Our earliest ancestors likely created intricate works of art by firelight, a review of 50 engraved stones discovered in France has revealed.
The stones were incised with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago and show patterns of heat damage that suggest they were carved near the flickering light of a fire, according to the new study.
The study, led by researchers from the universities of York and Durham, looked at the collection of engraved stones, known as plaquettes, which are now in the British Museum. They were probably made using stone tools by the Magdalenians, an ancient hunter-gatherer culture dating to between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.
The researchers identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed near a fire.
Following their discovery, the researchers experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaques as prehistoric artists would have seen them: in fireside light conditions and with the cool white lines that engravers would have made as they first carved it into the rock thousands of years ago.
The study’s lead author, Dr Andy Needham from York University’s Department of Archeology and co-director of the York Experimental Archeology Research Center, said: “It has previously been assumed that heat damage visible on some pads were likely to have been caused by accident, but experiments with replica pads showed that damage was more consistent with deliberate positioning near fire.
“Today we might think of art being created on a blank canvas in daylight or with a stationary light source; but we now know that 15,000 years ago people were creating art. art around a fire at night, with shimmering shapes and shadows.”
Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on how prehistoric humans experienced artistic creation, researchers say. He may have activated an evolutionary ability meant to protect us from predators called “Pareidolia”, where perception compels meaningful interpretation such as an animal’s shape, a face, or a pattern where there is none. .
Dr Needham added: “Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain. We know that shimmering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary ability to see shapes and faces in inanimate objects and this might help explain why it is common to see wafer patterns that have used or integrated natural features in rock to draw animals or art forms.”
The Magdalenian era saw the flourishing of primitive art, from rock art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.
Study co-author, PhD student Izzy Wisher from Durham University’s Department of Archeology, said: “During the Magdalenian period, conditions were very cold and the landscape was more exposed. As people were well adapted to the cold, wearing warm clothing made of animal skins and furs, fire was still very important for warmth. Our results support the theory that the warm glow of the fire made them the center of the community for social gatherings, storytelling and making art.
“At a time when enormous amounts of time and effort would have been required to find food, water and shelter, it is fascinating to think that people still found the time and ability to create of art. It shows how these activities have been part of what has made us human for thousands of years and demonstrates the cognitive complexity of prehistoric peoples.”
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