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A Flicker Of Inspiration Brings Cave Drawings To Life



Before Pixar or Walt Disney, was there Paleolithic Man?


SIMON: The Chauvet prehistoric cave paintings in France have always glimmered with a mystery: why do the depictions of ancient animals seem to show beasts with several heads and multiple limbs? Are the multi-headed creature figures from mythology, folk art, or some kind of lost world?

An article in the June issue of Antiquity by archaeologist Marc Azema of the University of Toulouse and artist, Florent Rivere, suggest that the paintings, which are 30,000 years old, may amount to the first cartoons. They say the multiple images were a way of animating the images with flickering firelight. Prehistoric man foreshadowed one of the fundamental characteristics of visual perception, they write - Retinal persistence.

Marc Azema looked at 53 images in a dozen caves. Now, if you see them in a strong, steady light, the way most scientists have viewed them for decades, they looked like poly-headed horses, bison or lions. But if you see them by the light of a flickering torch, the images may look animated, showing the beasts running, rearing their heads, or swishing their tails. But there are no images of talking clown fish, singing Princesses or Archie and Jughead.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.