By: April Carson
Families gathered by the light of a roaring fire to watch tiny creatures dance amid the shadow and flame somewhere in the south of France tens of thousands of years ago.
These detailed, carved stone figurines - some less than an inch tall - are among the oldest known examples of prehistoric art. And according to a new study, they may also be among the earliest examples of animation.
So we might suppose. A re-examination of more than 50 stone plaquettes discovered at a paleolithic dig site in the 19th century has prompted discussions about their purpose: Perhaps it was art that came to life when viewed by torchlight.
The carvings, made of local limestone, show animals - including lions, reindeer, and mammoths - in what appear to be dynamic poses. Many scholars had previously assumed that the plaquettes were meant to be attached to larger structures, like spears or furniture. But the new study suggests that they were intended to be viewed as standalone art.
To learn more about the engraved river stone and limestone, archaeologists from the University of York and Durham University in the United Kingdom examined samples of inscribed river stone and limestone to see what purposes they were used for.
Researchers believe that the markings and symbols of discoloration produced by high temperatures were intentionally positioned right next to hot flames, possibly for the purpose of generating some sort of dynamic effect.
"The heat damage visible on some plaquettes has previously been assumed to have been caused by accident, but experiments with replica plaquettes revealed that the damage was more consistent with being deliberately positioned close to a fire," says University of York researcher Andy Needham.
For tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, people have been purposefully marking and scratching lines on surfaces.
Given our current artistic creatures, it's surprising how hard it is to determine why we started rendering our world in image form. Was it to convey or amuse? Or was it for a more spiritual and transcendent purpose?
Even more perplexing is the question of why so many tiny, flat stones were discovered across Europe 10,000 years ago. Some of the decorated blocks imply practical purposes such as flooring, lamps, and hearth stones. Others, such as the abstract designs, people figures, animals, and geologic patterns seen on several of the stones unearthed at a dig site near Montastruc in France do not appear to have any utilitarian value.
Of the 76 animal engravings depicted on the 54 plaquettes borrowed from the British Museum, 40 were of horses, seven were of reindeer, and six depicted red deer. A bird, a wolf, and even a human-like figure were also included. They're typically shown in a naturalistic posture with attention to anatomical detail.
The Montastruc carvings are believed to date back at least 12,000 years, which would make them the oldest known examples of prehistoric art. But their true significance lies in the possibility that they may be some of the earliest examples of animation.
The stones were carved with natural flaws and cracks in many of the scenes, such as a horse with a broken leg fashioned around a fissure in the rock. The animals that are stacked, overlapping in an odd way are perhaps the most fascinating.
It initially appears strange to overlay creatures over one another, merging bodies and limbs, when broken plaquettes from other locations have been replaced and re-engraved.
Still life paintings may be appreciated in the presence of moving flames, rather than the harsh light of day, until they are recognized not as true representations of still life but as something far more lively to be enjoyed while the flames dance.
There's precedence for it. Marc Azéma, a paleolithic researcher and filmmaker, made this proposal ten years ago, based on similarly-cluttered cave paintings of animals.
"The idea is that it's not just the animals on their own," he said. "It's a tableau where different elements are mixed to create a story or some kind of narrative."
If he's right, and these strange images are something more than art, then they would be what might be considered as an extremely early form of animation.
Researchers used virtual reality tools to simulate the rocks as they may have been seen tens of thousands of years ago and sent 3D models to the clients for evaluation.
A deluge of lighting is cast over the scene, illuminating the stone surfaces with a flickering glow that distorts their natural lines and scratches in an artistic manner.
However, I'm sure that movements like these would have elicited a sense of wonder and connection in our minds.
"It is highly probable that creating artwork by flame would have been quite visceral, stimulating different sections of the human brain," adds Needham.
"We know that flickering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects, which may help explain why plaquette designs with natural features incorporated into the rock to draw animals or artistic forms are so common. " It's impossible to say whether our ancestors intentionally embraced a form of art we might describe as cinematic, or if they decorated their hearth-stones with dynamic imagery simply by chance.
Given the popularity with which we communicate these days, it's not difficult to imagine artists from the past finding methods to bring their art to life during a evening fire.
The stone carvings would have been an extremely early form of animation, and could help provide insight into human evolution. Our ancestors may have found it interesting to add dynamic imagery onto the rock to draw animals or artistic forms, but it's impossible to say if this was intentional or simply by chance. Perhaps with the popularity in which we communicate today, we are simply continuing this tradition.
This study was published in PLOS One.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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