Cavemen may not have invented the wheel, or had any grasp of nuclear physics, but they were better at drawing the walking movement of horses and other four-legged animals than most latter-day artists, research has shown.
Cavemen were still better at showing the movement of four-legged animals, even after artists were given greater insights into locomotion through the pioneering horse-in-motion photographic experiment by Eadweard Muybridge in the 1880s.
Hungarian researchers looked at the error rate in the depiction of moving quadrupeds from prehistoric times – looking at cave artwork by upper palaeolithic Homo sapiens – and compared it to the error rate in fine-art, both before Muybridge’s work and after it.
The researchers, whose findings were published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, analyzed 1000 prehistoric and modern artistic quadruped walking depictions for their study.
They determined whether each was correct or not in respect of the limb positions presented.
The error rate of modern pre-Muybridge quadruped walking illustrations was 83.5 per cent, much more than the error rate of 73.3 per cent of mere chance – if an artist chose purely randomly the leg postures.
It decreased to 57.9 per cent after 1887, when Muybridge’s work became widely known.
However, both groups failed to match the observational powers of the cavemen, whose quadruped walking depictions had the lowest error rate of 46.2 per cent.
“All these differences were statistically significant,” the researchers, led by Gabor Horvath, from the Department of Biological Physics at Eotvos University in Budapest, said.
“Thus, cavemen were more keenly aware of the slower motion of their prey animals and illustrated quadruped walking more precisely than later artists.”
The leg attitudes of walking quadrupeds, especially horses, were frequently erroneously illustrated in works of fine art, the authors noted.
The authors collected 1000 different quadruped walking illustrations from various sources and analysed them to decide whether the limb positions were correct. In doing so, they revealed the significant error rate.
“The depiction of animals dates back to the prehistoric era, when people used cave paintings and carvings to illustrate the animals they hunted,” the researchers noted.
“Since the observation of animals was not merely a pastime, but a matter of survival, we can suppose that compared to artists of latter eras, when people were not as directly connected to nature, the creators of such cave paintings and carvings observed their subjects better and thus they depicted the walk of the animals in a more life-like manner.
“This is, in fact the conclusion of our examinations.”
The 46.2 per cent error rate of the prehistoric quadruped walking illustrations was nearly half of the 83.5 per cent error rate of the pre-Muybridge era.
“This is surprising, since it could be justly expected that prehistoric man, with a primitive culture and artistic techniques, would work with a much greater rate of error than his later counterparts.”
In fact, based on the findings of research by Horvath and others in 2009, prehistoric men illustrated the walking of quadrupeds with almost the same error rate (46.2 per cent) as the taxidermists of natural history museums.
The findings indicated that prehistoric man did not depict quadruped motion purely by chance, the researchers said.
“[The findings] show that 53.8 per cent of the prehistoric illustrations are correct and that prehistoric man was an apt observer.”
The post-Muybridgea error rate of 57.9 per cent was close to that of the 63.6 per cent error rate found in animal anatomy text-books, the researchers noted.
“Interestingly, before Muybridge, the 83.5 per cent error rate is greater than the accidental 73.3 per cent. Hence, the artists predating Muybridge did not illustrate the walking of quadrupeds by chance, instead they might depicted quadrupeds possibly by mimicking earlier, erroneous works.”
They continued: “We found that modern artists err considerably more often (65.2 per cent) in horse-walk depictions than do taxidermists, anatomy text-book writers and toy figurine designers (50.4 per cent).”
The other researchers involved in the study, which was published last December, were Etelka Farkas, Ildiko Boncz, Miklos Blaho, Ildiko Boncz, and Gyorgy Kriska.
Horvath G, Farkas E, Boncz I, Blaho M, Kriska G (2012) Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists: Erroneous Walking Illustrations in the Fine Arts from Prehistory to Today. PLoS ONE 7(12): e49786. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049786
The full study can be read online here.