It Was Like TV for the Stone Age

Study suggests cave artists used firelight to animate their work around the hearth
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 25, 2022 11:05 AM CDT
It Was Like TV for the Stone Age
Stock photo.   (Getty/Kamila Koziol)

A museumgoer who checks out a prehistoric drawing etched on a rock sees only the static image, safely housed under a glass case under controlled light. A new study suggests the people who first looked at the same rock saw something else entirely—a dynamic image that appeared to be moving thanks to the trick of firelight, reports New Scientist. Archaeologists make the assertion in PLOS One after studying 15,000-year-old "plaquettes"—rocks 7 inches wide or so—found in southern France. The rocks not only had animals and other objects etched upon them, they also showed signs of being exposed to heat, and researchers set out to understand why.

After much work involving 3D modeling, virtual reality, and limestone replicas, the researchers concluded the exposure to heat likely came from the stones being held close to fire, perhaps as a form of storytelling. "You can see, for example, a plaquette with several horses on it, and as the light flickers across the surface you see different forms kind of emerging, popping in and out of your perception, and it creates a kind of cool narrative of horses moving across the surface of the rock," co-author Izzy Wisher of the UK's University of Durham tells Smithsonian Magazine. It's also likely the artists who etched the stones did so by firelight, which may have inspired their creativity, says the research team.

Lead researcher Andrew Needham of the University of York adds that this primitive form of animation "must have been quite a powerful visual effect" for early humans around a fire, per New Scientist. In this case, they belonged to what's known as the Magdalenian culture, a group of hunter-gatherers who roamed Europe between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. "This was likely an important social space," Needham says of the campfire. "It might have been a place to share stories or chat and bond with each other after long days spent out in the landscape hunting and gathering." (More discoveries stories.)

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