Over at Discovery, Jennifer Viegas reports on an 11,000 year old piece of elk antler, found in Poland, that is incised with zigzags:
The artifact will be described in the March issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. Polish archaeologist Tomasz Plonka talked to Viegas about the find:
“The ornament is composed of groups of zigzag lines and a human representation, probably a woman with spread legs with a short zigzag nearby,” lead author Tomasz Płonka told Discovery News. “The woman may be nude, but the geometrical style of representation does not allow us to answer (this question).”
At first the scientists believed the geometrical figure carved onto the antler could have been either the mentioned woman, or a nude man raising his arms. Measurements to determine the ratio of the stick figure limbs, in addition to comparisons with other early human representations, lead the researchers to support the woman interpretation.
Zigzags are very popular motifs on artifacts from many cultures throughout the world, with many possible meanings, but Płonka said, “I think our zigzag lines are connected with water and life symbolism.”
Zigzags are indeed very popular motifs across time and space, especially among hunter-gatherers. The South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams has documented zigzags on rock art from around the world and interprets them as entoptic images or forms. Such images are commonly generated by humans who are experiencing altered states of consciousness and are a specific, predictable result of a universal cognitive architecture.
The zigzag motif was extensively used by North American Plains Indians tribes to decorate many things, including tipis, moccasins, parfleche bags, quivers, rattles, and clothing. In his classic Indians of the Plains, Robert Lowie cataloged these geometric patterns (see Chapter 5) and noted that although each tribe tended toward a distinctive style, there was little agreement on their meaning. Many natives claimed that such patterns (including zigzags) had no meaning — they were simply traditional and merely decorative. Others claimed that such patterns had meaning, but that such meaning was idiosyncratic — the meaning varying according to the person producing it.
Because zigzags are so common and their meaning so slippery, I have difficulty with Plonka’s claim that the incised antler represents a woman spreading her legs, and is a fertility object related to “water and life symbolism.” Although this seems like a classic case of overinterpretation or speculation, I will reserve judgment until the full article appears next month.