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A. Finger-prints

click INORA   B. Hand-prints

From Rock Art to Alphabets

From their first appearance onwards, pictographic signs seem to have been of two distinct types:
figurative & iconic, and the mutations of those signs have lead to the emergence of alphabets.

We will try to demonstrate that the relevant generic process involved here is the decomposition of the signs into prefabricated elements, decomposition into repeat elements, ready to be assembled in various ways.

At the Sign Dawn

We tend to think that the very first pictographic figurative sign , namely a sign one could recognise without ambiguity,
has been the fingers-  & hand-prints, made with fingers and palm coated with coloured pigments.

Digital prints have been found e.g. in France, at Cougnac (Fig. A).

At the Chauvet cave, as it has been demonstrated by the make-up of Baffier & Feruglio, the palm of the right hand has been used as a stamp (Fig. B).

Let us remark that the "page setting" of those hands reflects a prototype organisation of the mental thought. The meaning of this pictorial message might be " I  imprint  the trace  of  my  hands, therefore I do  exist ".

An important technological invention has been the blow printing. This process allows to produce the so-called negative hands, such as the ones at the cave of El Castillo, in Spain (Fig. C).

As illustrated by this picture of a tag (Fig. D) on a wall in Lisbon, this paleospray technique onto a hand shaped stencil experienced recently a renewal.

The mastering of the graver as a tool for graphical arts introduces a true technological mutation...

In Helanshan, (Fig. E) in Northern China, it is the left hand which has been used as a model. But the graver offers extended possibilities, which appears most useful for iconic representations.

One of the first sculpted iconic signs has been the pubic triangle as, in France, at the Chauvet cave or on the Frise Bourdois at Angles s/Anglin (Fig F.). This icon evokes whole alone by itself, without ambiguities, the sapiens sapiens genitor- ...the breeder-female.  

In Helanshan, the pubic triangle is the most significant attribute of the couple of what I call the insect-women (Fig . G).

This icon (Fig H) will be taken over in Sumer in order to become the cuneiform ideogram for woman (Fig.I), not carved with a graver, but imprinted into a tablet of soft clay with a Reed stylus. This Akkadian word-sign was developed from a straight line approximation and rotation over 90 degree from the pubic triangle. 

The typical contour

 Let us come back to figurative signs with the engraved horse in Mazouco, in Portugal. (Fig. J) or in Coa of a horned bovine or a man's head (Fig. K and L). This is open air Palaeolithic art, therefore visible by everybody. Jan Deregowski was the first to acknowledge that the process of graphical representation used belongs to the eye-brain system.
He called it the "typical contour". The rule is : to show the elements selected as the most useful for the recognition of the model, each one represented under its most characteristic or unusual angle.
Clearly only a couple of lines are enough to characterise a horse or a bovine.

 In the same manner, as shown by the very recent discovery in the Cave of Cussac, in France, only a few strokes engraved 30 thousand years ago suffice to depict a woman (Fig M). Noteworthy, those women are faceless.

To paraphrase Deregowski, as soon as one considers the face and the various attributes, "Man is a difficult beast very to draw". The attributes are not coplanar. It is necessary to involve several view-points. Here, at Listleby, in Sweden, we have a hunter with a quite unexpected face (Fig N). There is no mouth. The eyes are engraved outside the head, under the ears. The hand is drawn open, the calves of the legs are well pronounced, the genitals are sideways, the trunk is front-view, and the feet are both top view of left foot, placed at the extremities of the legs.

Attributes... diacritical signs

 Let us look now at the bison facing the man-bird at the Lascaux cave  (Fig. P)

In this painting, the mane of the bison is evoked only by straight parallel strokes.

We will find such strokes 5000 years later, in the therapeutic tattoos of Oetzi (Fig P), the mummy of the glaciers' man, discovered in 1991 at the italo-austrian border of the glacier of Similaun in Italian Tyrol .

Again in Rouergue, in France, such parallel strokes (Fig R) have been used to represent the scarifications of menhir-statues. It is noteworthy that this statue is mute. Its face has no mouth. This absence testifies that in Megalithic Age the orality was not yet sacralized. The message remains a memo of the mute transactions between men and gods.
One could notice that the feet are drawn as the straight extension of the legs in conformity with the typical contour as coined by Deregowski..

The disposition of feet in extension of the limbs is not reserved to human representations. E.g. the paws of the horned animal of Twyfelfontein, in Namibia, are terminated by hoof-prints (Fig. S).


