Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols” as Want to Read:
The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  317 ratings  ·  68 reviews
One of the most significant works on our evolutionary ancestry since Richard Leakey’s paradigm-shattering Origins, The First Signs is the first-ever exploration of the little-known geometric images that accompany most cave art around the world—the first indications of symbolic meaning, intelligence, and language.

Imagine yourself as a caveman or woman. The place: Europe. Th
Hardcover, 307 pages
Published May 31st 2016 by Atria Books (first published March 29th 2016)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The First Signs, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The First Signs

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.95  · 
Rating details
 ·  317 ratings  ·  68 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols
I’ve been fascinated with cave art since I was about 11 or 12 years old. I blame Children’s Digest. I don’t know who started my subscription to that periodical, but it started quite an assortment of interests which I still read about whenever possible. I distinctly remember a story about a young girl who fell in a hole in Spain and accidentally discovered the Altimira cave system, with its profusion of cave paintings.

So imagine my frenzied fangirl squee-ing when I discovered that one of the lead
Todd Stockslager
Jul 20, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Review title: Over promised, under delivered

A better subtitle for this book might be: "Unlocking the mysteries of how subtitles mislead and why." It's not that Von Petzinger has written poorly, but she was unable to deliver on the unrealistic and untrue promise of the subtitle. I certainly picked up the book from my library's new book shelf based on the promise of the mystery solved, and was underwhelmed by the reality of the undelivered promise.

So, context: The first signs are geometric symbol

I have to admit I picked this book up under the totally unfounded assumption that it would be about the Neolithic Vinca symbols. For the uninitiated, the Vinca culture is a society from the Balkans that flourished c. 5700 – 4800 BCE, which left behind mysterious symbols on their artefacts that could well be the world’s first writing system; a good two thousand or so years before the earliest examples of Egyptian hieroglyphs or Sumerian cuneiform.

But in actual fact Von Petzinger goes way beyond t
Emily Regier
Jan 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you are even .5% interested in cave art, this work will hook you from the very start. She writes with such casual intellect, almost like she's telling you about her research over coffee on a Tuesday. By the end of the book, I felt this weird sense of pride for this woman I don't even know and the work she's done. She's transcending colleagues in her field and isn't daunted by the incredible challenge her work actually represents. I hope to see more work from her in the future. ...more
I'm not sure on the rating of this one. It was a real drag for me to get through, but I think that was due to what else was going on in my life at the time. I do feel like she should have given the relevance of the signs in the first or second chapter instead of speaking about it in the last half of the book. It would have helped the book overall to understand a lot of what she was saying early on.
That being said, the ideas and theories that she presents boggle the mind. Or at least mine. As un
Oct 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Really enjoyed the stories and learnings in this book! If you're into prehistory, early humans or cave art this is definitely a great overview of much of the field. My only issue was that after all this setup and literature review, Von Petzinger's thesis seemed a bit rushed at the end. I walked away asking "What was her main point again??". I'll continue to look out for her work, she is a great communicator of this fascinating area. ...more
Jacques Coulardeau

Genevieve von Petzinger is young for sure and she has just finished her Ph.D., but she is connected to National Geographic in their Paleoanthropology department, which is supposed to be a good affiliation. You will surely be interested in many of the information she gathered about rock art and the personal research she did on collecting all geometric or iconic signs present in Homo Sapiens caves in Europe. But the book is not up to the research in the field of the
Aug 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing

Hey hey, cupcakes. It’s been a minute. Blame that chubby little muthafucka Cupid, whose golden arrow hath pierced my once-frigid heart and set it ablaze with Love’s undying flames. Or whatever.


So as I’ve mentioned (*cough* whined about) before, my brain has got a severe case of the Love-Struck Stupids (band name, write that down) and my Goodreads challenge is taking a hit. And, you know, my intellec
Kim Miller-Davis
Jul 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was an absolutely fascinating read about our ancient human ancestors and the mysteries they left behind on the walls of caves. After showing Petzinger's Ted Talk to my Humanities students last fall, I ordered this from Amazon, but somehow never got around to reading it until now. Yesterday, after showing the Ted Talk to my Summer students, I walked straight to my bookcase, picked it up, and became completely immersed.

