Palaeolithic Writing.

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   The Origin of Writing:

While it is still generally considered that writing emerged 'independently in at least three different places - Egypt, Mesopotamia and Harappa between 3,500 BC and 3,100 BC' (2), we have until recently had little understanding of how and why this happened. The discovery of the Vinca script and (mother) culture c. 5,500 - 3,500 BC, has offered a possible clue as to this question, but more importantly, symbols in the Vinca script can be seen to have roots that trace back as early as Palaeolithic times, as revealed by the exhaustive examination of 'geometric' symbols in 150 prehistoric caves in France by Petzinger, 2009. While there is still much work to be done in order to confirm the hypothesis, it is now suspected that these Palaeolithic geometric symbols represent a 'proto-script' from which all other scripts can trace ancestry.


Article: (March, 2010). New Scientist.

'Earliest Writing Found on 60,000 Year old Eggshells'

New Scientist reports on research published in PNAS about what may be the earliest writing yet discovered, on eggshells dated to 60,000 years ago. "Since 1999, Pierre-Jean Texier of the University of Bordeaux, France, and his colleagues have uncovered 270 fragments of shell at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape, South Africa. They show the same symbols are used over and over again, and the team say there are signs that the symbols evolved over 5,000 years. This long-term repetition is a hallmark of symbolic communication and a sign of modern human thinking, say the team. [Another researcher is quoted:] 'Judging from what we know about the evolution of art all over the world, there may have been many [written language] traditions that were born, lasted for some time, and then vanished. This may be one of them, most probably not the first and certainly not the last.'"



   Palaeolithic Writing:

The concept of writing in essence, is the transference of thought or language into a re-readable form. The earliest forms of this art have long been considered to be represented by pictograms, simple images which enabled the transfer of information through pictures, but writing itself has not generally been considered until recently to have any great antiquity before the flourish of writing witnessed in the Middle east and Asia c.  3,500 - 3,100 BC. However, modern research is now questioning this hypothesis with results from different academic sources confirming the presence of a group of recurring symbols in Palaeolithic art, suggestive of sharing a common meaning, and therefore being considered a proto-language.

There have been several suggestions that the geometric marks, dashes, zigzags and hatchings etc seen in Palaeolithic art are representative of a form of communication (e.g., Raphael 1945, Leroi-Gourhan 1982, Marshack 1972, Lewis-Williams 2002), but until recently there hasn't been enough research on the subject to form any concrete conclusions.

Andre Leroi-Gourham, one of the most respected pre-historians of his generation said at the end of his life 'At Lascaux I really believe  they had come close to an alphabet'. If he was right that Ice age cultures came to the brink of developing an alphabet, it would be surprising if other similar developments didn't take place again until the 4th millennium BC'.

In 2009, a ground-breaking study by Genevieve von Petzinger revealed that dots, lines and other geometric signs found in prehistoric European caves may be the precursor to an ancient system of written communication dating back nearly 30,000 years. Von Petzinger, with University of Victoria anthropology professor April Nowell, compiled the markings from 146 different sites in Ice Age France, making it possible to compare the signs on a larger scale than had ever previously been attempted. What made her research �new� was that she was able to use a whole range of modern technology to compare inventories and digital images from nearly 150 locations� allowing her the ability to observe startling similarities among the different sites studied.

Examples of Geometric signs in Palaeolithic art.

Building on previous work by other scholars who tended to focus on the local or regional level, von Petzinger and Nowell were surprised by the clear patterning of the symbols across space and time�some of which remained continually in use for over a period of 20,000 years. The 26 specific signs may provide the first glimmers of proof that a graphic code was being used by these ancient humans shortly after their arrival in Europe, or they may have even brought this practice with them. If correct, these findings will contribute to the growing body of evidence that the creative explosion occurred tens of thousands of years earlier than scholars once thought. Von Petzinger and Nowell�s findings have been reported in the New Scientist journal and their research continues to explore the meaning of the symbols.


A Chart of the 26 recurring shapes (proto-alphabet) from the 146 French rock art sites.

(Quick-link: The Bradshaw Foundation)


Article; New Scientist. (February 17th, 2010) Chauvet Cave and it's Palaeolithic art.

