A French archaeologist and an artist who have studied Stone Age cave art for twenty years say that many of the drawings were intended to produce an illusion of movement.

According to Marc Azéma and Florent Rivère, viewing the scenes by flickering torchlight would have been just one of the methods employed to create a sense of animation in the figures, which date back as much as 30,000 years.

Another popular technique can be seen in an image of a "eight-legged" bison at Chauvet cave, which is actually two superimposed images in slightly different stances. Azéma and Rivère say they have found 53 figures in twelve different caves that use this technique to represent animals running, tossing their heads, or shaking their tails.

An even more impressive example is the use of stone or bone disks with engravings of a sitting and standing animal on opposite sides, which may have served as a prehistoric version of the 19th century toy known as a thaumatrope. If a strand of animal tendon run through a hole in the center of the disk was twisted and then rapidly untwisted, it would make the disk spin so fast that the two images would merge into an animation of the animal changing position.

Finally, the two investigators believe that some of the cave walls, like one in Chauvet that appears to show a pride of lions stalking mammoths and bison, may have been intended to be read as sequential narratives, like prehistoric comic strips.

Azéma and Rivère have been conducting their research on Paleolithic animation techniques for the past two decades, but much of their work has been available only in French. A paper in the June issue of Antiquity is the first summary of their results for an English-speaking audience.

Photo by HTO (Own work (own photo)) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons