Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder, Outline for 'Our Ancestors Touch Us: The Writing of Early Humans'


AR06: 21/6/2003.

Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder. All rights reserved.

In Process.


Chapter One: Severines: What Do They Mean?

This chapter describes severines, initially focusing on Koonalda Cave in the Nullarbor Plain, South Australia. We also review the markings present in other Australian sites such as Orchestra Shell Cave, Cutta Cutta Cave, Kintore Cave, and caves in the Mount Gambier region, spotlighting the controversy that surrounds the authenticity of some of these markings - that is, whether humans or animals made them.

We also describe European severines - looking at the history of their discovery and, in research terms, their relative neglect. Representational images are easier for us moderns to understand and so these pictures have eclipsed severines in publications and research - which has lead to their 'sub-status' in European rock art studies.

I.        Koonalda: Severines and their challenge

A.    History of KS involvement with Koonalda

B.     Koonalda's challenge to KS

II.       Severines world-wide

A.    Their occurrence

1.    Bednarik on where they could be found

2.    Europe

a.    In relationship with cave 'art'

3.    Australasia

a.    In relationship with rock 'art'

B.     History of discovery

C.    Relative neglect; why

III.      Continuing KS story (weave these into rest of chapter)

A.    Other caves

1.    Warbla

2.    Australian seminar including Snowflake

3.    Bara Bahu

4.    Seminar in France; summers

5.    Pech Merle

6.    Rouffignac

7.    Les Combarelles: kicked out

8.    La Mouth

9.    Tayac cave

B.     Portable artifacts

        1.    Cyclons

        2.    Message sticks

        3.    Stones from Keilor

C.    Animal versus human problem

1.    OSC, Cutta Cutta, Koonalda boulders, etc.: what found, questions

2.    Therefore focus on flutings in meantime

D.    Smoothing and rounding of rocks in Koonalda

        1.    Age of engravings

E.     Experiments

F.     IFRAO papers

G.    Introduce our continuing work there

1.    Michel

2.    Plassards

3.    Rouffignac with LVG

4.    Trying to understand severines


Chapter Two: What Severines Don't Mean

European archaeologists such as the Henri Breuil and André Leroi-Gourhan developed systems for understanding prehistoric art - which we can now see as rather inadequate. Leroi-Gourhan, for instance, saw severines as male sexual symbols and Breuil thought of severines as the most primitive form of expression out of which the drawing and painting of animals developed. Suggestions as to the meaning of severines abound - as water symbols, snakes, hunting tallies, for instance - but none of them apply to all severines. More recent interpretations by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams see severines as attempts to enter the underworld; another highly unlikely suggestion.

If you think about it, how could we possibly know what severines mean? We can't even decipher our own handwriting at times!

I.        What do severines mean?

A.    Henri Breuil

1.    Most primitive form of expression

2.    Problems with this

B.     André Leroi-Gourhan

1.    Male sexual symbols

2.    Problems with this

C.    Alexander Marshack

1.    Water related

2.    Problems with this

D.    Alexander Gallus

1.    Engrams

2.    Problems with this

E.     Robert Bednarik

1.    Entopic signs

2.    Problems with this

F.     David Lewis-Williams & Jean Clottes

1.    Shamanistic: entering the underworld

2.    Problems with this

G.    Other ideas

1.    Snakes, hunting tallies, etc.

2.    Problems with these

II.       Better not to seek meaning yet

A.    'Meaning' hampers research

B.     Get data that meaning ideas need to fit

C.    Find out about their makers

D.    Show some consistency so study is worthwhile


Chapter Three: A Better Approach to Severines

It makes more sense at this stage to drop the hunt for meaning and to focus on how the lines were made: what does this tell us about, not only the severines, but the people who made them? Alexander Marshack pioneered a technique called 'internal analysis' in which we look at the cross-sections of the lines to see what tool was used to make them, and at the intersections of lines to tell the order in which they were made. We can extend this approach and say a lot about the markings. We have also tried fluting in the laboratory and can say a lot about the fluters as a result.

