Rock Art to Alphabets
From their first
appearance onwards, pictographic signs seem to have been of two
& iconic, and the mutations
of those signs have lead to the emergence of alphabets.
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
We tend to think
that the very first pictographic
figurative sign , namely a sign one could recognise
has been the fingers- & hand-prints, made with
fingers and palm coated with coloured pigments.
prints have been found e.g. in France, at Cougnac (Fig. A).
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
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 ".
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).
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
mastering of the graver as a tool for graphical arts introduces a true technological mutation...
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.
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
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
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.
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.
us look now at the bison facing the man-bird at the Lascaux
In this painting, the mane of
the bison is evoked only by
straight parallel strokes.
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 .
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
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).
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.
is new ? Well, an innovative formatting process forced recognition
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.
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.
protoglyph, the spiral, has been used to represent the muscle of a leg,
like whose of a tiger at Helanshan (Fig Y)
the various"substitution protoglyphs" let
us mention the cup-mark:
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 ?
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.
down the Speech
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).
the mastering of the representation of an object by another one,
"graphemes" have been selected to be substituted to
the speech. According 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
Let recall that the cartridge of Cleopatra (Fig Z1), played a decisive
role in the work of Champollion to decipher hieroglyphs.
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
(because the "d" slipped toward "t" at the Ptolemaic times).
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.
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.