A graphic code uncovered by researchers at the University of Victoria suggests that written communication may have started 30,000 years ago.
Compiling the cave signs of nearly 150 sites across Ice Age France, researchers found striking similarities that suggest human beings may have used a graphic language made up of simple lines and geometric shapes to communicate shortly after the first African civilizations arrived in Europe.
UVic graduate student Genevieve von Petzinger said in an interview yesterday that some patterns and symbols remained in use across the sites for 20,000 years, suggesting that the "creative explosion" occurred tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Her findings were published last week by New Scientist.
Ms. von Petzinger said these geometric shapes had been described and noted by past scholars, but were deemed "unimportant" alongside images of horses and other animal shapes.
"The [signs]are pretty boring actually," she said. "They're just scraped into the rock with no embellishments, but over all they're transmitting information about abstract things we can't see in the real world, which makes it different from the meaning behind the animal shapes."
Further, 26 signs illustrated in a consistent style were found across the sites using images from a digital archive. While the illustrations may be rudimentary - composed of circles, straight lines and triangles - she said they suggest the seeds of a prehistoric mode of communication.
"Using the word language is a bit strong. But what matters is that these are the first glimmerings of abstract behaviour, of people representing a concept that you can't just draw. Not only that, but it means that we had a bunch of people who agreed on what these symbols meant."
Determined to understand the evolutionary meaning behind her discovery, Ms. von Petzinger hopes to travel to Spain and Sicily to gather more cave signs over the next three years.
"There are actually sites in Spain that just have cave signs," she said. "In France that's unheard of, because there's always at least an image of a horse. Spain is really exciting. I'll have to examine the symbols there, which could be very different, but at the same time it will give us a better indication of whether or not these people or communities were sharing these codes with others."
Ms. von Petzinger said that without a time machine, it is nearly impossible to decipher the exact meaning of the symbols and why they were used.
"I don't need to know what it meant other than it was important to them," she said. "What we're finding is that the leaps we made back then were just as impressive as the ones we have now in the computer age, if not more impressive."