Prehistoric people created art by flickering firelight – study

Researchers examined 50 stones unearthed in France that were engraved with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago.

Nina Massey
Wednesday 20 April 2022 19:00
Prehistoric people created art by flickering firelight, researchers have said(Andy Needham/University of York/PA)
Prehistoric people created art by flickering firelight, researchers have said(Andy Needham/University of York/PA)

Prehistoric people created art by the fire where it may have appeared to move and flicker in the firelight, a new study has suggested.

Researchers examined 50 stones unearthed in France that were engraved with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago and have patterns of heat damage.

The damage suggests the stones, referred to as plaquettes, were carved close to the flickering light of a fire.

Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain

Dr Andy Needham, University of York

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, said: “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.

“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.”

Researchers at the universities of York and Durham looked at the collection of engraved stones which are now held in the British Museum.

The study suggests the carvings are likely to have been made using stone tools by Magdalenian people, an early hunter-gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.

Patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones indicated they had been placed near a fire.

The researchers experimented with replicating the stones themselves.

They used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them – in fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago.

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

They suggest 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.

Dr 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.

Co-author of the study PhD student Izzy Wisher, from the department of archaeology at the University of Durham, said: “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.”

The study is published in the Plos One journal.

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