New Research Shows How Prehistoric People Created Art Via Flickering Firelight


It should come as no surprise that man’s early ancestors were complex and interesting people. And apparently, an examination of at least 50 engraved stones that have been recently unearthed in France have revealed that they may have also created intricate artwork by firelight as well.

A new study has found that the stones, which were incised with artistic designs nearly 15,000 years ago, have patterns of heat damage, suggesting that they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire.

The study was done by researchers from the Universities of York and Durham, who looked at the collection of engraved stones, otherwise known as plaquettes, which are currently being held in the British Museum. They share that these drawings were most likely made by the Magdalenian people using stone tools. They are described as an early hunter-gatherer culture that dates all the way back between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.

The researchers found further evidence that the stones were placed in close proximity to a fire after identifying patterns of pink head damage around the edges of some of the stones.

Since their discovery, the scientists chose to recreate the stones through their own experimentation using 3D models and virtual reality software to replicate the plaquettes in the same way that their prehistoric artists would have seen them as well, which would have been ‘under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines’ that the original engravers would have made during their first cut into the rock all those many years ago.


Dr. Andy Needham from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, lead author of the study as well as Co-Director of the York Experimental Archaeology Research Center shared,  “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,” he added.

The researchers also share that working under those types of conditions would most probably have had a dramatic effect on the way these prehistoric people experienced the creation of their art. In fact, they claim that it may have even ‘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.’

Looking Into the Past

Dr. Needham also said, “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.”

Researchers share that during the Magdalenian era, there was a rush of early art from cave art, to the decoration of weapons and tools, to the engraving of bones and stones as well.

Published in PLUS One, co-author of the study, PhD student Izzy Wisher from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham explained, “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.”


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