Photograph by Dillon von Petzinger
In caves across Europe, mysterious geometric signs dating back to the Ice Age can be found alongside more recognizable renderings of animals and handprints. Genevieve von Petzinger became obsessed with those largely ignored shapes, and is leading an effort to learn more about them.
Over the course of two years, she worked at 52 rock-art sites across France, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily, documenting what she saw. She identified 32 main signs that appear across the caves, creating for the first time a relational database that catalogs them all.
Now finishing her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, von Petzinger hopes to open her data so others can build on it, and aims to keep uncovering new art and clues about how those shapes connect to how we communicate today. —By Christina Nunez
—Genevieve von Petzinger
I’ve been interested in digging things up since I was a kid. My first love was dinosaurs. Somewhere in my teens I realized I actually was interested in humans more than those lovely creatures that I had obsessed over my childhood. There’s always been this theme of wanting to go explore old things, so when I went to the University of Victoria, the plan was always anthropology or archaeology right from the start.
Between my third and fourth year, I went on a Roman excavation in Jordan in the Middle East. It was a great time, but it was really funny—as I was working at the site, I realized it just didn’t feel old enough. When I came back that fall, that was when I took my first class in Paleolithic art. Paleolithic art is from the Stone Age, and this course focused particularly on European art from the Ice Age period between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. Suddenly I was like, A-ha, now I’m interested. I think it’s a good thing for people to realize that you don’t always know exactly where you’re going. Sometimes your path just kind of finds you.
Every week, we’d be looking at these beautiful photos of all the animal art in different caves. There were these geometric signs, often in the margins or on the side of the animals but the focus was always on the animals. The professor teaching that course even said that nobody was really doing much on the science of the signs, but that somebody really should. They were almost a side note in a lot of ways. So I started getting intrigued.
I ended up going back to study the geometric signs with that professor as a master’s student, pretty much because of that class. It was these really basic questions like: Do the same signs appear at multiple sites? How many of them are there? All these really simple questions that I couldn’t find an answer to.
[laughs] There are lots of those. Definitely the dots intrigue me because they do tend to get ignored so much. There are also some particular shapes that I feel might be landscape features, so I’m looking forward to exploring them a bit more.
What it’s going to come down to is trying to think of tricky ways to look for some external data [such as constellations, lunar cycles, or landscape features] that we can anchor to. It’s always going to be little steps because we can never know for sure, but using modern technology and research in different fields, we might be able to identify some interesting new possibilities.
Photograph by Ryan Lash
I’m really excited; there are a lot of great options. One of the next projects that I’m really hoping to do is with [fellow Emerging Explorer David Lang]. He, of course, has those fantastic underwater robots. During the Ice Age there was so much water locked up in the ice sheets that the ocean levels were actually quite a bit lower, by 30 meters (close to 100 feet). So the question would be: Well, why wouldn’t there be art in caves that are now under the water? Now obviously water could very well have washed everything away, but what gives me hope is that they’ve found one cave in France with very specific conditions. There was this chamber with water at the base of it, but the actual main part of the chamber was just filled with air, and the art looked like it was made yesterday. So it’s possible that there could be some art waiting to be found off the coast of Cantabria in Spain if those types of conditions exist there too. If we can send the robots in to do the survey work for us, then that way we can save the divers for if we actually see something that looks promising. We’re really excited to go next summer. Definitely a bit of a needle in the haystack project but sometimes those are the most fun, right?
I think the continental shelf is a huge enigma at this point that’s just waiting to be explored. We know that people tend to live near shorelines, where there are great resources year-round. So we could very well be missing a large piece of the puzzle about people during the Ice Age in Europe by not having these areas that were probably fairly heavily populated documented.
I also really want to open source all my data. I think that’s really important. I want to make it so people have access to all the photos and all the documentation about the signs so they can start building on what we did rather than redoing it.
I’m just really fascinated by the fact that 200,000 years ago, there were people who looked like us and had our brain size, but they didn’t seem to quite be thinking like us yet. I’m trying to understand: When did these people truly become us, and how far back does that actually go?
We live in this incredibly graphic world, and none of that would exist if it weren’t for the fact that our Stone Age ancestors around the world started making these visible marks and storing their information this way. Even if there’s always the, “Well, we don’t know this for sure,” I think sometimes you can pull enough threads of data together to at least get a sense of what’s going on. I guess I’m just intrigued. I want to know what they were thinking, as much as is possible to know.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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