Genevieve von Petzinger knew she wanted to be an archeologist ever since she was a child.
Between her third and fourth year of university, she went on a Roman excavation in Jordan, but was left feeling what she had researched simply wasn’t old enough.
So when von Petzinger returned to Victoria, she signed up for a stone age art class, paving the way to a project that’s caught the eye of National Geographic.
Working as a University of Victoria PhD candidate, the 39-year-old and her husband, who works as a photographer/filmmaker, spent two years exploring 52 caves throughout France, Spain, Portugal and Sicily, searching for abstract geometric signs such as dots, lines and squiggles.
Since some of the caves had already received a lot of attention from researchers, von Petzinger decided to focus on the lesser known cases — some nobody had stepped foot in for 50 years.
“Many of them, people have literally been into them once, made a note that there was some art, slammed a gate on it to protect it and nobody has been back since,” said von Petzinger. “I never really knew what I was going to find, which was always so exciting.”
Having the right equipment was key to the project being a success. Working with a local archeologist, the couple brought powerful lights, using blue light as opposed to the traditional yellow emitted from flashlights. As a result, the couple found many pieces of art that had never been documented before.
In one cave, von Petzinger noticed a smear of red paint. Thanks to the couple’s technology, she discovered it was actually a deer that was 10,000 to 40,000 years old.
“You couldn’t see it with your eye anymore. You can imagine with that kind of time frame, things are going to vanish,” she said. “It was really exciting to be able to show you can find art that’s vanished from the walls, but it’s still there. I think that opens up some really exciting possibilities for some of the sites we know really well. There may be more art hiding in there.”
The caves von Petzinger found most intriguing were the ones where art was discovered a kilometre or more underground. In a few caves in Spain, the art didn’t start until a kilometre below the Earth’s surface, and other art was placed in cramped spaces. It left von Petzinger wondering what drew people with limited light so deep into the cave.
When comparing the dots, lines and squiggles in the caves, von Petzinger found that 26 specific signs repeated across space and time, proving that ancient humans used written communication tens of thousands of years earlier than scholars once thought.
“The way they were using them really suggests they were meaningful. They were not just picked because of their decorative qualities. What that suggests is that other people must have understood what they meant and were using the same ones probably for the same reasons,” said von Petzinger, adding the very first marks were found in Africa and date back 100,000 years.
“Every time I stand in front of this incredibly old painting or engraving made by someone who is just like me, but separated by so much time, it’s actually hard to conceive…That’s what I find very fascinating is trying to understand when did we become us and how might that have happened?”
In February, van Petzinger received an email out of the blue from the National Geographic Society, informing her that she had been selected as one of 13 people from around the globe for a National Geographic Emerging Explorer award.
Von Petzinger is thrilled about the recognition, calling it a huge honour, and hopes it will open doors for a number of new projects she already has in mind. Those projects include returning to cave sites in France and Portgual, and using robots to explore underwater caves that are 30 metres deep off the coast of Spain. During the ice age, ocean water levels were much lower than they are now, she explained, so 15 kilometres of where people lived along the coast thousands of years ago is lost beneath the sea.
Von Petzinger also recently released a book, The First Signs, about her cave project.
National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring scientists, conservationists, storytellers and innovators — explorers who are already making a difference early in their careers. Recipients of the award are given $10,000 for research and exploration.