December 6, 2012 - The iconic caveman in popular culture is Fred Flintstone: slow-witted and unskilled. In general, we think of the cave art produced by prehistoric people as crude and imprecise too—a mere glimmer of the artistic mastery that would blossom millenia later, during the Renaissance and beyond.
If this is your impression of prehistoric humans, a new study published today in PLOS ONE by researchers from Eotvos University in Budapest, Hungary, might surprise you. In analyzing dozens of examples of cave art from places such as Lascaux, the group, led by Gabor Horvath, determined that prehistoric artists were actually better at accurately depicting the way four-legged animals
walk than artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The researchers evaluated the prehistoric artists on the basis of the landmark 1880s finding by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge that horses (and, it was later discovered, most four-legged animals) move their legs in a particular sequence as they walk. The “foot-fall formula,” as it’s called, goes LH-LF-RH-RF, where H means ‘hind,’ F means ‘fore,’ and L and R mean ‘left’ and ‘right,’ respectively. At the time of Muybridge, this was thought to be an entirely novel discovery.
Except, as it turns out, prehistoric people apparently knew it too—and got it right in their drawings the majority of the time. Of the 39 ancient cave paintings depicting the motion of four-legged animals that were considered in the study, 21 nailed the sequence correctly, a success rate of 53.8%. Due to the number of combinations of how a four-legged animal’s gait can be depicted, the researchers state that mere chance would lead to a 26.7% rate of getting it right. Cavemen artists knew what they were doing.