Early human ancestors engraved images on stone tablets by firelight 15,000 years ago


Early human ancestors likely engraved images on stone tablets by firelight 15,000 years ago, a new study has revealed.

Experts examined artistic designs on 50 stones unearthed in France and found patterns of heat damage, suggesting they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire.

They are likely to have been made using stone tools by Magdalenian people, an early hunter-gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.   

The study, by researchers at the Universities of York and Durham, looked at the collection of engraved stones, known as plaquettes, which are now held in the British Museum.  

The researchers identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed in close proximity to a fire.

Early human ancestors likely engraved images on stone tablets by firelight 15,000 years ago, a new study has revealed. One of the stones that was examined is pictured

This image shows the ambient light levels and the position of replica plaquettes in relation to the fire during the experiment

This image shows the ambient light levels and the position of replica plaquettes in relation to the fire during the experiment

WHAT EXAMPLES OF EARLY HUMAN ART HAVE BEEN FOUND WORLDWIDE? 

It seems that humanity and its ancestors have been driven to create patterns, abstract images and representations of the world around them for thousands of years.

The earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern, incised on a fresh water shell from Trinil, Java, was found in layers of sediment dated to 540,000 years ago.

Another research article proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old and therefore produced by Neanderthals.

Lifelike images found at sites such as the Lascaux Cave in south-west France, which date to around 30,000 years ago, are said to demonstrate an ability to depict animal movement superior to that seen today.   

In 2018, experts uncovered evidence of art made by humans dating back 73,000 years in an African cave. 

That makes the drawing, found in the Blombos Caves site in South Africa, the oldest drawing by Homo sapiens ever found, experts say.

Following their discovery, the experts experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them.

This meant under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago.

Lead author Dr Andy Needham, of the University of York, said: ‘It has previously been assumed that the heat damage visible on some plaquettes was likely to have been caused by accident, but experiments with replica plaquettes showed the damage was more consistent with being purposefully positioned close to a fire.

‘In the modern day, we might think of art as being created on a blank canvas in daylight or with a fixed light source; but we now know that people 15,000 years ago were creating art around a fire at night, with flickering shapes and shadows.’

Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, the researchers said. 

It may have activated an evolutionary capacity designed to protect us from predators called ‘Pareidolia’, where perception imposes a meaningful interpretation such as the form of an animal, 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 flickering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects and this might help explain why it’s common to see plaquette designs that have used or integrated natural features in the rock to draw animals or artistic forms.’

The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.

Co-author Izzy Wisher, a PhD student from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham, said: ‘During the Magdalenian period conditions were very cold and the landscape was more exposed. 

Following their discovery, the experts experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them

Following their discovery, the experts experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them

This meant under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago

This meant under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago

Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, the researchers said

Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, the researchers said

‘While people were well-adapted to the cold, wearing warm clothing made from animal hides and fur, fire was still really important for keeping warm. 

‘Our findings reinforce the theory that the warm glow of the fire would have made it the hub of the community for social gatherings, telling stories and making art.’

She added: ‘At a time when huge amounts of time and effort would have gone into finding food, water and shelter, it’s fascinating to think that people still found the time and capacity to create art. 

‘It shows how these activities have formed part of what makes us human for thousands of years and demonstrates the cognitive complexity of prehistoric people.’

The research has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones

The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones

Experts examined artistic designs on 50 stones unearthed in France and found patterns of heat damage, suggesting they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire

Experts examined artistic designs on 50 stones unearthed in France and found patterns of heat damage, suggesting they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire

The researchers identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed in close proximity to a fire

The researchers identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed in close proximity to a fire

CAVE ART: WORKS DATING BACK 40,000 YEARS HAVE BEEN FOUND

The most famous cave art can be found in Spain and France, but it exists throughout the world.

The famed Upper Palaeolithic cave art of Europe dates back to around 21,000 years ago. 

In recent years scholars have recorded cave art found in Indonesia that is believed to be about 40,000 years old – predating the most popular European cave art.

 Hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain

Expert Shigeru Miyagawa authored a study in 2018 which examined cave art to try to shed light on how human language evolved. 

He said: ‘Cave art is everywhere. Every major continent inhabited by homo sapiens has cave art.

‘You find it in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, everywhere – just like the human language.’

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