BOOK REVIEW: The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols by Genevieve Von Petzinger


Von Petzinger, Genevieve. The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols. (New York: Atria Books [an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.], 2016).


Here is another book that I ran into on the “New Releases” book shelf at the local university library. The symbols that Von Petzinger discusses in her book aren’t really interpreted in any fashion, but they are still fascinating as a topic that explores the earliest evidence of humans creating symbolism, remembrances, and possibly the first visual ars memoria systems known to upright primates. While not delving at all into modern symbolic interpretation or theories, Von Petzinger unwittingly hits on several facets of the human tendency to express ourselves visually and of finding meaning in those ocular expressions.


The most interesting chapter in this book concerned the 16,000 year-old necklace found in a burial mound of the Dordogne region of [what is now known as] France. Discovered and excavated in 1934, the necklace of polished 72 red deer teeth—found still arranged around the neck of the skeletal body—were assumed to have been strictly ornamental. It was the author of this book, however—a researcher of Ice Age cave art—who realized that not only did the carvings on the teeth not repeat themselves (repeated motifs would have been an indicator of simple artistic ornamentation), and that all of the teeth were individuated by their uniquely carved symbols…but that those symbols matched cave art symbols found in specific instances in the caves of the Dordogne region—an area where some of the most famous cave wall paintings have been found, including those of the Lascaux Caves.


the deer teeth beads from a 160,000-year-old necklace

Some of the deer teeth beads from a 16,000-year-old necklace. Some of the carvings on the teeth can be seen on the sides of the teeth.


Unfortunately, the excavators and archeologists of the burial sight didn’t have the prescience to fully record the teeth in the position or placement that they were found. This is unfortunate because they might’ve provided a sort of Ice Age Rosetta Stone, with the ability to decipher symbols throughout the geographic region. This is not to say that the symbols were language. They could have been. But current evidence suggests that developed writing didn’t occur for another 10,000 years with the Chinese, Egyptians, and the Sumerians. But one has to ask one’s self: what is writing and an alphabet…but symbols?


In addition to the carved-symbol teeth, there were also several non-carved teeth, and the author laments further the absence of original excavation data, wondering whether [like our own Roman language] “blank” or unmarked teeth were meant to be “spacers” between words or thoughts or phrases. We’ll never know, but it’s astonishing to contemplate.


Individuated markings on some of the deer teeth beads


Zoom views of some of the individuated carving marks on the deer teeth beads of the St. Germain de Riviére burial site necklace.


Von Petzinger does go so far as to make conjecture based on her extensive data recordings of symbols in the region:


“While the signs’ meaning remains elusive as ever, I do have some thoughts about what the function of these sign configurations could have been. Based on the type of signs being used, I believe the necklace may have been some sort of system of notation or mnemonic device (memory aid). The reason I say this is because rather than the necklace having a variety of signs such as we see more commonly in cave art, here the teeth are dominated by different numbers of lines in rows, something often seen with tally sticks. In a hunter-gatherer context, these sticks can be used for everything from recording animal kills to tracking seasonal events (say, a fall salmon run) or timing ceremonies. Another potential explanation is that these linear markings were a memory aid for an important narrative or ceremonial recitation, meaning that the storyteller could use the teeth as a way to ensure that an oral story was recounted correctly, the major story elements being recalled via the markings on the teeth…

“…While this doesn’t directly help us understand the markings on the teeth, it does suggest that the [deceased woman] and her contemporaries may have already begun to store information externally in the form of graphic marks for later retrieval—a highly abstract practice that is often closely related to the development of proto-writing systems.” (p. 204-205)


Is this, then, perhaps the earliest memory aid for storytelling? Wow. …And what’s phenomenal about the possibility is that we still to this day use visual and symbolic aids to help us remember sequences and aid in our storytelling. It’s basically and elementally what we’re doing when we read tarot cards.


What Von Petzinger doesn’t go so far as to speculate is the possibility that—again, due to the individuated unique markings on each separate tooth—the possibility must exist for the symbols to have been used in fortune-telling or soothsaying rituals. Time and again throughout history we discover that our prudential brains take past events and warily conjecture about them happening again in the future. And particularly with symbolically-invested amulets and objects in a series, such as with dice, or cards, or runes, or other re-arrange-able objects, it becomes extremely easy for the storytelling, creative human brain to “invent” future scenarios, that may or may not come true, based solely on the random recurrence of the symbolic memory produced by the visual aid. This very tendency is a rich—if corruptible—historical fact throughout human societies and civilizations, and virtually every civilization has had its oracles and soothsayers and prophets predicting future events.


Von Petzinger has an extremely readable style and her awe of time and history and the significance of relationship to our progenitors is palpable: “I never lose that sense of wonder at actually touching something that belonged to a fellow human separated from me by tens of thousands of years. That connection with another individual across time is electrifying, almost mystical.” And it is just as electrifying to read about von Petzinger’s accounts of it. Her reverence is the reverence that bibliophiles have for books and well-turned phrases…only her tummy-tickling inspiration is the scratches and scrawls of much more ancient ancestors upon rock walls in caves.


She does a decent job of trying to relay the science behind modern thought on ancient hominid development—and in particular the development of language, the creation of symbolism, pictograms, and proto-writing. Sometimes better at the physics and physiology of how hominids would’ve become linguistically capable, von Petzinger isn’t always creative about painting a holistic picture about how communication likely developed. For instance she focuses on the presence of the hyoid bone and development of brain regions that would have allowed elocution of vocalizations, but reading her chapter on language development, one would think that understandable enunciations comprised the whole of dual-individual communication. Whereas there isn’t any inquiry or investigation in her writing that explores non-verbally developed methods of communication—such as the over one-million facial musculature variations that can express emotions, or body or hand gestural signals that can communicate visual information without saying a word. Still one gets a sense of von Petzinger’s awe at the gigantic-ness of what the human species has accomplished as an animal on this small planet. And it’s refreshing to have scientific references and footnotes that reference papers and research by paleoanthropologists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary linguists to support her synopsis.


This is book is a love affair of a professional research scientist with her subject, not—as we’ve been conditioned to tolerate in recent times—an investigative reporter trying to make a meme about some piece of unflattering “buzz” sociology. But von Petzinger’s writing is not stuffy; rather, it’s down-to-earth and completely readable. Von Petzinger has produced a great leisure book that allows us to contemplate the wonder of our species’ development and learn something new. It’s like looking up at the stars and being encompassed by the weight and gravity of it all—except that it’s about the weight and gravity and the story of us.





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