Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Painting the Earliest Form of Cinema?

A few years ago, Werner Herzog’s acclaimed Cave of Forgotten Dreams pulled off an unlikely combination of technology and subject matter, using the latest in 3D cinema to capture the oldest known manmade images. But in the view of French archaeologist and filmmaker Marc Azéma, it must have made perfect sense as a kind of closing of a grand cultural loop. More than twenty years of research has made him see the kind of up to 32,000-year-old cave paintings shown in Herzog’s film as sequential images of man and beast, not just static ones — moving pictures, if you like — that emerge when arranged in a certain way.

Azéma’s short video “Sequential Animation: The First Paleolithic Animated Pictures” does that arranging for us, revealing how the early anatomical sketches found on the walls of caves in France and Portugal depict animal movement as the human artists perceived it. The connection to modern cinema, if you go through Eadweard Muybridge’s nineteenth-century studies of motion and then on to the products of the Lumière brothers’ early movie camera, looks clear indeed. Once we figured out how to satisfy our ages-long curiosity about how things move, we then, human ambition being what it is, had to find a way to turn the discovery toward artistic ends again.

“I don’t think it’s too much to call it an early form of cinema,” says Azéma in the segment from PRI’s The World embedded above. “It was the first grand form of communication, with an audience and pictures.” He points to the key concept of retinal persistence, or persistence of vision, “when you’ve got an image, then a successive image, and another image, and the retina follows what’s coming next,” which makes cinema possible in the first place — and which early man, who “had the need to get the images out of his brain and on the wall,” seems to have known something about. And what, we can hardly resist wondering, will cinema look like to the future generations who will regard even our biggest-budget 3D spectacles as, essentially, prehistoric cave paintings?

Related Content:

The History of the Movie Camera in Four Minutes: From the Lumiere Brothers to Google Glass

Watch the Films of the Lumière Brothers & the Birth of Cinema (1895)

We Were Wanderers on a Prehistoric Earth: A Short Film Inspired by Joseph Conrad

Hear the World’s Oldest Instrument, the “Neanderthal Flute,” Dating Back Over 43,000 Years

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Michael Dickel says:

    I wonder if flickering firelight could give an effect of motion in the images on the caves?

  • Alien says:

    Indeed! Herzog thought something similar and it is pointed out in Cave of forgotten dreams. Possibly these people saw those images moving because of the firelight. It’s very clear that artists wanted to “catch” the movements of the surroundings and now I have no doubt with this video.


  • kruse says:

    It’s a lovely idea. Except that many of the overlaid images were painted years apart….

  • Taive says:

    Another artist might have added the movement later.

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