What’s a petroglyph?

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Petroglyphs are images carved into rock, dating back 10,000 years. They depict human and animal figures, geometric shapes, and early writing systems. Their meaning is unknown, with theories ranging from astronomical guides to religious ritual significance. Similarities between petroglyphs over vast distances are unexplained, and attempts to translate them have been unsuccessful.

A petroglyph is an image carved or engraved into rock. Essentially, a petroglyph is created by scratching off the top surface of a rock to reveal a rock of a different color underneath. Petroglyphics are among the earliest known forms of art and recording, and prehistoric petroglyphs exist around the world, some dating back 10,000 years.

Petroglyphs have been a viable art form for thousands of years. Some Native Americans were still engaged in the practice at the time of the European conquest. A petroglyph can be made up of many different types of images. Some are representational in nature, depicting recognizable human and animal figures, while others include geometric shapes and patterns or what appear to be early writing systems. Due to their age, it is impossible to interpret most petroglyphs with any degree of certainty.

The mysterious nature of the prehistoric petroglyph has attracted the interest of many scholars, although interpretations are notoriously divergent. The only consensus is that the petroglyph was of great importance to prehistoric people. Theories about the nature of some petroglyphs postulate that they are astronomical guides, historical documents or of religious ritual significance.

Particularly puzzling is the fact that many petroglyphs show striking similarities over vast distances. Whether this is due to communication and cultural exchange over great distances in prehistoric times or to some sort of innate similarity in the human brain between cultures is unknown. Both sides of the argument have passionate supporters.

Some scholars have attempted to translate a petroglyph into modern language. Barry Fell claimed to have deciphered petroglyphs in West Virginia as a description of the birth of Christ in an ancient Irish writing system. However, his theory has not been well received and has been debunked. Others, working with the same petroglyphs, have come up with entirely different translations, suggesting that what the carvings really meant to the people who created them is all to guess in the modern era.

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