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Prehistoric Humans May Have Used Firelight to ‘Animate’ Art

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Apr 22, 2022

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Image Credit: Sciencealert/needham et al

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors engaged in something endearingly familiar and achingly human: they gathered to create and witness animated art, gazing at the wonder of it all in their dark hearths. In other words, a cinematic imagination may have been nestled in our heart of hearts ever since we came to be. A study published on Wednesday in PLOS One outlined evidence that early humans may have used firelight to “animate” the art we knew them to be making already.

“The interaction of engraved stone and roving fire light made engraved forms appear dynamic and alive, suggesting this may have been important in their use,” the paper notes. Archeologists from the University of York and Durham University analyzed stone plaquettes — early humans’ canvases — from a 19th century dig site in France. The strange engravings and patterns on these slabs had previously baffled researchers. The benefit of time, however, showed scientists in the present study that the signs of discoloration by fire on the stones may have been intentional.

“It has previously been assumed that the heat damage visible on some plaquettes was likely to have been caused by accident, but experiments with replica plaquettes showed the damage was more consistent with being purposefully positioned close to a fire,” said lead author Andy Needham.


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The engravings on the stones featured various animals, such as horses, reindeer, and red deer. But what attracted confusion and speculation was the fact that some of these drawings were superimposed on one another. When researchers created 3D models of the plaquettes and looked at them near firelight, their suspicion was confirmed: the drawings seemed more dynamic than static.

“Human neurology is particularly attuned to interpreting shifting light and shadow as movement and identifying visually familiar forms in such varying light conditions,” the paper adds.

In other words, our brains are wired to respond viscerally to moving light and shadows. “The visual system is predisposed to use shadows and lighting to understand the depth and dimensions of an object; shifting light across a surface, therefore, can create the illusion that an object may be moving in depth, even if it is static in size and position.”

Importantly, the findings show how not everything we do — or have done — as human beings has to have some objective, tangible utility. As far back as our origins, we understood the value and power in art and storytelling, and found inventive ways to engage in it all the time. The animated plaquettes may have then had a social use within hearths, and represent greater proof that “culture” is by no means a novel phenomenon — it has always existed within us.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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