In a new study from the University of York, researchers have made an enlightening discovery. Until now, scientists believed that heat damage on prehistoric art was an accident. However, according to study lead author Dr. Andy Needham, the damage was more consistent with being purposefully positioned close to a fire.
The team studied dozens of 15,000-year-old engraved stones, called plaquettes, from the Magdalenian people. This hunter-gatherer civilization existed in what is now known as France between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.
Once the research team determined that the plaquettes were exposed to fire, they replicated the stones and used 3D models and virtual reality software to imitate what our prehistoric ancestors would have seen as they gazed upon the plaquettes under the firelight.
The archaeologists found that the heat damage appeared to result from people purposefully placing the plaquettes close to the fire.
“Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain,” explained Dr. Needham. “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 study demonstrates just how vital fire has been for humans – physically, socially, and psychologically.
“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,” said Dr. Needham.
“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.”
The study further illustrates how art has captivated the human mind for tens of thousands of years.
“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.”
This study is published in PLoS ONE.