Survival wasn’t easy in Ice Age Europe. After a long and possibly dangerous day of searching for food, keeping track of wild animals, and finding ways to stay warm, these human ancestors likely needed to relax. But when they huddled around a fire at night it seems that some of them also prioritized a very different kind of pursuit—taking tools in hand to create art.
“Maybe it’s akin to Paleolithic TV where they sit by the firelight, chat, warm their hands against the fire and create things,” says Andy Needham, an archaeologist from the University of York.
Needham and colleagues believe that working by firelight may have been more than just a way to stay out of the dark. They theorize that the flickering flames ignited part of the artists’ creative process and were key to the way viewers experienced the work. In a study published today in PLOS ONE the team created limestone replicas and 3-D models of 15,000 year-old carvings, singed them by both real and virtual-reality fires, and brought a variety of ancient animals etched in stone to life. Proximity to the flames appears to ‘animate’ the figures, they suggest, causing the perception that horses and other figures move dynamically across the rock.
Needham and colleagues examined 50 limestone plaquettes, small portable stones of sizes ranging from iPhone to iPad, found at the Montastruc rockshelter along the river Aveyron in southern France. As the last Ice Age waned, some 15,000 years ago, artists here used flint and stone blades to carve rock surfaces with geometric designs and motifs, as well as a menagerie of ancient animal forms. Horses, ibex, reindeer, red deer, bison and chamois are prominent among the animals, which include just one or two possibly human forms.
The artists were members of the Magdalenian culture, hunter gatherers who lived in Europe between about 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The Magdalenians, living near the close of the last Ice Age in a cold but gradually improving climate, produced a wide range of notable art, from decorated tools to engraved bones and celebrated cave paintings. Their works include those at Lascaux, France, which previous researchers have suggested were ‘animated’ by their own interplay with firelight. They may have also made rudimentary musical instruments. In addition to the plaquettes, the rockshelter yielded stone points and tools and some notable works of art including the famed Swimming Reindeer—a 13,000 year-old mammoth-tusk sculpture depicting two reindeer, nose to tail, that may have been made for purely artistic reasons.
Magdalenian plaquettes, thousands of them, have been discovered in sites in modern-day Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom’s Channel Islands, as well as in France. Those rocks from Montastruc, likely gathered by the artists from limestone cliffs towering above the rockshelter, show thermal fractures and cracking, and bands of pink discoloration resulting from fire exposure. These telltale signs left an open question: When and how were the stones heated? Was it part and parcel of the creative process by which they were carved? Or was it accidental, the result of some later exposure to a fire over the many hundreds of years the cave was occupied after they were carved?
Finding out was a challenge. The plaquettes are priceless, delicate and now housed in the British Museum, where they can be viewed online. That means that archaeological context about where they were found in the cave was lost when they were originally excavated in the mid-1860s. So the authors turned to experimental archaeology in order to learn more about their likely history.
First the team created new engraved plaquettes, made out of limestone, and put them through different scenarios.to see what kind of fire source and exposure could recreate the telltale pink heat damage that’s visible around the edges of the originals. They buried some and lit a fire round them to mimic accidental exposure to fires long after their creating. Others were fired as if the stones were later put to practical use, such as the building blocks for a hearth. Still more were arranged in proximity to the hearth as if its light had been intentionally used to create and view the carvings.
The team then used image manipulation software to compare heating patterns on the replicas with those of the originals. The results suggest that the heat markings aren’t likely to have been caused by later practical uses, or by accidental exposure to a fire long after creation, although a few bone antler artifacts in the cave show such damage. Rather, it shows patterns that suggest the art was intentionally made and viewed while being repeatedly positioned in a circular formation close to the hearth, possibly for creative inspiration.
The researchers believe firelight was integral to the creation and consumption of the art itself. The flicking light creates a fascinating effect on the carvings, far different than they would appear under controlled light conditions in a museum. Instead, as it would have been seen in a Paleolithic cave, the flames give an illusion of motion to the engraved animals and other designs, making them dynamic.
“You can see for example a plaquette with several horses on it, and as the light flickers across the surface you see different forms kind of emerging, popping in and out of your perception, and it creates a kind of cool narrative of horses moving across the surface of the rock,” says co-author Izzy Wisher, a PhD student at University of Durham.
Wisher and colleagues used virtual reality to create a flickering fire, then used the orientation of real heating damage on the original plaquettes to arrange their 3D model counterparts around the virtual hearth in what they believe would have been the original pattern.
The irregular lighting shows brief, ambiguous glimpses of each animal form in the rock—a visual experience that encourages the human brain to fill in gaps and complete the picture.
Humans often see familiar objects, or patterns, in what are really random objects—like a face in the clouds or a dog in a piece of burnt toast. This effect, known as pareidolia, occurs because our brain is wired to look for these patterns. For countless generations pareidolia has helped us to survive, perhaps by allowing us to do things like identify a predator in the bushes.
Though pareidolia may have deep evolutionary roots the group theorizes that Ice Age artists harnessed it in a very different way to help the creative process. They may have begun by using features in the rock to form part of the animal forms, for example a crack that represents the legs of a large mammal. “Probably, when you’re looking at this rock in the firelight, you start to see forms flicker in an out, and sometimes people were kind of finishing those off,” Needham suggests. “So it’s not just all in the mind of the artist. It’s about negotiation, I think, with the form of the rock.”
Superimposing multiple forms of the same subject, say an animal, may have been an intentional way to help suggest animation. This effect has been employed in some Magdalenian cave paintings, in which some animals sport multiple heads or extra pairs of legs, stacked one atop the other. “It seems they were kind of playing around with this effect of the light to create these animated forms of art in the Paleolithic world,” says Wisher.
“The experiments suggest the same may have been possible with these small pieces of portable art,” says Jill Cook, curator at the British Museum and specialist in Ice Age art who wasn’t involved with the study. But Cook notes some significant differences as well. The plaquette drawings appear comparatively quickly executed and lack the finesse and elements of composition seen in Magdalenian cave art. And it appears that the stones weren’t always regarded as works of art.
At other sites they were used structurally, as paving or curbing, and even stacked against the back of a rock shelter wall as if cast aside. Paquettes also sometimes show signs of deliberate destruction, where they have been struck and broken, and burning could have been involved in that process.
“The important thing may have been the act of drawing, perhaps the summoning of spirits,” Cook suggests. That process might have been followed by acts of destruction, like deliberate breakage or fire damage, as if the plaquettes didn't matter anymore or even had to be repressed.
Though the carvings are thousands of years old, new information could be forthcoming. Cook points out that recent excavations at the Gandil and Plantade sites, which occur beneath the same overhang as Montastruc, have unearthed some similar objects, which could be compared with those from Montastruc to shed more light on how they were used.
The evidence suggesting that these remarkable carvings might have been made by groups of family or friends sitting around an Ice Age fire offers a fascinating glimpse of the life of the mind, as it occurred during an ancient and long vanished age. Making art wasn’t essential, like finding food to put on the table, but it may have been at least partially about finding some social time to sit by the fire and chat with friends or family, Needham notes. “This feels really human to me in a powerful way.”