The Importance of Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are ancient pieces of artwork that have been etched into rock walls and are protected around the world for their archaeological richness. These early etchings, which involved the ‘artist’ scratching or removing the top layer of the rocks surface with a sharp instrument (Judd, 2011), depict any number of possible items (Liston & Rieth, 2010). Many petroglyphs are images of animals and anthropomorphic figures (Boivin, 2004). Some also depict what is assumed to be the artists’ immediate surroundings including rivers, trees and other aspects of local terrain (Boivin, 2004).

Around the world, petroglyphs dating as far back as the Neolithic period have been found and studied by archaeologists (Judd, 2011). Some of the scenes depicted in these carvings represent maps of the local terrain, religious rituals, hunting scenes, and scenes from everyday life (Boivin, 2004). Petroglyphs demonstrate that humans may have been using icons for many years to communicate and retell events of the local history and traditions. These carvings share information, state boundaries and show victories in battles (Boivin, 2004). These petroglyphs give us some insight into how early humans communicated with each other before developing a more abstract and complex language system based on phonetic sounds (Houston, 2004). Since petroglyphs are found around the world, it has been assumed that this is one of the earliest forms of written communication and cannot be attributed specifically to one civilization or settlement (Restall, 1997; Abraham, 2011). However, debate does occur about the development of similar petroglyphs as a manner of understanding trade routes and interactions between different cultures (Houston, 2004), as interactions occurred and one civilization may have learned or borrowed the techniques from another or subsequently dropped as civilizations fell into ruins (Houston, 2006).

According to Judd (2011), petroglyphs may be the early ancestors to hieroglyphs and may have been used to depict various meanings, ranging from religious to linguistic (p. 189). In studying petroglyphs, it is commonly assumed that an etching of a giraffe represents the word or animal ‘giraffe’ but the context and meaning of the petroglyph is not necessarily understood (Judd, 2011). This is possibly an early attempt by civilized cultures to develop a written form of communication (Judd, 2011; Houston, 2004).  Although not technically classified as a written language by most common definitions (Lawler, 2006), petrographic artwork certainly holds many similarities to hieroglyphics as a form of communication (Judd, 2011). It has been noted that petroglyphs found in areas of Egypt which have been dated to be more than 15, 000 years old (Judd, 2011), hold many similarities to the hieroglyphs that have been found in and around Egypt (Judd, 2011; Boivin, 2004). In ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, this move changed the writing style towards the use of hieroglyphics in which the artist used symbols to create sounds for the reader to follow and understand (Abraham, 2011; Houston, 2004).

According to Abraham (2011), we can see this changeover from pictographic or petrographic drawings to hieroglyphics in Egypt and throughout Africa (p. 82).  This adoption of the techniques developed throughout the ancient civilization in Africa may have led to the development of a written language within Africa (Abraham, 2011). This can also be highlighted in the Mesoamerican cultures in North America as the writing of Native tribes began to change from petroglyphs to the use of symbols in the form of pipettes in the American Southwest, as is explained by Wright and Russell (2011). In their research, Wright and Russell (2011) found that there are areas in which abstract symbol drawings are located near and around more primitive petroglyphs and are indications of religious movements and beliefs (p. 369). The use of abstract symbols gave primitive cultures the ability to describe such religious experiences as “transcendence between and emergence from worlds” (Wright & Russell, 2011, p. 367). The use of these abstract symbols indicates that as a writing system develops, there is a move from simple drawing, to represent literal experiences and meanings, to a more abstract representation of thoughts, ideas, stories, events and possibly words or sounds. This is supported by Houston (2004) as he notes that individual wall etchings cannot be generalized as they are very time and place specific to those that created them (p. 225). However, Houston (2004) is also quick to note that this does not render these etchings useless in determining the outcome of a written language as they can be used to extract understanding (p.225).

The evolution from petroglyphs to hieroglyphs is one that involved the change from the use of pictures representing literal objects or events to the use of symbols that represented sounds or similar sound clusters for reading (Restall, 1997). Fortunately, this change from simple graphic representations to graphics accompanied with phonetic markers and sounds has made understanding much simpler for modern archeologists (Houston, 2004). This change coincided with a change in human communication from regionalized dialects to a more universal communication need as trade and interactions between cultures increased (Judd, 2011) and possibly coincided as well with a change in the political landscape of the regions (Boivin, 2004; Robinson, 2002). It seems then, that there may have been political pressure placed on civilizations to adopt a writing system that was simpler to understand and interpret.

In more recent history, petroglyphs have also lead to written languages being created by Native American tribes in the Southern United States (Weeks & Tankersley, 2011). The discovery of etchings in the walls of caves has been linked to the development of the Cherokee syllabic writing system that was developed during the 19th century (Weeks & Tankersley, 2011). Although Cherokee is not an ancient language, this type of development from petrographic to syllabic is an example of how civilizations may have moved from primitive carvings in rock formations to the development of a language system for communication. The development of a syllabic writing system was a response to American colonization and aided the Cherokee civilization in keeping its own traditions and beliefs from getting lost under immense political and colonial pressure (Weeks & Tankersley, 2011).

The changes in which communication was recorded moved the human thought process to a different level of thinking. This is addressed by Ong (2002) when he discusses the movement of societies from primitive non-literate to literate and how the invention of writing changed fundamentally the way people thought (p. 99). This point is echoed by Houston (2004) as he discusses the spread of hieroglyphics around the world and their ability to supply present day researchers with evidence of writing practices, traditions and customs (p. 227).

Taking Bolter’s (2001) notion of remediation (p. 46) into consideration, the adoption of hieroglyphics and symbols into the writing system borrows elements from petrographic drawings. The development of hieroglyphs in Egypt and Mesoamerica included the use of symbols that represented phonemic sounds, literal signs as well as symbols to represent abstract concepts (Robinson 2002; Boivin, 2004; Houston, 2004). This inclusion of different elements set the groundwork for a more formalized writing system that made communication amongst cultures simpler (Liston & Rieth, 2010). Bolter (2001), notes that the creation of a new mode of communications adopts part of the system in which it is replacing (p. 46). In terms of early humans moving from petrographic to a more abstract and sound oriented writing system we see that there several aspects of petrography held in the new system (Bolter, 2001), such as the use of icons to represent literal and concrete objects.

We can see that as humans moved from etched carvings on the walls of caves and rock outcrops, to creating complex hieroglyphic messages on pyramids and tombs, the need to relate ideas has been met by the new method. This ratified and changed method was a response not only to possible political pressure but also by interactions amongst civilizations. Ancient Egyptian and Mesoamerican cultures showed this change from iconic petroglyphs to symbolic hieroglyphs including phonetic markers. The need to create a more universal and understandable manner for communication between people set a new standard for communication and eventually opened the doors for the creation of entirely phonemic based language, as demonstrated by the creation of the 19th century Cherokee language, rather than abstract symbols.



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