Northern Spain’s Cueva de El Castillo and Cueva de La Pasiega both contain incredible specimens of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, paintings and engravings in Cantabria province and southwestern France. El Castillo cave is home of the earliest-found rock paintings in the world, dating back at least 40,800 years, and contains 45 hand prints, 50 symbols, and 180 depictions of animals. La Pasiaga’s cave “contains the largest number of cave paintings anywhere in the Iberian Peninsula. There are 291 drawings of animals, 134 complete symbols and 25 series of isolated dots.”

Tour these early signs of graphic communication with paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger in this clip from Origins: The Journey of Humankind, hosted by Jason Silva: Inventing Graphics on Cave Walls.

Why did von Petzinger become a paleoanthropologist?

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…

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.

A deeper dive into her work can be found at TED.com: Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves all over Europe?

Related reading: Mysterious Markings May Hold Clues to Origin of Writing and How Communication Made Us Modern.

Also, at NPR: For How Long Have We Been Human?

Watch Deep in the caves with Homo Naledi & the Rising Star Expedition and Animated Life: Mary Leakey & the Laetoli footprints next.

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