I.        Marshack's internal analysis

A.    What Marshack did

1.    Breuil's idea of huts

2.    Calendar

II.       d'Errico's extension

A.    Critique of Marshack

B.     New work

1.    Azilian pebbles

2.    Africa

III.      Applying internal analysis to severines

A.    Cross sections and intersections

B.     Other parameters to look at

1.    Finger widths

2.    Relative finger heights

IV.      Plus experimentation

A.    Circles only overhead

B.     Range of fluting possible

C.    Turning corners

D.    Angles of units

E.     Measuring hands for widths and relative finger heights

1.    Women versus men

2.    Young versus old

3.    One individual versus another

F.     Drawing mammoths by left- and right-handers

V.       Now to look at severines

A.    Involves the giving of names (to avoid interpretations, etc.)


Chapter Four: What We Learn about Severines

In this chapter, we describe the results of our internal analysis studies of severines found in Rouffignac Cave, France. Different forms of severines emerge from this approach and we learn about the people who fluted them. The Mirian Form, for instance, was mostly made by young children held aloft to run their fingers over the cave ceiling.

I.        Finding out about severine makers vs. the meaning of severines to them

II.       Applying the theory to Rouffignac

A.    Mirian Form

1.    Studies on hands

2.    Children as paintbrushes

3.    Bending over obstacles: children facing backwards

4.    Dance

B.     Kirian Form

1.    Multiple applications

2.    Dating

3.    Sets of 7

4.    Direction of fluting

C.    Rugolean Form

1.    Standing by the X

D.    Other flutings

1.    Zigzags overtop

E.     These findings are provisional

III.      Conclusion: What we can actually say about Rouffignac severine makers


Chapter Five: Severines as Proto-Writing

We then turn to look into studies of human psychology, covering sensory deprivation, the effects of touch (some theories suggest that humans instinctively leave marks in soft surfaces), and other matters that might us understand the reason behind the production of severines. We discuss parallels to finger markings, particularly those in Australian Aboriginal societies - as body decoration, and sand and mud paintings, for instance.

This chapter also covers the beginnings of human abstract behavior, according to the archaeological record. Many examples illustrate this phenomenon, the rudiments of which appear as far back as the Lower Paleolithic. Several theories for the evolution of mind compete for acceptance at present. One proposes that the mind comprises compartments, different compartments maturing and interacting with each other at different stages of human evolution, and thence producing different behaviors and capacities. What might these theories suggest about the nature of representations like the severines?

Many severines, we conclude, are a form of writing, proto-writing if you will, in which the fluters could put down something whose meaning other members of their society could understand.

What this means for us moderns is something else interesting to explore: What implications can we draw for the modern mind?

I.        What did severines mean to their fluters?

II.       Review and dismiss other suggestions as in Chapter 2

III.      Suggestion: severines a proto-writing

A.    Meaning of 'proto-writing'

1.    What others say about proto-writing and severines

2.    Goes from alphabetic system for small group to act of participation in a story

B.     Background for the suggestion. For example:

1.    Psychological and neuroscience studies

a.    Brain development

b.    Sensory deprivation

c.    Effects of touch

d.    Humans instinctively leave marks in soft surfaces

e.    Pre-writing children make lines to depict a story

2.    Parallels with Australian Aboriginal behaviors

a.    Body decoration

b.    Sand and mud paintings

c.    Message sticks

d.    Cylcons

3.    Ogham script

4.    Silk route culture script

C.    The evolution of the mind as a context

1.    Mithen's theory

a.    What it says about severines

2.    Other theories

a.    Possibilities

(1)    d'Errico?

(2)    Gallus?

(3)    Marshack?

(4)    Breuil?

(5)    Leroi-Gourhan?

b.    What they say about severines

IV.      Different forms of severines and proto-writing

A.    Kirian structures

B.     Rugolean: possibly in a participatory sense

C.    Mirian: probably not unless danced story

D.    Conclusion: only simply-structured forms proto-writing?

V.       Relationships between severines as proto-writing and other forms of prehistoric 'art'

A.    Animals

B.     Dots

C.    Hands

D.    Signs

E.     Engraved lines

VI.      Taking the proto-writing suggestion further

A.    Testing the suggestion

B.     What more can be done with it?

VII.    Conclusion

A.    Writing emerges from something

B.     Respect to be paid to non-modern western peoples

C.    The modern versus the Paleolithic mind