Persistence of Vision
One of the most interesting announcements in anthropology this year came with the release of a book called La Prehistoire du Cinema, by Marc Azéma. The book suggests that the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were meant to appear animated, when viewed by the light of flickering torches and lamps.
Azéma is an archaeologist and a film maker who specializes in cave paintings, specifically on the representation of motion in paleolithic art. In an article in Antiquity (Vol 86:332, 2012: 316-324) , Marc Azéma and co-author Florent Rivère summarized many years of work and presented a bold theory to account for the repetition and overlapping of images in some prehistoric cave paintings.
Their thesis can be summarized in terms of the “Persistence of Vision” class of optical illusions, which are caused by an artifact of data image storage in the human brain. When human beings view two separate images in rapid succession, they can appear to blend together. Sometimes they form a seamless whole; at other times there is an illusion of movement.
Azéma’s argument is that many of the images in prehistoric caves would have appeared to move when they were viewed by their creators, and may still appear to move if they are viewed in the appropriate light of a flickering, leaping flame. Moreover, this effect is not accidental; these images were deliberately rendered with the intent to animate them by the artists.
The fact that paleolithic peoples understood the “Persistence of Vision” effect is demonstrated by the discovery of the world’s earliest “thaumatrope” artifacts, which belong to the same period. Florent Rivère has been studying a series of Paleolithic bone disks, which he believes are very ancient thaumotropes—literally “wonder-turners”, objects which produce a surprising illusion when they spin.
Thaumatropes are very simple optical toys which create a Persistence of Vision illusion when they are spun back and forth. The principle by which they operate was re-discovered in the early 19th century, and was quickly exploited to make a variety of amusing playthings for adults and children.
One prehistoric disk which is particularly persuasive in this argument is carved on either side with two images of the same doe. One side depicts a doe lying upon the ground, while on the other side she is standing up. If the disk is spun properly, the doe appears to spring to her feet—proof that ancient peoples knew how to use the POV effect to create an illusion of animal motion.
A video clip depicting the prehistoric animations from the ancient caves has been made by Azéma and is available on the Antiquity website here. For readers of French, Florent Rivère has posted a blog which includes some of the thaumatrope pictures above, with more description of his findings.
For those who would like more information on the re-discovery of the thaumatrope principle in the 18th century, there is a Wikipedia article on thaumatropes with good information, and the Richard Balzer collection has a gallery of flash animations to show what these 19th century optical toys typically looked like.