Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Paleolithic symbols and a few Indus signs

I have not written a post in some time, as I have been reading a few books concerning rock art, that is, on petroglyphs and pictographs created by non-literate peoples.  In his famous work on European Paleolithic art, A. Leroi-Gourhan grouped the geometric or non-representational symbols into two major groups, male and female (1967: 513-514, Charts XXXII & III). 

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, types A 1-3 (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

  Among the female symbols, he included four subgroups: (1) triangular signs, (2) oval signs, (3) quadrangular signs, and (4) claviform signs.  The triangular elements, he thought, derived ultimately from representations of female genitalia.  Included in this group are symbols that resemble a bird track, or arrow with short shaft, which do bear some resemblance to the original triangle-with-central-vertical.  Also included in his “triangular signs,” though, are those also termed tectiforms (hut-like).  In this subgroup, the “huts” have peaked “roofs” and so contain an angle but are not necessarily otherwise very similar to triangles.  

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, types B 1-3 (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Among Indus signs, the BISECTED TRIANGLE (IV 11) best parallels the simple form of the ancient triangular symbols.  An almost identical symbol came to be used in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite for a female of low status.  As noted in my earlier post on this Indus sign, triangular symbols in other cultures have very different significations: Egyptian uses a small triangle within a larger one (Gardiner X8) representing a type of bread loaf for the sound di, most often meaning “give.”  Luwian uses a triangle with vertical and/or horizontal line(s) for REX, i.e. “king.”  In rock art of North America, the bisected triangle may occasionally represent an arrowhead (Newcomb 1996: 90, Pl. 50 no. 3).  More commonly, the angle with an inner vertical, similar to a short-stemmed Indus TRI-FORK (III 13), appears to represent a bird track (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 165, fig. 102a).

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, type C (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Oval signs, the next of Leroi-Gourhan’s female group, also derive from depictions of female genitalia, according to his proposal, but from a different viewpoint.  Among Indus symbols, there is a circle or oval containing a short vertical like the ancient sign (PACMAN, my III 28), but contextual analysis of inscriptions indicates this is merely a variant of CIRCLED FORK.  One variation of the oval that Leroi-Gourhan shows is almost identical to the Indus LOOP (II 10); yet another seems more like PARENS (II 20) but without surrounding anything.  One more remarkable inclusion in the Paleolithic grouping is a close match for the Indus SKEWERED STACKED TRIPLE CIRCLES (VII 55).  Grouping together such disparate symbols may not be good idea in the early stages of research, as any statistical measures will then obscure as much as they reveal.

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, types D 1-2 (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Leroi-Gourhan views his fourth subgroup, the quadrangular signs, as further variations on the original depiction of the vulva.  In appearance, however, the squared off symbols are rather different from either triangles or rounded signs.  Some are simple squares or rectangles, containing a short vertical, while others contain one or more tall, bisecting verticals. Compare to this the Indus DOUBLE BISECTED RECTANGLE (VI 7). Still others contain both vertical(s) and a horizontal, which recalls the Indus WINDOW (VI 4) and TRIPLE BRICK (VI 5).  As more lines are added to the various possibilities, some eventually resemble the Indus GRID (VIII 6) or even representations of decorated cloth.  Also included among the quandrangular signs are elements much like the Indus COMB (VI 20) and HAIRPICK (V 12), as well as the very simple and not very boxy EX (II 12)!  Even vertical strokes not joined by a horizontal may appear in this category.

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, type E (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Leroi-Gourhan’s final subgroup of female signs is termed claviform (club shaped).  In contrast to all the other female signs, this group supposedly derives from a profile depiction of a woman whose behind is somewhat exaggerated.  In the more typical simplified version, there is a single vertical stroke with a bump attached on one side which Leroi-Gourhan takes to be the remnant of the big behind.  In some versions, there is more than one vertical stroke, and in others, the verticals are somewhat curved.  The “derived” versions are quite varied and differ substantially from the supposed original, sometimes being termed aviforms (bird-like).  These are typically horizontal signs where the claviforms are more often vertical.  The aviforms reminds me of the Indus POT LID (V 17 AND VI 21), though its name indicates that it recalls to others a bird in flight.

The male signs are subdivided into four groups: hooked or “spear-thrower” signs, barbed signs, single and double strokes, and dots, rows of dots, single and double.  Here again, Leroi-Gourhan begins with an ancient depiction of male genitalia, seeing this as the inspiration for the hooked signs.  Most of those found in rock art comprise a longish vertical stroke with various short vertical strokes near the top and sometimes the bottom of the long stroke.  This type does not seem to have a parallel among the Indus signs.  The closest parallel is the "arrow" element found in a few uncommon signs.  And in these, as my name for such implies, the two short strokes are oblique, meeting the top of the taller vertical -- not the case in most of the Paleolithic "spear-thrower" signs.

