Reasons to Believe

Prehistoric Artists Better than Moderns

Provocative results from a study of prehistoric art analyzed by biophysicists from Hungary seem to agree with that opinion. These scientists demonstrated that prehistoric (10,000 to 50,000 years ago) cave art more accurately depicts the locomotion of four-legged animals than does that of modern artists.1

The team assessed approximately 1,000 artistic depictions (paintings and statues) of walking animals from prehistoric to modern times (including cave paintings in France and Spain) to determine whether these works accurately portray their subjects’ gait.

Hypothetically, if the artist randomly positioned the animal’s legs in the artwork, the expected error rate would be about 73 percent. It turns out that modern works predating the 1880s had an error rate of 84 percent. After the 1880s the error rate dropped to 58 percent. This decrease is attributed to the work of Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer, who in the 1880s determined the gait of four-legged animals. Presumably, a proper understanding of how animals walk (left-hind foot strikes the ground, followed by left-front, then right-hind, then right-front) influenced subsequent artwork.

Remarkably, depictions of animal walking in prehistoric cave art display an error rate of only 46 percent, which is the same rate found in modern taxidermy. Researchers do not yet offer an explanation for this surprising result, but what is clear is how meticulously the first artists depicted the world around them. The biophysicists’ analysis highlights the exceptional quality of the artwork made by early modern humans.

It is equally remarkable to recognize that there seems to be no evidence of art evolving from another set of skills. Instead, artistic expression appears suddenly in the archeological record (along with other evidence for advanced cognitive behavior and symbolic capabilities).

Such findings have led archeologist Anthony Sinclair to say that “The study of early art has been plagued by our desire to see this essentially human skill in a progressive evolutionary context: simple artistic expressions should lead to later, more sophisticated creations....Yet for many outlets of artistic expression—cave paintings, textiles, ceramics and musical instruments—the evidence increasingly refuses to fit. Instead of a gradual evolution of skills, the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists.”2

This sophisticated behavior appears to be solely associated with modern humans. There is no conclusive evidence that Neanderthals or other hominids displayed symbolic capability.3

Accurate portrayals of early humans’ environment constitute part of the artistic “big bang” recorded in the archeological record. This rich narrative affirms the RTB creation model for human origins and the biblical view that human beings, who are able to creatively express ideas and emotions, are uniquely made in God’s image.

Subjects: Image of God

Dr. Fazale Rana

In 1999, I left my position in R&D at a Fortune 500 company to join Reasons to Believe because I felt the most important thing I could do as a scientist is to communicate to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific evidence—evidence that is being uncovered day after day—for God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture. Read more about Dr. Fazale Rana

1. Gabor Horvath et al., “Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists: Erroneous Walking Illustrations in the Fine Arts from Prehistory to Today,” PLoS ONE 7 (December 5, 2012): e49786, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049786.

2. Anthony Sinclair, “The Art of the Ancients,” Nature 426 (2003): 774–75.

3. Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (May 2009): 81.