The most famous of the paintings is the group of trotting horses, or the two rhinoceros in a bad mood, or even the depiction of wild cattle. What is generally ignored by the art critics who manage to enter the cave system are the semi circles, lines and zigzag signs marked on the same walls - they have mostly been ignored. Until now. Two students have proposed these signs are actually symbols - not doodles by idle hands, and they form a written 'code' that is akin to an early form of transmitting information. It seems the Palaeolithic people are sending us a message - but what does it mean? Alas, the students don't know - or the archaeologists, anthropologists, and anyone else, it seems. The students come from the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island and they have compiled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France covering 25,000 years of time - from 35,000-10,000BC. It seems that 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appear again and again at different sites. Some of them are quite simple brush strokes, such as straight lines, circles, semi-circles and triangles. Others are more complex - such as the tusks of mammoth (without a body). This is the kind of thing developed much later in the pictographic languages, it is suggested, and evolved into abstract symbols. Some signs appear repeatedly in pairs as in for example hands, or dots, finger planting and thumb stencils. The symbols, it is now realised, might represent a rudimentary language - they are telling us something (see also Van Pezinger and Nowell in Antiquity and in The Journal of Human Evolution). The research didn't end there however as they tried to date and track the symbols - lines, dots, love heart shapes, kidney shapes, ladder shapes, and the spiral for example. The spiral only appeared in 2 out of the 146 locations which surprised them as in the Holocene era it became a common motif. Likewise, the zig zag symbol appeared very late in the sequence (in the Palaeolithic) but once again is a common Holocene symbol (on pottery for example, or at Newgrange and other megalithic monuments). However, three quarters of the signs as defined by Petzinger and Nowell occur from the earliest point (after 35,000BC). In other words, the signs were already established at that point in time - with no evidence of a transition phase (a building process as different signs were added to the collection) and therefore they argue, quite realistically, the signs have an origin before 35,000BC - and before the arrival of modern humans in Europe (expect a lot of resistance to this idea). Of course, there could be a catastrophic reason for a sudden emergence of such symbols around 35,000BC - and they may in fact be describing some unusual events they experienced. Similar symbols turn up in Australia and southern Africa and it might be argued that early human migrants brought them Out of Africa. The race is on to interpret the meaning behind the signs.

The same symbols are seen in the National Geographic global comparison of Palaeolithic markings.

(Click on Image for larger view)


Similarities between symbols at different Palaeolithic caves in Europe.


A Sample of similar symbols from Upper Palaeolithic Europe.


(Palaeolithic Homepage)



   The Emergence of Alphabet:

Based on the fact that there are currently approximately 7,000 known languages whereas, to the best of our knowledge, fewer than 100 major scripts have appeared in the course of human history (Lawler 2004), it is argued that alphabetic scripts have developed only where there is a need for them. In recognition of this fact, it is important to realise that there is at least one universal in all known writing systems: they all first derived the symbols they used  from an ancient collective of images based on animal and natural forms as seen in the Palaeolithic examples above. It is therefore likely that these iconic symbols, which can be seen repeated over tens of thousands of years have been used to convey common meanings throughout time, acting as background reservoir of constituents for the step from basic pictograms to a complex alphabet comes hand in hand when the needs of civilisation demand as shown by the close association between the emergence of script and the emergence of a 'civilised' state.

In her Plato Prehistorian: 10,000 to 5,000 B.C. Myth, Religion, Archaeology, Mary Settegast reproduces a table (above) which shows four runic character sets; a is Upper Palaeolithic (found among the cave paintings), b is Indus Valley script, c is Greek (western branch), and d is the Scandinavian runic alphabet.


We are now aware of the Vinca (Mother) culture which existed in Eastern Europe around 5,500 - 4,500 BC (3).  The earliest examples of Vinca script (such as the Vinca Tablets below) were generally regarded as token or symbolic only however, following other discoveries with the same symbols in the region, it is now suspected that the Vinca script represents a proto-language similar to those from the Great civilisations that emerged a thousand years later in Egypt, The Middle East and in the Indus Valley.

The Vinca tablets c. 5,300 BC (6), are currently the earliest accepted example of writing.


We can see in the Vinca symbols, a transition form Palaeolithic iconography to the emergence of a pictographic language.

(More about the Vinca Culture)


Richard Rudgley (4) proposed that the Old European script emerged from a system of symbolism rooted in the subconscious of the Neolithic. He said of it..

'Gimbutas proposed that it [the Old European Script] was part of a much wider corpus of signs that expressed cosmological and spiritual beliefs of the Neolithic age... Gimbautus believed that such designs were not merely decorative but were elements of an 'alphabet of the metaphysical'. (4. p72)

The study of such symbols shows that as the ancient world drew inspiration from the Neolithic, so too were the first farming communities of this period drawing inspiration from the symbolic traditions of the hunter-gatherers who went before them, this finding is enforced by the work of Alexander Marshack, who documented the persistence of the zigzag motif in the stone age art of the Upper Palaeolithic period echoed in the Neolithic (4). The zigzag also appears among the old European signs, and its significance can be traced back to ancient Egypt where the zigzag Hieroglyph means water. Maria Gimbatus found clear parallels between symbols from different emerging scripts, suggests that the thread of writing can be traced back to the end of the ice age, suggesting that writing has been an art that has come and gone in several different forms throughout time.


The Sacred Art of Writing:

For a long time the relatively simultaneous emergence of the three great scripts/civilisations (Indus Valley, Sumerian, Egyptian) c. 3,500 - 3,100 BC has been of interest to academics. The similarities in script can now been seen to have a connection through the Vinca culture that went before them. The question of which of the three scripts/civilisations came first is still in debate, but other similarities have emerged in relation to the value placed on writing by these cultures as a 'divine' art, with associations to the gods and the destiny of mankind which offer a deeper understanding of the origins of writing, as examination of these traditions reveals a common thread reaching back to the earliest Palaeolithic attempts to convey meaning through symbology.