The second male subgroup, barbed signs, is more familiar, containing what I termed the GRAIN EAR (V 18).  As noted in the post concerning this Indus sign, a symbol resembling an ear of grain is virtually universal, though it represents somewhat varied items from place to place (and time to time) – sometimes a plant, sometimes a feather, occasionally something else.

The single and double strokes of Paleolithic art are much like the apparent numerals among Indus signs.  Interestingly though, the Ice Age “shorts” and “longs” sometimes appear in groups of two, either pairs of strokes arranged in a vertical series, or such pairings stretched out in a horizontal line.  Such pairings do not appear in Indus inscriptions.

The final male group includes dots.  Like strokes, these occur in lines, either vertical or horizontal lines.  Sometimes too, again like the strokes, pairs of dots occur, arranged in vertical or horizontal sets.  Occasionally, both dots and strokes occur together in a larger pattern, an arrangement found only once on an Indus tablet as far as I know.  The Indus "symbol" may be a representation of the so-called "trough" that often appears before an iconic animal.  Since there were no domestic animals during the Ice Age when arrangements of dots and strokes were carved or painted, we can confident these are not representations of feeding troughs, not even highly schematized ones.

As with many attempts to discover the meaning of symbols without a living tradition, Leroi-Gourhan’s analysis has not convinced everyone.  He does show that certain elements – whether geometric signs or depictions of Ice Age animals – tend to appear together in Paleolithic art.  But when it all seems to come down just two categories, one has to wonder if more has been lost in the analysis than has been gained by such a description. Why would the artists have needed so many different symbols and depictions just to communicate two ideas? 

A recent unpublished MA thesis has reexamined some of the basic data in Leroi-Gourhan’s study (G. von Petzinger 2009).  This author has divided the symbols into 26 groups, ignoring the earlier clumping into male and female.  Many of the variants of a single sign in Leroi-Gourhan’s study appear here as separate signs.  For example, von Petzinger separates out many variations of the earlier “triangular signs”:
  • OPEN ANGLE (found as a vee or chevron, or as a bisected vee or DUBYA),
  • FLABELLIFORM (resembling the top of the Indus QUAD-FORK or QUINT-FORK without the “stem”), and
  • TECTIFORM (or hut-like element, something like an arrow on a horizontal base, sometimes with additional elements included).
  • She keeps CIRCLE and OVAL (pointed at both ends as in Indus script) separate as well, both from each other and from the triangular signs they were grouped with in the earlier scheme.
  • Leroi-Gourhan placed HALF CIRCLE or “U” shape among the triangular signs also, which again Von Petzinger separates.
  • Two unusual “variants” of the triangular signs that are separate here are CORDIFORM (resembling a Valentine’s heart) and RENIFORM (or “kidney-shape” resembling the Indus DOWN HEART).
  • SPIRAL is perhaps to be included here, as Leroi-Gourhan seems to have viewed this as a variant of a circled circle (or DONUT in the terms I used for Indus signs) and grouped with circles and ovals among the “triangular signs.”
  • The CLAVIFORM appears as separate category,
  • AVIFORM being independent of it here.

Von Petzinger has a separate category for QUANDRANGLE wherein she considers most of the quadrangular signs of Leroi-Gourhan’s analysis.  But she does separate out some elements:
  • SCALARIFORM (or ladder-like element) is independent,
  • CROSSHATCH (TIC TAC TOE or  GRID without an enclosing line)
  • “X” is also a separate category, termed CRUCIFORM, as well as a
  • DOTS comprise another category.
  • LINES are yet another, not grouped together here.

There are six additional symbols in von Petzinger's work that Leroi-Gourhan did not list in his work:
  • ZIGZAG, 
  • SERPENTIFORM (a lazy “S” shape), 
  • POSITIVE and NEGATIVE HANDS (considered separately), 
  • CUPULES (similar to dots in shape but indentations), and 
  • FINGER FLUTING (miscellaneous markings made in soft clay with the fingers, usually not either representational or forming clearcut signs).

Thus we see that two researchers looking at much the same material classify its elements differently, a result also found in research on the Indus script.  The approaches of the two researchers also differ.  Where Leroi-Gourhan attempted an analysis involving at least some level of meaning, Von Petzinger does not.  Instead, she focuses on determining when, where, and how often each sign appears.  Both approaches are useful and provide suggestions for future study.  So it is with Indus script research.  Much can be done without getting into the question of what the symbols mean.


Heizer, R.F. and M.A. Baumhoff. 1962 & 1984. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. Berkeley: University of California.
Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1967. Treasures of Prehistoric Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Newcomb, W.W. 1967 and 1996. The Rock Art of Texas Indians. Austin: University of Texas.
Von Petzinger, G. 2009. Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art. Accessed at http://dspace.library.unic.ca:8080/handle/1828/1402 ; also available at the Bradshaw Foundation website.