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What a piece of work

Ancient cave-painting artists found a way to "animate" their paintings. Humans have been clever for a long time.

The more we learn about our history, the more reason we have to marvel about the unique genius of the human species. The latest insight into the minds of our ancient forebears comes in this month's edition of the journal Antiquity, in which archaeologist Marc Azéma and artist Florent Rivère summarise 20 years of research into stone-age animation techniques.

We're not talking about The Flintstones here, but cave art estimated to be 30,000 years old. The experts say that, by superimposing extra limbs on their animal subjects, paleolithic artists created a sense of movement in their work. This "animated" effect is enhanced when the paintings are viewed by flickering torchlight.

In Chauvet cave, southern France, artists have depicted fleeing bison being pounced on by lions while mammoths and other animals stand nearby. It demonstrates an understanding of perspective - some animals are drawn smaller so they appear further away - as well as movement. Early humans are also said to have created a type of thaumatrope, a 19th century spinning toy that led to the development of cartoons.

All this indicates that stone-age man was well aware of the concepts of time and space, a complexity that continues to separate us from other species. It also proves the veracity of the adage that there's nothing new under the sun. Or, in this case, beyond the flickering flame.

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