Stone Age artists used cartoon-like techniques to give the impression that wild beasts were trotting or running across cave walls, a new study has suggested.
Reporting in the June issue of Antiquity, archaeologist Marc Azéma of the University of Toulouse–Le Mirail in France and independent French artist Florent Rivère argued that by about 30,000 years ago Paleolithic artists used "animation effects" in their paintings. To render the movement, they deconstructed it in successive images.
According to the researchers, this would explain multiple heads or limbs on some cave paintings.
"Prehistoric man foreshadowed one of the fundamental characteristics of visual perception, retinal persistence," Azéma and Rivère wrote.
Azéma, who spent 20 years researching Stone Age animation techniques, isolated 53 figures in 12 French caves that superimpose two or more images to represent trot or gallop, head tossing, and tail shaking.
"Lascaux is the cave with the greatest number of cases of split-action movement by superimposition of successive images. Some 20 animals, principally horses, have the head, legs or tail multiplied," Azéma said.
When the paintings are viewed by flickering torchlight, the animated effect "achieves its full impact," said Azéma.
"That such animation was intentional is endorsed by the likely use of incised disks as thaumatropes," he added.
Regarded as the direct ancestor of the cinematic camera, the thaumatrope (literally "miracle wheel," from the Greek thauma, "prodigy," and tropion, "turn") was invented in 1825 by the astronomer John Hershel and later commercialized by the physicist John Ayrton Paris (1785– 1856).
Consisting of a card or disk with different designs on either side, the device demonstrates the persistence of vision: When the card or disk is twirled, the designs appear to blend into one.
Rivère discovered that Paleolithic artists used similar optical toys well in advance of their 19th-century descendants.
The artist examined Magdalenian bone discs — objects found in the Pyrenees, the north of Spain and the Dordogne, which measure about 1.5 inches in diameter.
Often pierced in their center, the discs have been generally interpreted as buttons or pendants.
"Given that some are decorated on both sides with animals shown in different positions, we realized that another type of use, relating to sequential animation, was possible," the researchers said.
They mentioned one of the most convincing cases, a bone disc found in 1868 in the Dordogne. On one side, the disc features a standing doe or a chamois. On the other side, the animal is lying down.
Azéma and Rivère discovered if a string was threaded through the central hole and then stretched tight to make the disc rotate about its lateral axis, the result was a superimposition of the two pictures on the retina.
"The animal goes down then gets back up in a fraction of a second and vice versa," the researchers wrote.
In these flickering images lie the origins of cinema, they said.
"Paleolithic thaumatropes can be claimed as the earliest of the attempts to represent movement that culminated in the invention of the cinematic camera," they concluded.
Video: Sequential animation: Paleolithic animated pictures. Credit: Marc Azéma;
Photo: Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave. Credit: HTO/Wikimedia Commons.