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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Comments (4)
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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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