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The First Animations

from Nautilus

Early Humans Made Animated Art

How Paleolithic artists used fire to set the world’s oldest art in motion.


Stone steps descended into the ground, and I walked down them slowly as if I were entering a dark movie theater, careful not to stumble and disrupt the silence. Once my eyes adjusted to the faint light at the foot of the stairs, I saw that I was standing in the open chamber of a cave.

Where the limestone wall arched into the ceiling was a line of paintings and drawings of animals running deeper into the cave. The closest image resembled a bison, with elongated horns and U-shaped markings on its side. The bison followed several horses painted solid black like silhouettes; above them was an earthy-red horse with a black head and mane. In front of that was a very large bison head that was completely out of scale with respect to the other images.

It was the summer of 1995, and in the dim glow, I gazed at the ghostly parade just as my ancestors did roughly 21,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dates from Lascaux cave suggest the art is from that period, a time when wooly mammoths still roamed across Europe and people survived by hunting them and other large game. I stood in silence as I tried to decode the work of the ancient people who had come here to express something of their world.

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.

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Posted on January 9, 2018 by Editor

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