 At Twyfelfontein, the lion's paw (Fig T) becomes a "prefabricated" sign, a graphical repeat element, suitable to be used anywhere, i.e. to represent the tuft of hair of the lion's tail. We would like to call "protoglyphs" or graphemes, those stereotyped signs of reference-objects.

What is new ? Well, an innovative formatting process forced recognition

In order to represent important parts of a portrait (like the eyes, or the hair, etc) an attribute is represented by the protoglyph of another object. This mutation within pictographic signs is therefore in-formatical.

Stelae of Carthage are providing good examples of the long-life character of this process. To represent faces, two couples moon-sun have been used for the eyes and, for the nose, the image of the Goddess Tanit (Fig V) or the image of a blessing hand. (Fig. U)
In Helanshan, the grapheme "horned head" has been used to represent the details of a face, but the mouth is still missing (Fig W).

The tribe's chief of Mont Bego is very interesting (Fig X). Not only the grapheme "horned head" has been used to represent the face, but this "graphical repeat element" is used 5 times, in various sizes, for the construction of the body.

Another protoglyph, the spiral, has been used to represent the muscle of a leg, like whose of a tiger at Helanshan (Fig Y)

Among the various"substitution protoglyphs" let us mention the cup-mark:

At La Gardette, cup-marks have been substituted to the hands, to the feet, to the nose, to the eyes of this male anthropomorph. (Fig. Z). Let us notice the presence now of an oral attribute. The transactions with the gods are no longer mute. There is a paradigmatic change. This call for a question: does the role of the primal verb characterizes the emergence of the patriarchal society ?

I will allow myself here a short parenthesis: The emergence of patriarchy seems to me, bound to the abandon of the lunar calendar to the profit of the solar calendar. On the picture is seen- at the winter solstice sun rise - how the shadow of the plumb-bob is parallel to the symmetry axis of the anthropomorph and allow the marking of the new year's day , of the shortest day of the solar year.

Writing down the Speech

The substitution protoglyph found its most advanced application with the imprint of the Reef stylus in the soft clay tablet .
As we have seen earlier, in
Sumer, for the cuneiform ideogram "woman" or "female" the imprint of the wedge of the Reef stylus was substituted to the four strokes of the pubic triangle icon.In the cuneiform ideogram for man, or male, within two thousands years the codification of this substitution made the subject unrecognizable. The following mutation is economical. The transactions have lead to code the oral, and, more specifically, to code the names of the partners (men or gods).

After the mastering of the representation of an object by another one, "graphemes" have been selected to be substituted to the speechAccording to the acrophonic principle, one substitutes to the complete name of an object its first "letter".E.g. the grapheme lion, lou in Egyptian, léo, in latinhas been chosen by the Egyptians scribes tor transcribe the sound " l ", which one found in names such as Alexander or Cléopâtra. Let recall that the cartridge of Cleopatra (Fig Z1), played a decisive role in the work of Champollion to decipher hieroglyphs.

Some protoglyphs represent human attributes such as the hand and the mouth. The hieroglyph "det", hand, took the phonetic value "d", while the hieroglyph mouth, face, "rosh" in Semitic, rostro in Spanish, took the value "r".Those two letters, the "d" and the "r", appear on the royal cartridges of Alexander the Great and of the Queen Cleopatra "Qliopadra". While one says Alexander, one says Cleopatra (because the "d" slipped toward "t" at the Ptolemaic times).

The satellite picture of the Nile delta remind us that the Greeks ended up to confuse the human attributes hand and mouth. They used the letter "delta" to indicate the mouth of the Nile, la desembocadura del Nil.

I hope that this short overview provided at least some hints how the oldest among the alphabets, the Egyptian alphabet has a long history with its roots deeply embeded into Prehistory and Rock art.

virtual laboratory for archaeometry


na.jpg (2123 bytes)

C. Negative hand

click gde vue (8kbytes)

D. "Tag" 1998

h01a1.gif (33072 bytes)

E. Hand engraving

click frise Bourdois

F.  Pubo-genital triangle

G. Woman-insect with  attributes

.  H. Pubic triangle: before & after rotation
I.  Cuneiform ideogram for woman

J. Typical contour of a horse

L. Protolusatanian Profile

K. Contour typique d'un cornu

M. Gravettian Lady

N. Hunter with spear

P. Hunter, bird & buffalo

Q. Therapeutical
dorsal tatoos 

R. Mute woman

S. Limbs with hoof-print

T.  Paw-print at the tip of the lion's tail 

U. Blessing hand as substitute

V. Goddess as substitue

W.  Horned head 
as substitute

X Horned head
as substitue

Y. Spiral as substitute

Z. Cup-mark as substitute

Z1. Cleopatra's cartouche with R & D