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john hawks weblog

paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

Photo Credit: Recreation of Chauvet panel, photo by The Adventurous Eye CC-BY

Shadows of ancient firelight

Zach Zorich has written an interesting article for Nautilus, about the optical illusions caused by firelight flickering across parietal art: “Early Humans Made Animated Art”.

From Lascaux cave

From the article:

When Lascaux cave was discovered in 1940, more than 100 small stone lamps that once burned grease from rendered animal fat were found throughout its chambers. Unfortunately, no one recorded where the lamps had been placed in the cave. At the time, archeologists did not consider how the brightness and the location of lights altered how the paintings would have been viewed. In general, archeologists have paid considerably less attention to how the use of fire for light affected the development of our species, compared to the use of fire for warmth and cooking. But now in Lascaux and other caves across the region, that’s changing.

We can take the idea of “getting into the mind of the artist” overboard. One of the main techniques to depict motion in artwork is “superposition” – drawing a body part of an animal in two or more different positions, to imply the motion from one position to the other. That’s a technique commonly used in cartoons today by artists. But it’s also done by children doodling.

Much of the impression of power and mystery comes from place. Ancient humans added to this substantially with their artistic sense.