‘Like going to the movies’: early humans may have enjoyed animated rock art by firelight

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Hunter-gatherers may have enjoyed dynamic, moving imagery thousands of years before the first movie was shown, according to new research.

Archaeologists from the University of York and the University of Durham in the UK examined 50 engraved limestone tablets created 15,000 years ago and found that the artworks showed uniform patterns of damage from heat, suggesting that they had been placed near the fire.

By recreating an ancient fireside scene, the researchers discovered that the stones, when placed in the flickering light of a fire, create the illusion of moving images.

Their work has been published in the journal PLOS One.

The study focused on a collection of engraved stones, known as platelets, which are now housed in the British Museum. (Andy Needham/York University)

The collection of hand-sized flat stones, called plaques, were unearthed in France in the 1860s and are engraved with animal designs such as reindeer, horse and bison. They are thought to have been carved with flint tools by an ancient hunter-gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago known as the Magdalenian people.

Andy Needhamassociate lecturer in the department of archeology at the University of York, said he and his team of researchers first needed to determine what caused the heat damage found on the stone carvings and whether they were intentional.

Humans have been painting and scratching lines on rock faces for tens of thousands of years, but the reason for this has remained a mystery. Needham said other flat stones found across Europe may have had practical uses, such as flooring or stones for surrounding hearths, but the stones analyzed in this study did not have such a use. obvious.

To test whether the heat damage seen on the stone slabs was intentional, the researchers recreated what a fireside scene might have been like 15,000 years ago.

They lit their own fires, used sharp flints to carve their own images on replica wafers, then placed their stone works of art in various configurations near the hearth – some functional, such as under the fire to create hot stones – others around the hearth, arranged so the images would be visible in the light of the fire.

After analyzing the heat damage patterns created by fire in various scenarios, they found that the heat discoloration found on the Magdalenian wafers was intentional and caused by being placed around the hearth in half-shape. circle, suggesting that the engraved stones were meant to be displayed.

“A really dynamic scene”

In the process of recreating Paleolithic art, Needham and his team discovered that the process of making and viewing artwork by firelight gives the impression of moving images.

“It really opened our eyes to what was going through people’s minds thousands of years ago when they were working in these kinds of environments,” Needham said.

“When I’m working at night with a piece of stone, I start to appreciate the shape of the block, the cracks and the cracks, and you constantly have shadows showing up on the surface, so it’s never quite still. .”

When you position the prints around a fire, Needham says the flickering firelight creates “a really dynamic scene and a really interesting space to explore and experiment with art of this genre.”

The researchers behind the study created replicas of the original stone slabs using stone tools. (Submitted by Andy Needham)

Overview of the evolution of the human brain

The experiment also gave researchers clues about what was happening to the brains of early humans.

Shimmering shadows and light improve humans’ ability to see the shapes and faces of inanimate objects, Needham said. The phenomenon, called “pareidolia”, describes the experience of seeing animals or faces in clouds, for example.

Needham suggests that pareidolia, an evolutionary ability that protected early humans from predators, has been repurposed to create a dynamic artistic experience.

“Speaking of evolution, it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “If you think you see an animal in dense scrubland, for example, it’s better to see it and run away than not.”

In the case of a firelight art display, early humans may have seen “things that aren’t quite there”, but it created the illusion of animation.

Dr Andy Needham is Associate Lecturer in the Department of Archeology at the University of York in York, England, and Postdoctoral Fellow at the British Academy. (Submitted by Andy Needham)

“Like going to the cinema”

Needham said there was likely an important social dimension to carved stone artwork.

Researchers have learned through their experiment that some people are better at the engraved art than others. Needham thinks that some of the most talented early human artists may have taught others how to carve stones by the fireside.

“We know that in Magdalenian times the home would have been a central social space… We could cook, share stories, work on different tasks, prepare for the next day,” he said.

He said people gathering to carve stones and see them by firelight could be seen as the ancient equivalent of “going to the movies with your family”.


Produced and written by Maya Lach-Aidelbaum.


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