WTF Fun Fact 13655 – Ice Age Fire Art

Surviving the Ice Age required more than just hunting and gathering – there was fire art. OK, hear us out.

As they gathered around fires for warmth and safety, something more than just physical comfort emerged. This was a time for them to indulge in an artistic pursuit that continues to fascinate us today.

The Paleolithic Animator and Ice Age Fire Art

In recent research published in PLOS ONE, a team led by archaeologist Andy Needham proposed an intriguing idea. They suggested that Ice Age artists used the flickering light of fire to bring their stone carvings to life.

These 15,000-year-old limestone plaquettes, adorned with animal figures, were not just static art. Instead, under the dynamic light of a fire, they appeared to move, animating the etched creatures. Fire art!

Needham’s team studied various limestone plaquettes found at the Montastruc rock shelter in southern France. These carvings, attributed to the Magdalenian culture, showcased a range of animals like horses, ibex, and reindeer.

Interestingly, these plaquettes showed signs of thermal damage, suggesting exposure to fire. But was this intentional?

Experimental Archaeology Sheds Light

To answer this, the researchers turned to experimental archaeology. They created replica plaquettes and subjected them to different fire scenarios. These experiments aimed to replicate the pinkish discoloration seen on the originals. The results? The patterns suggested that the artworks were deliberately placed near the hearth, likely as part of the creative process.

Further exploring this idea, the team used virtual reality to simulate firelight’s effect on the plaquettes. The results were fascinating. The irregular lighting from the fire brought an illusion of movement, making the animals seem like they were alive and moving across the stone surface.

The Role of Pareidolia in Ice Age Fire Art

This phenomenon can be partly explained by pareidolia, where the human brain perceives familiar patterns in random objects. In the flickering firelight, viewers would see incomplete forms on the plaquettes. Their brains would fill in the gaps, creating a dynamic viewing experience.

The Ice Age artists might have used this to their advantage. They could start with natural rock features to shape their animals, allowing the firelight to complete the picture. This interaction between the art, the rock’s natural form, and the dynamic firelight created a captivating experience, unique to the Paleolithic era.

Beyond survival, these artistic endeavors provided a social outlet. After a day of survival tasks, our ancestors likely gathered around the fire, not just for warmth but for a communal experience. Here, they could indulge in storytelling, companionship, and artistic expression.

The act of creating art by firelight was perhaps as important as the art itself. It wasn’t just about the final product but about the process of creation, the gathering of minds, and the sharing of ideas. This communal aspect of Ice Age art adds a deeply human dimension to our understanding of these ancient peoples.

Art as a Cultural Practice

Ice Age art wasn’t merely aesthetic; it was a cultural practice imbued with meaning. The process of drawing, the summoning of spirits, and even acts of destruction (like deliberate breakage or fire damage) could have had significant roles in their society.

These artistic sessions by the firelight might have served multiple purposes – from summoning spirits to strengthening community bonds. The plaquettes, once used, could have been discarded or intentionally destroyed, suggesting a transient nature to this art form.

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Source: “Ice Age Artists May Have Used Firelight to Animate Carvings” — Smithsonian Magazine


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