Friday, August 17, 2012

Stone Age Animated Art and the Origins of Cinema

As well as the spectacular scenery to walk in during a Pyrenees Mountain Adventure guided holiday, the Eastern Pyrenees are also famous for their caves and cave art. One of the most spectacular caves is at Niaux in the Ariege which includes images of ibex, horses and bison. The cave art as well as being spectacular also records species loss because bison and ibex are no longer found in the Pyrenees.

Drawing of a bison from the Niaux Cave.

Some of the animals at Niaux and in other caves across Europe are depicted with several heads or more legs than is natural which has puzzled researchers.

Some cave art shows animals with multiple heads, legs and tails

Marc Azéma, of the University of Toulouse, is a Palaeolithic researcher and film maker who has spent the past 20 years exploring the representation of animal movement in cave art.  In an article in the June issue of Antiquity,  he suggests that  some cave paintings may amount to the first cartoons. After studying images from 53 caves, according to Azéma, the reason that many have multiple heads and limbs is that the artists were using cartoon like techniques. When images of this sort are viewed using the flickering light from a burning torch, observers get the impression that the animals are moving. Animations include animals running, rearing their heads or swishing their tales.

His co-author, Florent Rivère, an independent artist, discovered that animal movement was also represented in more dynamic ways—with the use of animals drawn on a spinning bone disc. Rivère examined Magdalenian bone discs - objects found in the Pyrenees, the north of Spain and the Dordogne which measure about 1.50 inches in diameter. Because they are round and often have a hole pierced in their centre, the discs have been generally regarded as buttons or pendants. However according to Rivère, "Given that some are decorated on both sides with animals shown in different positions, we realized that another type of use, relating to sequential animation, was possible."

They used a bone disc found in 1868 in the Dordogne. On one side, the disc features a standing doe or a chamois. On the other side, the animal is lying down.

The researchers discovered that if a string was threaded through the central hole and then stretched tight to make the disc rotate about its lateral axis, the result was a superimposition of the two pictures on the retina. "The animal goes down then gets back up in a fraction of a second and vice versa."

“Stone Age artists intended to give life to their images,” Azéma says. “The majority of cave drawings show animals in action.” In these flickering images created by Palaeolithic people, the authors suggest, lie the origins of cinema.