The Evolution of Visual Information Encoding (EVINE)

Language leaves no trace in the fossil record. However, an important component of the human language capacity, symbolic combinatoriality, might have “fossilized” after all.

In the Paleolithic, hominins have embarked on their journey from Africa into the rest of the world. On their way, they have left artefacts which provide a window into their mind. Some of these bear early examples of visual information encoding: geometric signs. Analyses of isolated archaeological finds currently suggest that these signs were used as artificial memory systems in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe around c. 45 000 to 11 000 years ago. The respective codes seem to have become more complex towards the end of this period. However, how to exactly quantify and model this complexification is an open research question.

The EVINE project proposes to marry the growing body of archaeological data with state-of-the-art tools from empirical linguistics to assess the Evolution of Visual Information Encoding (EVINE) in the human lineage. To this end, statistical measures based on information theory, quantitative linguistic laws, as well as classification algorithms need to be developed, and applied to sequences of paleolithic signs, ancient writing, and modern writing.

This can transform our understanding of how information encoding evolved from the first signs to the information age.


SignBase is an open access database for geometric motifs on mobile objects in Prehistory. It arose out of the collaboration between Ewa Dutkiewicz and Christian Bentz, which was originally funded within the DFG Center for Advanced Studies "Words, Bones, Genes, Tools".

The focus of SignBase lies on finds of the Eurasian Paleolithic and African Middle Stone Age. In these time periods, geometric motifs – also referred to as signs, patterns, or marks – are abundant in parietal art as well as on mobile objects. The term "geometric" denotes simple non-figurative forms such as dots, lines, and crosses, as well as more complex patterns. This includes frequent semi-abstract depictions such as vulvae, but excludes figurative depictions of animals, humans, etc. Decorated mobile objects are mostly made of osseous material, like ivory, bone or antler, while also featuring other organic and inorganic materials.

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