Animated horses 16,000 years ago? Rock art may have come to life under firelight

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The image shows ambient light levels and the position of replica plaquettes in relation to the fire. Photo Needham et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266146 CC-BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
The image shows ambient light levels and the position of replica plaquettes in relation to the fire. Photo Needham et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266146 CC-BY 4.0

Rock art from thousands of years ago depicting horses and other animals may have been brought to life by the flickering light of fire, researchers in England suggest.

Scientists now believe that ancient pictures of animals carved onto flat stones were deliberately placed around fires so they would look animated in the flickering firelight.

They suggest they were created not in broad daylight, but under the warm flickering light of a fire at night.

The study centred on the examination of 50 such engraved stones, known as plaquettes, unearthed in France. Together, the plaquettes are covered with 77 naturalistic carvings of wild animals, including horses, chamois, reindeer, and bison. In all, 40 of the images show horses.

Scientists think that Homo sapiens made the engravings about 15,000 years ago during the Late Upper Paleolithic period.  The plaquettes are now held in the British Museum.

They are likely to have been made using stone tools by the Magdalenians, an early hunter-gatherer people dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.

Researchers at the universities of York and Durham, who reported their findings in the journal PLOS ONE, identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed close to a fire.

The researchers carried out virtual-reality simulations showing how the plaquettes may have looked like under flickering firelight. This plaquette carries horse engravings The dancing firelight illuminates different horses. Source: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266146.s002 CC-BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
The researchers carried out virtual-reality simulations showing how the plaquettes may have looked under flickering firelight. This plaquette carries horse engravings The dancing firelight illuminates different horses. Source: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266146.s002 CC-BY 4.0

Following their discovery, the researchers experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used three-dimensional models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them: Under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago.

Lead author of the study, Dr Andy Needham from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and Co-Director of the York Experimental Archaeology Research Centre, says it has previously been assumed that the heat damage visible on some plaquettes was likely to have been caused by accident.

However, experiments with replica plaquettes showed the damage was more consistent with being purposefully positioned close to a fire.

“In the modern day, we might think of art as being created on a blank canvas in daylight or with a fixed light source; but we now know that people 15,000 years ago were creating art around a fire at night, with flickering shapes and shadows.”

Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, the researchers say.

It may have activated an evolutionary capacity designed to protect us from predators called “Pareidolia”, where perception imposes a meaningful interpretation such as the form of an animal, a face or a pattern where there is none.

Needham added: “Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain. We know that flickering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects and this might help explain why it’s common to see plaquette designs that have used or integrated natural features in the rock to draw animals or artistic forms.”

The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.

Study co-author Izzy Wisher, a PhD student from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham, said: “During the Magdalenian period conditions were very cold and the landscape was more exposed. While people were well-adapted to the cold, wearing warm clothing made from animal hides and fur, fire was still really important for keeping warm.

“Our findings reinforce the theory that the warm glow of the fire would have made it the hub of the community for social gatherings, telling stories and making art.

“At a time when huge amounts of time and effort would have gone into finding food, water and shelter, it’s fascinating to think that people still found the time and capacity to create art. It shows how these activities have formed part of what makes us human for thousands of years and demonstrates the cognitive complexity of prehistoric people.”

Needham A, Wisher I, Langley A, Amy M, Little A (2022) Art by firelight? Using experimental and digital techniques to explore Magdalenian engraved plaquette use at Montastruc (France). PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266146. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266146

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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