A Flicker Of Inspiration Brings Cave Drawings To Life

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Chauvet prehistoric cave paintings in France have always glimmered with a mystery. An article in the June issue of Antiquity suggests that the paintings, dating back 30,000 years, may amount to the first animated cartoons.



Before Pixar or Walt Disney, was there Paleolithic Man?


SIMON: The Chauvet prehistoric cave paintings in France have always glimmered with a mystery: why do the depictions of ancient animals seem to show beasts with several heads and multiple limbs? Are the multi-headed creature figures from mythology, folk art, or some kind of lost world?

An article in the June issue of Antiquity by archaeologist Marc Azema of the University of Toulouse and artist, Florent Rivere, suggest that the paintings, which are 30,000 years old, may amount to the first cartoons. They say the multiple images were a way of animating the images with flickering firelight. Prehistoric man foreshadowed one of the fundamental characteristics of visual perception, they write - Retinal persistence.

Marc Azema looked at 53 images in a dozen caves. Now, if you see them in a strong, steady light, the way most scientists have viewed them for decades, they looked like poly-headed horses, bison or lions. But if you see them by the light of a flickering torch, the images may look animated, showing the beasts running, rearing their heads, or swishing their tails. But there are no images of talking clown fish, singing Princesses or Archie and Jughead.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from