Yorkshire academics make fascinating discovery about collection of engraved stones dating back 15,000 years

Yorkshire researchers were studying a collection of engraved stones when they made an interesting discovery about how man's ancestors created art.

Man's ancestors created art by firelight, possibly using the flickering flames to create 'movement' in their creations like a primitive cartoon reveals new research.

The discovery came from an examination by British researchers of 50 engraved stones unearthed in France

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Scientists say that the stones were incised with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago - and have patterns of heat damage which suggests they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire..

Yorkshire academics were among those studying the stones

The study, by researchers from 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 team say that the plaquettes 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 researchers identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed near to a fire.

Following their discovery, the researchers have experimented with replicating the stones themselves.

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The team used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them: 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.

Study lead author Dr Andy Needham, of York's University's Department of Archaeology, 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 such conditions would have had a "dramatic" effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, say the researchers.

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.

"Paleolithic fireside art may have been engraved on stone plaquettes near hearths to appear to move and flicker in the firelight.

"The placement of plaquettes in this configuration at night may have had dramatic visual effects, emphasising the material properties of the limestone and the relationship between engraved forms and the support morphology.

"Virtual Reality was utilised to explore these visual effects for 3D models of the Montastruc plaquettes, and suggested that under a dynamic low lumen light source the engraved forms appeared animated."

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.

Study co-author Izzy Wisher, a PhD student at Durham University's Department of Archaeology, said: “During the Magdalenian period conditions were very cold and the landscape was more exposed.

"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 findings were published in the journal PLOS One.