii) consistencies in the media on which the engravings are made;

(iii) the preparation of the surface prior to engraving;

(iv) the degree of neuromotor control inferred from the analysis of each line;

(v) the type of tool used;

(vi) the use of the same tool for the production of the entire pattern;

(vii) the consistent organisation of the sequence of motions articulating the marking action;

(viii) the regularity of the resultant pattern; (ix) the presence of engravings on a number of objects rather than on a single one;

(x) the repetition of the same motif on more than one object;

(xi) variations within what is perceived as the same basic motif;

(xii) the production of a variety of different motifs;

(xiii), temporal continuity in the production of engravings on the same media; (xiv) persistence or change in the production of motifs through time;

(xv), production of similar engravings on the same media at a number of sites;

and (xvi), similarity in the media used for engraving by prehistoric, extant and/or historically known groups

To begin with the Near East: A bone engraving dated to ca 130 k.a.was reported from Unit III at the Levallois-Mousterian open-air site of Nesher Ramla (Israel), already introduced here: 1433

The bone is a mid-shaft fragment from an aurochs. The surface exhibits 6 parallel incisions oriented perpendicularly to the bone axis. A non-utilitarian background was proposed by the excavators.

Indeed there is also increasing evidence from Still Bay and Howiesons Poort sites in South Africa supporting a symbolic interpretation of graphical patterns, which fulfill much of the criteria cited above.

Diepkloof rock shelter (Western Cape) yield more than 400 Fragments of engraved ostrich eggshells, possible used as containers, which are dated to the Howiesons Poort. The hatched band was the most common motive.

The Howiesons Poort of Klipdrift in South Africa’s southern Cape region has 95 pieces of ostrich eggshell engraved with a variety of geometric motifs.

The patterns are similar to those at Diepkloof and include cross-hatching and sub-parallel lines. Similar findings are known from the MSA of Apollo 11 (Namibia).

Incised ochre slabs are known from Blombos, the most significant of this slabs -now introduced into many textbooks-comes from the Still Bay layers and shows cross-hatched motifs.

Other slabs of engraved ochre, generally in the form of small pieces, has been recovered from Blombos assemblages with ages of between 100 and 75 k.a.

Other sites in S-Africa are also important: Klasies River Cave 1 has an MIS 5 layer (ca 100 to 85 k.a.) yielded a fragmented ochre pebble bearing a sequence of sub- parallel linear incisions. Klein Kliphuis produced a refitted piece of engraved ochre, and fan-shaped motifs were incised on some Sibudu ochre pieces (Wadley 2015).

In Europe, mainly in the South-West, Engravings with possible symbolic significance, emerged at ca. 50 k.a. and became common after 40 k.a.

Some early examples, most probably made by Neanderthals at ca 50 k.a. were detected during the last years, not only in South but also in Central Europe.

One important example comes from the Einhorn Höhle in Lower Saxony- security dated to 51 k.a. BP (see last attached file).

Geometric Engravings prolified during the Aurignacian, shortly after 40 k.a. and are found on the walls, ceilings and floors in caves and rock shelters, as well as on portable art objects - please see here a star like pattern on a Gravettian flint artifact from Slovakia 1014 .

Geometric patterns are found in isolated locations at rock art sites, either singly, or in groupings. They are also found in association with animal and human imagery.

Strange enough, it needed more than 150 years after the first recognition of Paleolithic engravings until in 2010 Genevieve von Petzinger, a Canadian researcher, initiated a systematic survey of Paleolithic geometric signs.

One of Petzinger's key observations is that almost three-quarters of the main prehistoric abstract signs were introduced during the Aurignacian.

This early complexity does not look like the start of a tradition, but rather like a well elaborated system of motifs. It points to a considerable time depth for their invention, adaption and dissemination.

The zigzag sign, we are taking about, was one motif during the Paleolithic, mainly used on organic material, but also during later Pre- and Protohistoric times -for example at Catal Huyuk Neolithic Archeological Site, Anatolia, Turkey.

In contrast to its use in other forms of ancient art, zigzags appear in only 5 percent of French cave sites. In parietal art, Zigzags are found mainly during the Solutrean and the Magdalenian.

The meaning of this signs remain obscure, anyhow it is unlikely that they have a graphic character and in my view are certainly not the Shamans report of optical phenomena produced by the neurology of hallucinations, as suggested by some rock-art "researchers".

**First suggested in Lartet & Christy: Reliquiae Aquitanicae. London u. a. 1865–1875:

"Fragment of a stem, oblong in section, probably of a Dart-head, with a continuous ornament of incised chevron marks on one edge , and on the other edge a local patch of five oblique, parallel, slight notches. These latter may be an Owner-mark. From La Madelaine."

Suggested Reading:

Peyrony D., 1932: The prehistoric sites of Bourdeilles (Dordogne), Archives of Human Paleontology Institute, 13 | 2001, n. 10, Paris, Masson, 98 p.