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Genevieve von Petzinger

Paleoanthropologist, Author, Explorer
TED Speaker with 6 Million Views

Genevieve von Petzinger is a Canadian paleoanthropologist, author and explorer.  She is one of the world’s leading experts on Ice Age art and the origins of graphic communication.  Genevieve’s specific focus is on the geometric signs found at many of these sites, and she’s interested in how these enigmatic markings can help us to better understand human cognitive evolution as well as the development of symbolic thought and the modern mind during this early chapter in prehistory.  

 

Genevieve is passionate about science communication and enjoys sharing her work as a speaker as well as working with various media outlets (Nat Geo, CBC, TBS) to make science more exciting and approachable for the general public. Her research has been extensively featured both nationally and internationally in print, radio and on television, and along with receiving the 2016 National Geographic Emerging Explorer Award, Genevieve is also a TED Senior Fellow and her TED talk has been viewed more than 6 million times.

In unrelated news, Genevieve has helped her husband restore a number of classic vehicles. She can actually build a car engine from the bare block up.

TOPICS

From Caves to Keyboards: The Evolution of Symbols

Graphic communication is one of the foundations of the modern world.  Without it we wouldn’t have books or the internet, we couldn’t program a computer or write a piece of music, and we certainly couldn’t send that text message with the funny emojis to a friend.   What many people don’t realize is that humans have been using graphic symbols to communicate and store information for more than 100,000 years.

 

Although we now rely on intricate alphabet systems to communicate our messages, we are still exposed to the same kind of symbols as our Ice Age ancestors on a daily basis.  For example, that ‘beaming face with smiling eyes’ emoji you’re about to send to your friend, well, while it appears to be a simple character, it is actually a powerful symbol, embedded with layers of meaning and cultural context.  These symbols encompass everything from your average stop sign to the Christian cross, conveying information, history, and meaning in a compact, short-handed form. Along with mastering fire and creating tools, the invention of graphic communication could be seen as one of the defining moments of our species.  

 

In this keynote, Genevieve will bring your audience on an adventure through time as she explores the deep origins and development of this uniquely human ability.  From the earliest simple engravings to the rise of complex writing systems, she will look at the recurring motivations that prompted our ancestors to invent this style of communication and which continue to influence how we communicate today.      

Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves around Europe?: The History of Communication 

Many people think of writing as a recent invention, one associated with the emergence of the first big civilizations around 5,000 years ago, but this practice didn’t just come out of nowhere.  This leads to the question of where did this radical new way of communicating come from and how far back can we trace it in the archaeological record? Genevieve’s popular 2015 TED talk began to answer this question when she introduces the audience to one of the oldest symbol systems in the world: a group of 32 geometric signs used by ancient humans at cave art sites across Ice Age Europe.

 

Beyond being pretty pictures, these signs represent a new way of storing information externally, with many of these characters being shared between groups through a surprisingly sophisticated Paleolithic social network.  New research even suggests that this connection to a larger community of thinkers may have been one of the advantages that kept our ancestors alive in the middle of an Ice Age while closely related species like our Neanderthal cousins went extinct.  As the saying goes, “don’t forget your past, learn from it.” In her keynote, Genevieve will not only offer your audience insight into the deep history of written communication and its power to unite communities, but she will also share a number of exciting new discoveries regarding the purpose and meaning of these enigmatic symbols.

Blast to the Past: 10 Inventions of the Ice Age

The Tech Revolution is often seen as one of the defining characteristics of the modern age, but the first tech innovators weren’t working in an incubator in Silicon Valley, instead we find them living on the expansive plains of Stone Age Africa and the frozen tundra of Ice Age Europe.  These were the true tech pioneers who laid the groundwork for everything that has come since…and they didn’t have the shoulders of any giants to stand on either.

 

From engineering with fire, to the original super glue recipe, to the first glimmers of computing, math, music and writing, we have these distant ancestors to thank for many of the technologies we take for granted today.   In this keynote, Genevieve will take your audience back in time to meet these early innovators as she touches on the history of technology, economics, communication and accounting. These incredible inventions changed the way we humans interacted with each other and the world around us, and prove how deeply ingrained curiosity and creativity really are in our DNA.  

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