From France to Indonesia to Australia, ancient life is painted on the walls of dark caves, seemingly motionless silhouettes in earthy colors that echo an earlier time.
But in recent years, archaeologists have imagined how these simple images may have captured moving scenes in ways we might have missed. Animation, it seems, has its roots in ancient works of art.
Earlier this year, a series of stone carvings of strange animals with fused bodies revived speculation about early forms of animation. Using 3D models and virtual reality software to bring ancient engravings to life, the team of archaeologists plot that the stone works of art could have been dynamic depictions of animals in motion when viewed by firelight.
Though they may be a far cry from the hyper-realistic animation we are entertained today, these prehistoric works of art inspire awe, as our human desire to understand, represent, and recreate motion runs deep.
Another example was for centuries covered in ash and dust in Shahr-e Sukhteh, an archaeological site in southeastern Iran known as the ‘Burnt City’. Here, the researchers found an unassuming goblet with burnt red sketches of a jumping goat that comes to life when the vase is turned, much like a modern zoetrope of the 19th century.
In five sequential images, the horned goat jumps to eat the leaves of a tree that could represent the assyrian tree of life. But archaeologists only recognized the drawings as a series of images years after the vase was unearthed in 1967.
Dating suggests that the clay vase, currently on display at the National Museum of Iran, is around 5,200 years old, and some claim it could be one of the oldest examples of animation. While that might be contentious, at least Persian potters mastered the early concepts of animation and persistence of vision long before 19th-century inventors put two and two together.
“This suggests that humans had been fascinated by the movement of animals for thousands of years and had put energy into trying to capture a series of sequential images,” says Leila Honari, a Persian animator and art scholar at Griffith University in Australia. writing in the diary of animation studios in 2018.
As paleolithic researcher and filmmaker Marc Azéma describes in a 2015 article, there are, if we stop to look closely, many more examples of Paleolithic artists bringing their artwork to life.
Long, graphic, and often chaotic narrative scenes captured motion with repeating sequences. For example, him Back room large panela hunting scene more than 10 meters long (33 feet) found within the Chauvet Cave in France, it is filled with horses and bison and features cave lions that reappear to chase their prey along the wall. It has been dated to about 32,000 years.
In Indonesia some 12,000 years earlier, the inhabitants of the island of Sulawesi painted panoramic scenes that stretched across limestone walls. depicting supernatural beings fighting with buffaloes – in what is believed to be the oldest story ever found.
While these narrative displays are majestic, Honari writes that “the chalice of the Burnt City indicates its creator’s knowledge of conceiving a series of images as a sequence of movement.”
“The ancient potter created ‘keyframes’ that contain a very basic level of now-classic animation principles such as squish and stretch, anticipation, and even timing and spacing” to create a vase that “must be the result of years and years of testing.” “. -and-error-experiments”, Honari add.
Split-motion sketches were also used a long time ago to capture moving parts of the body. These works of art, like the stone carvings described earlier this year, superimpose animal forms that appear, at first, to have too many heads or more legs than usual.
Goal, like Azéma Explainthese prehistoric drawings represent animals galloping, head tossing, or tail flicking from side to side, similar to sequences seen in animated books. Sometimes the barely drawn contour lines around the head or legs also convey a sense of movement.
“An eight-legged bison drawn in the Alcôve des Lions in the Chauvet cave demonstrates that the movement of divided action by overlap was already used since the Aurignacian [period]” about 35,000 years ago, Azéma writes. “This graphic illusion reaches its maximum impact when the light from a grease lamp or torch moves along the rock wall.”
Ancient bone discs and double-sided plaques with images of animals in split motion have also been found and were probably used to create entertaining or symbolic visual illusions.
But no matter the shape or age of these works of art, they still tell a story, one that we can only piece together from a distance. Animations or not, we can still marvel at the ancient cave paintings that transport viewers to other worlds long before our time and reorient our understanding of what it means to be human.