Quirks & Quarks

'Like going to the movies': Early humans may have enjoyed animated rock art by firelight

Hunter-gatherers may have enjoyed dynamic, moving pictures long before the first movie was shown some 140 years ago, according to a study that examined engraved stone tablets created around 15,000 years ago.

Collection of engraved stones have uniform heat damage, suggesting they were displayed by firelight

A team of archeologists found that ancient stone engravings, when placed by the flickering light of a fire, create the illusion of animated pictures. (Submitted by Andy Needham)

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

Archeologists from the University of York and Durham University in the U.K. examined 50 engraved limestone tablets created 15,000 years ago and found that the artworks have uniform patterns of heat damage, suggesting they were placed near fire.

By recreating an ancient fireside scene, researchers found that the stones, when placed by the flickering light of a fire, create the illusion of animated pictures.

Their work was published in the journal PLOS One.

The study looked at a collection of engraved stones, known as plaquettes, which are now held in the British Museum. (Andy Needham/University of York)

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

Andy Needham, an associate lecturer at the University of York's Department of Archeology, said he and his team of researchers first had to determine what caused the heat damage found on the stone engravings, and whether it was intentional.

Humans have been painting and scratching lines on rock faces for tens of thousands of years, but the reason why 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 have no such obvious use.

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

They started their own fires, used sharp flintstones to carve their own images on replica plaquettes, and then placed their stone artworks in various configurations near the hearth — some functional, like under the fire to create heating stones — others around the hearth, arranged so the images would be visible by firelight. 

After analyzing heat damage patterns created by the fire in various scenarios, they found that  the heat discoloration found on the Magdalenian plaquettes was intentional and caused by being placed around the hearth in a semicircle, suggesting the engraved stones were meant to be on display.

'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 happening in the minds of people thousands of years ago, as they were working in these types of environments," said Needham.

"When I'm working at night with a piece of stone, I start to appreciate the shape of the block, the cracks and fissures, and you constantly have shadows which present across the surface, so it's never quite still."

When you position the engravings around a fire, Needham says the flickering firelight creates "a really dynamic scene and a really interesting space to explore and experience art of this kind."

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

Insight into the evolution of human brains

The experiment also gave researchers clues as to what was happening to early humans' brains.

Flickering shadows and light enhance humans' capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects, said Needham. The phenomenon, called "pareidolia," describes the experience of seeing animals or faces in the clouds, for example. 

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

"Evolutionary speaking, this makes a lot of sense," he said. "If you think you see an animal in some 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 an associate lecturer at University of York’s Department of Archeology in York, England, and a postdoctoral researcher with the British Academy. (Submitted by Andy Needham)

'Like going to the movies'

Needham said there was likely an important social dimension to the engraved stone artworks.

The researchers learned during their experiment that some people are more skilled at engraved art that others.  Needham believes some of the more talented early human artists may have taught others how to engrave stones by the fire.

"We know that during the Magdalenian period, the hearth would have been a central social space… You could cook, share stories, work on different tasks, gear up for the next day," he said.

He said people gathering together to engrave stones and view 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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