Prehistorians have long appreciated Paleolithic cave paintings for their intricacy, visual depth and vibrant color. Now there is further reason to admire our ancestors’ artistry.
According to a recent study led by Gábor Horváth, a biological physicist at Eötvös University in Hungary, cave painters understood — better than many artists of the modern age — the laws governing animal motion. With the invention of weapons and binoculars that allowed hunting from a greater distance, Horváth suggests, “modern humans really lost the skill to observe.”
Fascinated by the anatomy of horses and other animals in motion since his teens, Horváth knew that most four-legged mammals (except primates) walk using a specific footfall sequence — left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore — for maximum stability.
But studying paintings and sculptures in museums and even examining his own childhood toys, he noticed the depictions were often wrong. Unlike real animals, the rendered ones often appeared to move in a diagonal — left-right-left-right — sequence, suggesting they were always on the run.
Recently, Horváth decided to find out just how deep such errors went. He suspected the worst offenders might be artists working before the advent of stop-motion photography — and in particular before the pioneering work of English photographer Eadweard Muybridge. His stop-motion studies, published in 1887, of animals walking provided incontrovertible evidence of four-legged mammals’ gait.