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Dating Although the Aviform symbol occurs in three periods - the Aurignacian, the Solutrean and the Magdalenian - most Aviforms were created from the early period of Solutrean art onwards, that is, from about 22,000-20,000 BCE. - Les Trois Freres Cave, Hautes-Pyrenees - Roucadour Cave Art, Quercy, Lot.

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In a recent film of the world-famous Chauvet Cave, for example, the film director totally ignored the abstract paintings on the walls, as he moved from one animal picture to another.

But things may be about to change, thanks to Genevieve von Petzinger and April Nowell, researchers at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, whose ground-breaking investigation into the types, characteristics and location of abstract signs and symbols in French cave art during the Upper Paleolithic era, leads them to believe that this mysterious type of abstract cave art may in fact represent the earliest form of pictorial language.

Incidence is widespread with signs being found in the Ardeche, along the Pyrenees, and in the Perigord. Prevalence and Location Hand stencils appear in caves and rock shelters, and on rock surfaces throughout the prehistoric world. When withdrawn, it leaves a coloured imprint of the hand (or palmprint) on the rock wall. As in the case of hand stencils, the differing shapes and features of handprints enable them to convey different meanings, and thus may act as a primitive kind of sign-language.

Elsewhere they are found in south Australia - see Koonalda Cave Art (18,000 BCE) - Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Examples Prehistoric sites of "Finger Fluting" include: - Altamira Cave, Antillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain. Curiously, they often appear in conjunction with dots: see, for example, the El Castillo Cave paintings in Cantabria, Spain. - Rouffignac Cave, Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac, Dordogne. Good examples of handprints appear among the Cosquer Cave paintings (c.25,000 BCE).

It is true of course that very little prehistoric art is considered to be "art for art's sake": even animal pictures are interpreted as pictographs with their own messages to convey. The point is, that what used to be thought of as trivial doodles, scribbles or test markings, may actually be Stone Age man's first attempts to communicate through symbols rather than pictures.

If so, a whole new branch of Paleolithic art may be about to open up.

Examples Prehistoric caves that contain "Aviforms", include: - Altamira Cave, Antillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain. - La Pasiega Cave, Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain. Examples Stone Age caves that contain "Circles", include: - Abri Castanet, Sergeac, Dordogne. See the oldest claviforms in the Altamira Cave paintings (c.34,000 BCE). Dating The few cordiforms that do exist were created across a wide time-span.

Dating Not unlike Aviforms, most claviforms in France date from about 20,000 BCE onwards, first appearing in the Solutrean, before becoming increasingly popular with Magdalenian cave artists between 15,000 and 10,000 BCE. - Les Combarelles Cave, Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne. The first instance occurred in the Aurignacian, aound 30,000 BCE; the other two instances in the Magdalenian, the last period of Upper Paleolithic culture. Prevalence and Location Crosshatch signs are found in roughly 18 percent of French sites, notably in the French Pyrenees.

Contents • Introduction • Aviform • Circle • Claviform • Cordiform • Crosshatch • Cruciform • Cupule • Dot • Fan-Shape (Flabelliform) • Finger Fluting • Half-Circle • Hand Stencil • Handprint • Line • Open-Angle • Oval • Pectiform • Penniform • Quadrangle • Reniform • Scalariform • Serpentiform • Spiral • Tectiform • Triangle • Unciform • W-sign • Zigzag • Other Caves with Signs The oldest known cave painting is an abstract sign (a red-ochre disk or dot) discovered at the El Castillo Cave in Cantabria, Spain, which dates back to at least 39,000 BCE.

Not far from El Castillo is another ancient Spanish rock shelter known as Altamira Cave, where two abstract symbols (club-shaped images known as claviforms) have been dated to at least 34,000 BCE.

The truth is, abstract symbols dominate parietal art - at least within the Franco-Cantabrian region - both in terms of age and quantity.