Apr 22, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Ancient Stone Etchings May Have Been a Prehistoric Form of Animation

When modern humans find drawings on the walls of caves, the artwork is usually viewed under bright lights in order to better study and appreciate it. what if that’s the worst way to look at these prehistoric etchings? A new study claims just that – and offers evidence that some of these pictures may have been the first form of animation.

“At a time when huge amounts of time and effort would have gone into finding food, water and shelter, it’s fascinating to think that people still found the time and capacity to create art. It shows how these activities have formed part of what makes us human for thousands of years and demonstrates the cognitive complexity of prehistoric people.”

A sample of cave art (not the art in the article)

PhD student Izzy Wisher from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham worked with archeologists from that school and the University of York on a study of 50 engraved stones (photos here) belonging to the Magdalenian people that lived between 23,000 to 12,000 years ago in the area of the archaeological site Abri de la Madeleine (Magdalene Shelter) -- a rock shelter under an overhanging cliff situated near Tursac in southwestern France. The Magdalenians were early hunter-gatherers, so it’s no surprise that they drew animals on the 50 plaquettes found in the 19th century at the site and now stored at the British Museum. In their study published in the journal PLOS One, Wisher and fellow researchers put themselves in the cave with the Magdalenians and pondered how these drawings were made … and looked at.

“In the modern day, we might think of art as being created on a blank canvas in daylight or with a fixed light source; but we now know that people 15,000 years ago were creating art around a fire at night, with flickering shapes and shadows.”

Lead author Dr. Andy Needham from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York revealed the key clue – many of the plaquettes showed heat damage which previous studies attributed to accidental fire damage. Imagining themselves as Magdalenians, the team realized the burn marks were from the prehistoric artists sitting close to the cave’s hearth to draw. That fire not only aided in the process of drawing – it added a dimension of movement caused by the flickering flames that was seen by both the artist and the others in the cave. That early form of ‘animation’ had a profound effect on the evolution of the Magdalenian brain.

“Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain. We know that flickering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects and this might help explain why it's common to see plaquette designs that have used or integrated natural features in the rock to draw animals or artistic forms.”  

That’s right – artists we call ‘prehistoric’ were intelligent enough to integrate the nuances of their stone palettes into their drawings! Dr. Needham believes this was an early form of  “pareidolia” – mentally turning a non-descript pattern into something recognizable … the same process modern humans use to see a face on the Moon or Abraham Lincoln in a burnt tortilla. And anyone who has sat around a nighttime campfire or in front of a fireplace in a darkened room knows how the dancing flames can make the background move too.

How would this scene change when observed in the light of a cave fire? 

While the study is not proof of prehistoric animation, it offers a new way to study prehistoric artwork and objects with limited archaeological context by using 3D modeling to place them in a darkened cave around a fire – techniques applicable to similar archeological sites around the world.

Is it time to portray cinematic cave people more like Picasso and less like Fred Flintstone?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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