The oldest moving images in the world may not have come from the late 19th century, but from thousands of years earlier: Ancient animal images carved into flat stones tens of thousands of years ago were deliberately placed around the fire to make them appear animated by the flickering light of the fire. suggests a new study.
The creation of such animated carvings could have been a popular prehistoric activity when a family group sat around a fire. And at least some of the wall paintings and carvings found in ancient caves could also have been influenced by their appearance in moving light and shadows from flames, the study suggests.
“When you get this dynamic light on the surface, all of a sudden all of these animals start moving; they start to flicker in and out of focus,” archaeologist Andy Needham of the University of York in the UK told Live Science.
Needham is the lead author of a study published Wednesday (April 20) in the journal PLUS ONE which describes how some of the animal portraits carved into flat limestone rocks in a prehistoric shelter in the south of France were exposed to fire after they were made.
The study suggests that the carvings were primarily designed to be “animated” by firelight; and the researchers have now created movies from their findings showing the effect, with firelight dancing across an accurate 3D model of a carved plaque adorned with etchings of wild horses.
“The interaction of the engraved stone and the light from the roving fire made the engraved shapes appear dynamic and alive, suggesting that this may have been important in their use,” the researchers wrote in the new study. “Human neurology is particularly attuned to interpreting changing light and shadow as movement and identifying visually familiar shapes in such variable light conditions.”
Needham and colleagues used modern scanning technology and virtual reality techniques to study 50 limestone “platequettes” (flat carved rocks) that were excavated in the mid-19th century from the Montastruc rock shelter in southern France; they are now held in the British Museum in London. Together, the platelets are covered with 77 naturalistic carvings of wild animals, including horses, chamois, reindeer, and bison. Scientists think that Homo sapiens he made the engravings during the Late Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian epoch, between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago.
Needham had noted that many of the carved plaques were fire-damaged: some were covered in layers of white ash, while others were scorched or cracked by heat. On closer inspection, many showed “blushing” — bands of pink discoloration that result from heating of iron deposits in the stone, he said. And many of the animal prints were superimposed on each other.
“Instead of ignoring or recording over previous representations, the animals often merged or dovetailed with one another,” the researchers wrote.
Sometimes parts of the animal’s body were recycled, as in a plaque showing both a horse and a bovid (some kind of wild cattle): “The abdomen and neck of the horse form the back and neck of the bovid, while the The horse’s head forms the bovid’s ear,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Needham and colleagues suggest that prehistoric plaquettes from Montastruc, and possibly other sites, were placed around a fire hearth so that the animal representations carved on them could appear animated in the flickering light of the fire.
There is also evidence of markedly different levels of artistic skill in portraying the animals, and that suggests a “diversity of authorship” of the carvings; in other words, they were made by several different people.
That, in turn, could suggest that the practice of carving animals into the platelets and then placing them around the fire to cheer them on might have been a social activity, he said.
“It may be that a lot of people within the community have sat around doing this,” he said. “It’s almost like paleolithic television.”
Study co-author Izzy Wisher, an archaeologist at Durham University in the UK, agreed that the engravings on the rocks and evidence that they were subsequently heated suggest they were intended to appear animated.
“I think part of the reason they may have been overlaying animals in this way was exactly to create this animation effect,” he told WordsSideKick.com. “Sometimes you don’t see the same animal, but multiple animals in different orientations…so one becomes visible, then another, and then a different one, which really creates a narrative feel around these etched forms.”
Similar practices may also have influenced some of the ancient paintings on cave walls, such as at the impressive Chauvet cave in southeastern France, where many of the animal portraits are similarly superimposed and some appear to show signs of having been heated by fires below them, he said.
Originally published on Live Science.