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The function of graphic signs in prehistoric societies: the case of Cantabrian quadrilateral signs

Abstract: The making of images has played an important role in the functioning of prehistoric societies because it is a tool of communication that contributes to the stability of social groups. First and foremost, the image can serve as a form of visual support for the collective myths that form the basis of culture, but all forms of imagery, figurative and non-figurative, can serve as significant markers within a society. Members of traditional societies can be defined by their membership in a group (clan, lineage, social status, etc.), which can be made visible through graphic signs that are made according to more or less strict rules known by all members of the larger society. Such distinctive marks can be applied directly to the body of each individual (through body painting, tattooing, scarification), but they can also be reproduced on external surfaces (such as cave or rock walls), and thus acquire the status of a representative in absentia. It has been proposed at various times that these graphic expressions, generally called ?signs,? constitute veritable ?identity markers? that can be perceived at multiple levels. Within a group, they serve to signal the membership of each individual to a social status or category. In intergroup relationships, they can have a more general role as markers of territory or ethnicity (Leroi-Gourhan, 1981). Certain signs lend themselves particularly well to the social-markers hypothesis because they possess all of the characteristics required for this function. Such is the case of the quadrilateral signs from Upper Paleolithic contexts in the Cantabrian region, Spain. In the caves of El Castillo, La Pasiega, Altamira, and Las Chimeneas, relatively close together, we find groupings of signs that share a common quadrilateral structure but vary in terms of the arrangement of internal details. A formal analysis based on the method of correspondence analysis and other statistical tests reveals two primary groups based on these independent formal characteristics. This schema appears to the be product of a codified system that allows for a large number of variants with a high potential for distinction based on the flexible combination of a relatively small number of elements. These examples constitute a form of differential marking, of which numerous examples are known over time and across cultures, from the first modern humans to contemporary societies.

 Fuente: Quaternary International. 2018, 491, pp. 99 - 109

 Editorial: Elsevier Ltd

 Año de publicación: 2018

 Nº de páginas: 11

 Tipo de publicación: Artículo de Revista

 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2017.01.039

 ISSN: 1040-6182,1873-4553

 Url de la publicación: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2017.01.039