32 Symbols

I'm fascinated by human marks. From the beginning of time to the ones artist make today. These 32 symbols show up in caves around the world with no communication between locations. Buy on Etsy>>

After examining dozens of Ice Age cave sites across Europe, paleoarchaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger discovered our ancestors repeatedly used 32 signs. Why? She walks us through her eye-opening discoveries — and their implications.

These discoveries have overturned the conventional timeline of humans and art. Paleoanthropologists had long believed that art was invented during a “creative explosion” 40,000 years ago in Europe — the first Homo sapiens are

thought to have migrated there from Africa during an Ice Age warm spell roughly 45,000 years ago. But von Petzinger’s research challenges this conventional wisdom. “I realized that two-thirds of the signs were already in use when humans arrived in Europe,” she says, suggesting the symbols are a continuation of an existing tradition rather than the start of something new. This radically moves back the plausible

timeline for when humanity began creating and using symbols. “Some of these signs could potentially be part of a larger system that they brought with them when they left Africa,” von Petzinger says, “and then moved with them as they spread across the world.”

How to find the common signs that bridged dozens of caves and 30,000 years of human habitation. Over seven months in 2013 and 2014, von Petzinger and her husband visited and documented 52 cave sites in Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. She selected sites where researchers had noted

geometric signs but hadn’t recorded details. After her fieldwork was complete, she analyzed all the signs she’d catalogued. And what she saw made the hair on the back of her neck stand up: across 30,000 years and the entire continent of Europe, a mere 32 signs repeated themselves over and over. How could she explain this continuity? “That really small number tells you that they must have been meaningful to the people who were using them, because they were replicating them,” she says.

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I had this lump of cedar laying around and wanted to recreate the 32 symbols using a wood burning tool.

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