Prehistoric people created art by fire -study

Researchers said the carvings 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.

 Photograph showing ambient light levels and the position of replica plaquettes in relation to the fire.  (photo credit: Needham et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0)
Photograph showing ambient light levels and the position of replica plaquettes in relation to the fire.
(photo credit: Needham et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0)

A new study published in the peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal PLOS One found that prehistoric people used fire to carve artwork into stone.

Researchers at the Universities of York and Durham identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of several engraved stones – known as plaquettes – that were carved with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago. Researchers said the carvings 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.

Following their discovery, the researchers aimed to replicate the stones and conditions themselves as prehistoric artists would have seen them thousands of years ago: under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock. Researchers used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes and settings.

“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,” said study co-author Dr. Andy Needham from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. ​​

“It has previously been assumed that the heat damage visible on some plaquettes was likely to have been caused by accident,” Needham added.

More than 40,000 pieces of ancient rock art have been found (credit: Herbert Kelly/ICEJ)More than 40,000 pieces of ancient rock art have been found (credit: Herbert Kelly/ICEJ)

Researchers believe that these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, as many of the tools used to create art today were nowhere near invention.

“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,” explained Needham.

The Magdalenian era was known for its development of early art – from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.

“During the Magdalenian period conditions were very cold and the landscape was more exposed. While people were well-adapted to the cold... 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,” Ph.D. student Izzy Wisher from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham and study co-author Izzy Wisher said.

“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,” Wisher concludes.