Petzinger's book chronicles her trek to Paleolithic cave art sites throug
Mary Soderstrom
Oct 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is an extremely important book about how humans developed in our far distant past. Told in an engaging, yet authoritative way, it probably is the most thought-provoking book I've read in months. ...more
Jun 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
cloak and dagger history, approachable read, voluminous data and information, but no new or conclusive declarations. Good primer.
David Koerner
Oct 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In “The First Signs,” Genevieve von Petzinger recounts her survey of symbols in European Pleistocene cave painting. She delivers much more, however. I first became aware of her work through her popular Ted talk ( In the book, she explains her research tallying and classifying “non-figurative” symbols in more detail. While these symbols are not thought to constitute “writing,” per se, they may presage its origins by tens of thousands of years. To set the
Kendra Goldberg
Mar 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book is a nonfiction delight, and well written for the layman. Genevieve von Petzinger is extremely talented at writing about her research in a dynamic and captivating way. I have read a lot of nonfiction where the topic is fascinating but the book gets bogged down in jargon and the authors inability to write for a wider audience. I you are using an e-reader, I highly recommend reading this book in a format that allows you to view the images in color.

Confession: In High School I was mildly
Aug 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
At the intersection of art history, archaeology, semiotics, and the origin of writing lies First Signs. This delightful book is scholarly yet personable, scientific but also funny. Von Petzinger is a genius at distilling complex ideas and theories into a understandable and pleasant narrative-- she literally takes you on the same journeys that she has taken through the European countryside. She describes the landscape as well as the characteristics of each cave she visits-- I really felt like a f ...more
Jul 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The cartoonish depiction of “cave” men and women is so far from reality as evident through their art and, it appears, through their use of symbols. To think about life—complex then too— at 40000 years ago!

The author presents scientific information in a way that is accessible to readers not familiar with this deep work. I even laughed out loud at times—in astonishment and amusement both.

I dropped a star because a book about cave art and, more particularly, symbols
Alex Wood
Feb 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
Very interesting book. For me, the biggest takeaways were the ways that Paleo archaeologist record, process, and analyze prehistoric symbols. Many of my preconceive notion‘s of what signs and symbols mean were proved very very wrong. The fact that color and shape are so important to past peoples was really interesting. I had thought it was somewhat randomized. How these colors and shapes transcend locations and different time periods is amazing.

Another great point is that the author talks about
Vicki M. Z.
Jun 14, 2016 rated it liked it
I was under the impression that this book had more linguistic aspects and explanations, instead of the mostly archaeological and anthropological explanations it contained. Even then, the author gave a great recounting of her adventures in European caves: descriptions of caves and the surroundings are complete, pictures and notes add to the narration and background information paint an in-depth history for those with close to little knowledge of rock art (aka me). Her brief flashes of humour are ...more
Jun 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
The author collected and examined cave art signs, both from existing explorations and newly conducted ones, from around Europe and South Africa. Her premise was that the geometric markings are at least partly symbolic, rather than figurative or random. She collected the markings into 32 specific types/styles, then attempted to understand why they were common in widely separated cave art sites and what they might mean. Most of the book rehashes early hominid archaeology and its relationship to ca ...more
An intriguing analysis of non-figurative symbols (i.e., the things that aren't drawings of animals or people) in the rock art of Ice Age Europe. Von Petzinger has some interesting theories, and I hope more research is done into this area. The author's style is mostly pretty readable; my only quibble is that in a few places in the text she switched into present tense. I suppose it was to give a sense of immediacy to the narrative (she used present tense when describing some of her visits to vario ...more
Jun 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Signs and symbols of our earliest ancestors, how cool is that? The whole book, very well written (grammar, word choice, sentence structure), explores the cognition of humans living 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, but provides no definitive answers---that would be unseemly in a scientist. However, Dr. von Petzinger is unafraid to share her beliefs, her enthusiasm for more research, and the very new method by which she attacked the question of symbolic cognition in ancient humans. She breaks new groun ...more
Jul 01, 2019 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this book more. Von Petzinger cataloged symbols found in European cave art before the neolithic revolution and found common symbols across the continent and tens of thousands of years. I thought she would have a part on each symbol, where it was all found and over what time frame. But that didn't happen, she mostly discussed history and other topics. Maybe I went into the book expecting something different than the author's intent, but I read the book with the hopes of learning ...more
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was ok
I enjoyed reading this but I think it could've been half the length. I enjoyed the content, but towards the end I felt that I was re-reading information. It was a cool book, though! Maybe better as a TED talk :)