Mythology tells us that the Gods from several different culture have a divinity said to have given writing to mankind, such as Sumeria (Mesopotamia), Egypt, China, India, Greece, Germany and Scandinavia, and Ireland (with their respective Gods: Nisabu, Thoth, Fuxi, Sarasvati, Hermes, Odin and Ogma). It is significant that most of these gods are archetypal divinities known as culture heroes or culture bearers whose contributions to humankind have brought other important benefits to society. For example, in ancient Egypt, the invention of writing is attributed to the god Thoth, who was not only the scribe and historian of the gods but also kept the calendar and invented art and science. In some Egyptian myths, Thoth is also portrayed as the creator of speech and possessing the power to transform speech into material objects. This ties in closely with the Egyptian belief that in order for a person to achieve immortality his or her name must be spoken or inscribed somewhere forever. (1)

Extract: 'The value of writing represented by these gods may be understood within the context of other values they embody. As Eliade points out, in archaic cultures each of these acts derives its value from its association with a divine originator of the act. Thus, the act of writing itself becomes a form of participation in the sacred, a ritual act mimicking an originating original act. If what is associated with the divine has special value in a culture, writing must have had a special value and if the cultural value precedes the projection upon a god, then the god it is projected upon must bear some characteristics that the culture associates with writing.

In several cultures, gods of writing were also gods of wisdom and knowledge. On one level, the connection between writing and wisdom is obvious, writing being the means by which the wisdom of a culture was stored and transmitted., However, there is more to the link between writing and wisdom than this obvious reason. Perhaps the most dramatic story of the possession of wisdom among these gods is Odin�s, who in the R�natal, a famous passage in the H�vam�l, narrates the story himself. In his desire for wisdom, he hung upside down for nine nights on the World Tree, known as Yggdrasil (Ygg an epithet for Odin and drasil horse: Odin�s horse), above the Well of Mirmir located in the roots of the three. For nine nights he hung there with no food or water, dying from a wound he inflicted on himself with his spear. At last, �I peered downward / I grasped the runes, / screeching I grasped them; / I fell back from there.� He then �learned nine mighty songs� and was brought back to life with renewed health and fertility (Turville-Petre 49-50). The R�natal ends with the poet referring to Odin�s having written his own story.

This interpretation of the relationship between writing and wisdom appears to find support in the story of how Fuxi created the eight trigrams. Fuxi is described as observing �images in the skies,� �patterns on the ground,� and �markings of birds and beasts and the favorable lie of the land,� all this in addition to himself, his own body. �And so it was,� the story goes, �that he created the Eight Trigrams in order to communicate with the virtue of divine intelligence and to classify the phenomena of all living things�. The trigrams were not images of the things themselves but signs that provided a connection to the divine source of knowledge of things. The trigrams provided a source of communication with the divine that became the basis for Chinese divination as well as mathematics and medicine (�Fuxi,� About). Because writing is said to be derived from these trigrams, it also seems to participate in this link to divine wisdom'. (5)


Writing and Divination:

The association with writing and the gods can be seen to have traditions in divination. Most of the gods of writing are directly associated with the fates of individual humans. In some instances, the fates of humans are literally written by the gods as a part of their scribal duties and almost all of them are related to magic and divination.

There are several examples of the alphabet being used for divination, as seen in the writing of ones name on leaves in ancient Greece (7), divination though the Ogham alphabet, or alectryomancy, in where birds peck at letters. One of the standard forms of ritual divination was casting pebbles or potshards with letters on them. Each letter was associated with the first word of a predetermined oracle. Robert Graves speculates that the numerous 'knuckle' dice found at Delphi were alphabetic, casting five dice with four letters on each, fifteen consonants and five vowels (Graves, The White Goddess 330-332; see also Halliday 13-16). It is also possible that the dice has numerical value that were associated with letters of the alphabet, as in divination with pebbles (Sophistes). One�s future was literally in the letters. (5)

(More about Divination)


Pre Columbian Writing:

With so much discussion on the origins of writing, it is worth looking at the history of writing in the America's. Should a Palaeolithic tradition of script be officially recognised, then one would assume that it carried over to the Americas in the waves of immigration that occurred following the decline of the last Ice age. A fact which appears to be evident in the Global survey of Palaeolithic signs above. 

The earliest date for a proper system of writing came with the Mayans, who recorded astronomical, etc etc etc. Sadly only 4 codices of an original estimate of million (ref), are left today, but it is in their mathematics and astronomy that we find a deeper root in the inscriptions of pre-Columbian America. The first evidence of astronomic scripts comes in the form of the 'Long-Count' calendar system, the earliest evidence of which we have being the 'Cascajal Block' found in an Olmec setting near La Venta, and dated c. 900 BC. It is well known that the Olmecs calendar start date of August 11, 3114 (8), a fact which is generally brushed off as a coincidence today, but one with uncanny echoes of the start-date for the emergence of writing in the Old world.

(More about the Olmecs)



(Cave Art)

(Palaeolithic Homepage)

(The Vinca 'Mother' Culture)

(Easter Island/Indus Valley Script)

(List of Ancient and Sacred Texts)

(Words of Wisdom Homepage)




4). R. Rudgley. Lost Civilisations of the Ice Age. 1999. Arrow Press.


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