By DAMIEN GAYLE
PUBLISHED: 16:25 EST, 23 September 2012 | UPDATED: 01:53 EST, 24 September 2012
Prehistoric cave artists used cartoon-like techniques to give the impression that their images were moving across cave walls, two French researchers have suggested.
A new study of cave art across France – in which animals appear to have multiple limbs, heads and tails – has found that the paintings are actually primitive attempts at animation.
When the images are viewed under the unsteady light of flickering flames the images can appear to move as the animals they represent do, the research claims.
Clever: Ancient artists at France’s Chauvet Cave superimposed drawings of two bison to create an eight-legged beast intended to depict trotting or running, two researchers say
It is also believed that prehistoric relics previously thought to have been used as buttons were actually designed as thaumatropes – double sided pictures that can be spun to blur the images into an animation.
The startling findings are reported by archaeologist Marc Azéma of the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail and artist Florent Rivère in the June issue of Antiquity.
They make the incredible claim that prehistoric man foreshadowed the invention of cinema by creating art with a rudimentary understanding of the principle of persistence of vision.
Mr Azéma, after 20 years researching Stone Age animation techniques, has identified 53 paintings in 12 French caves which superimpose two or more images to apparently represent movement.
They show animals trotting, galloping, tossing their heads or shaking their tails.
‘Lascaux (a complex of caves in south-west France] is the cave with the greatest number of cases of split-action movement by superimposition of successive images,’ Mr Azéma was quoted by Discovery as saying.
‘Some 20 animals, principally horses, have the head, legs or tail multiplied.’ When these paintings are viewed by flickering torchlight the animated effect ‘achieves its full imact’, he added.
Mr Azéma and Mr Rivère claim their remarkable theory is backed up by the discovery that ancient engraved discs were used as thaumatropes – formerly claimed to have been invented in 1825 by astronomer John Hershel.
Caveman animation: This sequence of grabs shows how the cave paintings apparently show movement by superimposing different sets of legs
A popular toy in Victorian times, thaumatropes (literally meaning ‘miracle wheels’) were discs or cards with a picture in each side attached to a piece of string.
When the string was twirled quickly between the fingers the two pictures appear to combine into a single animated image.
Mr Rivère believes that Palaeolithic artists created similar optical toys well before their apparent invention in the 19th century.
He examined pierced bone discs found in the area around the Pyrenees, which have previously been interpreted as buttons or pendants.
The researchers discovered that if a string was threaded through the central hole of some of these discs and stretched tight to make it spin, the result was a single persistent image of movement.
The hunt: Another painting in the Chauvet cave. Seen lit by flickering torchlight, the images appear to move thanks to the optical phenomenon known as the persistence of vision, the researchers claim
In the most convincing case, a bone disc found in 1868 in the Dordogne, one side features a standing doe, while on the reverse the animal is lying down. Spun, the animal appears to get up and down repeatedly.
Mr Azéma and Mr Rivère believe in these flickering images can be seen the earliest origins of cinema.
‘Palaeolithic thaumatropes can be claimed as the earliest of the attempts to represent movement that culminated in the invention of the cinematic camera,’ they wrote.