One thing I thought the author did remarkably well was to explain a vast field of research for general consumption. She covered many tricks of the trade but wove them into the narrative without overwhelming the untrained reader. The footnotes were also full of useful references.

Jan 21, 2021 rated it liked it
While there were many interesting tidbits of knowledge, I felt the book lacked an over-arching thesis. She kept introducing new hypotheses about meaning, only to prove them inadequate. In the end, the main through-line seemed to be the ever-increasing size of her data pool. It was particularly hard to listen to as I kept feeling the need for examples of the drawings she was discussing. The ending was particularly disappointing. I actually re-listened to the conclusion FOUR times, each time think ...more
Jessica Liew
Oct 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is about so much more than the geometric signs in cave art. It is a well-structured examination of the origins of human intellect and creativity. Von Petzinger's examination of the evidence is thorough and engaging. It is rare that I would say I found it hard to put a non-fiction book down, but her writing style was very accessible and enjoyable. Anyone with an interest in prehistoric art and society will find this book to be worth the read. ...more
Fred Rose
Aug 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Sort of a written version of a TED talk. Solid science but not written like a typical science book ("the hair on the back of my neck stood up") which is ok for the most part. I'm supportive of scientists taking a risk and speculating on what something means and how they feel about it. Would like to have seen more about the actual signs and what they could mean. It was covered at the end of the book but could have been more. I guess this indicates how early in the process this work is. ...more
Mar 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I love this book. Since first reading John Pfeiffer's "The Creative Explosion" more than 30 years ago, I've tried to read as much as possible about the research into Paleolithic art (books for the lay reader, not professional journals). There's lots going on in that field now, and this book brings it all together and brings it up to date. The author's specific area is the abstract signs used, not just in the European caves but around the world. It's nice to follow her on Facebook too! ...more
Rob Lee
Nov 13, 2019 rated it liked it
A good general overview of cave art symbols and their development but as other reviewers have said, doesn't quite deliver on the promise of the subtitle.

Whilst the author's project of cataloguing signs and symbols is interesting and worthy, the book isn’t quite the radical rewriting of the history it claims to be.

The chapter on Entopic images hints at a Jungian collective consciousness without taking the final leap.
May 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Many insights into the minds, tools, symbols, and lives of people from our dim past.

A very frank and clear description of the author’s field work in the caves our ancestors visited and beautiful art and symbols. Her accounts engender appreciation of how much like us the people truly were.
Richard Wise
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: anthropology
A procative look at prehistory. von Petzinger makes some interesting observations and raises some important questions. Her research into the much overlooked, simple signs, drawn on cave walls may help chart a course toward a more useful view of the intellectual attainment of our far distant ancestors.
Bernie Taylor
Oct 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Von Petzinger digs into the Paleolithic caves and emerges with patterns of thinking from our distant past. Is the Paleolithic mind still our own? (Bernie Taylor - Before Orion: Finding the Face of the Hero)
« previous 1 3 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America
  • Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story
  • The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance
  • Origins: The Search for Our Prehistoric Past
  • Warlords of Ancient Mexico: How the Mayans and Aztecs Ruled for More Than a Thousand Years
  • Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution
  • The Vikings and Their Enemies: Warfare in Northern Europe, 750–1100
  • Spartacus
  • The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings
  • Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History
  • Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art
  • Sulwe
  • One Life
  • Year of the Monkey
  • The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s
  • The Twelve Unicorns of Christmas
  • The Constant Rabbit
  • Toki Pona: The Language of Good
See similar books…

News & Interviews

  As dedicated readers already know, some of the best and most innovative stories on the shelves come from the constantly evolving realm of...
16 likes · 5 comments