Animation in Palaeolithic Art: A Pre-Echo of Cinema

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Palaeolithic art is thought to convey messages that may be naturalistic or allegorical in character, and both are the concern of the modern interpreter. The naturalist approach is "the consequence of the ever increasing meticulousness of archaeological research in all its aspects" (Clottes et al. 1994: 19). It is a compulsory methodological prerequisite in order to be able to discuss the likely use of allegory and symbolism.

Among the most important goals in this respect is the recognition that cave paintings were intended to represent both narrative and movement (Azema 1992, 2003, 2005b, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011; Clottes & Azema 2005). A hypothesis which appears to be increasingly shared by colleagues (Tosello 2003; Aujoulat 2004; Fritz & Tosello 2005, 2007; Begouen et al. 2009; Lorblanchet 2009, 2010).


Even if it is obvious that we will never be able to prove with certainty that the Palaeolithic artist wanted to represent movement or a sequence of movements, the experience we have today allows us to assert that this hypothesis is more and more likely. In the present study, building on more than two decades of investigation and enriched by studies of ethology, we present new examples of the use of narrative and the representation of movement, on both cave walls and mobiliary art.

Representing narrative

The 'Grand Panneau' in the Salle de Fond at Chauvet (Ardeche) is a frieze over 10m long, that brings together most of the species known in the cave: cave lions, horses, bison, mammoths and woolly rhinoceros (Figure 1). It probably represents a hunting story, with two main events running from left to right along the decorated wall. At the end of the left-hand section, several lions, represented by the head and the start of the back, are shown stalking: ears back, head lowered, so as to pass unobserved. They look left, perhaps towards a lone small rhinoceros, painted a little further along the wall, or perhaps towards the viewer. The right-hand section of the Grand Panneau shows the second event and the star turn: the pride of lions lunge towards a troop of fleeing bison. The frieze here offers a perspective vision. Sixteen felines are placed in two parallel registers evoking two different 'shots', the higher ones being smaller and thus farther away. Their ears are back in aggression. Some growl, others roar. According to C. Packer, a specialist in (African) lion behaviour (see Clottes 2001), the group is a mixture of females and males; in the very rare cases where they take part in the hunt, the males hold back and are not involved in the pursuit of the prey. The natural role of each protagonist, pursuer or prey, is respected. Prehistoric people must have felt close to the great herbivores, appreciating their social organisation (family group, hierarchical struggles) and their fight for survival (reproduction, migration), but they must also have been fascinated by the felines with whom they shared a fundamental preoccupation: the winning of meat. More than a naturalistic account, the Chauvet hunting scene can be read as an allegory, symbolising identification with 'the king of the beasts'.

The representation of narrative can also be observed at the small cave of La Baume Latrone (Gard), where several elements in the art also suggest a considerable age, even Aurignacian. The composition at the 'Grand Plafond' includes around 10 animals, finger-drawn with clay. At its centre, a large (3m-long) lion roars and on its own attacks a herd of mammoths, which lift their trunks and flee. Other mammoths depicted below are less agitated, suggesting a reading of events from bottom to top.

Magdalenian compositions show that the representation of narrative is also employed in the Upper Palaeolithic. …