by Chip Walker 
In his book La Prehistoire du Cinema, filmmaker and archaeologist Marc Azema argues that some the Chauvet Cave artists (recently discovered cave in southern France) were the world’s first animators, and the artists’ superimposed images combined with flickering firelight in the pitch-black cave to create the illusion that the paintings were moving. “They wanted to make these images lifelike,” says Azema. He has recreated digital version of some cave images to illustrate the effect.
The Lion Panel in Chauvet’s deepest chamber is a good example. It features the heads of ten lions, all seemingly intent on their prey. But in the light of a strategically positioned torch or stone lamp, these ten lions might be successive characterizations of just one lion, or perhaps two or three, moving through a story, much like the frames of a flip-book or animated film.
Beyond the lions stands a cluster of rhinoceroses. The head and horn of the top one are repeated staccato-like six times, one image above the other, as if thrusting upward, its whole body shuddering with multiple outlines.
Azema’s interpretation fits with that of eminent pre-historian Jean Clottes–the first scientist to enter Chauvet, only days after its discovery. Clottes believes the images in the cave were intended to be experienced much the way we view movies, theater, or even religious ceremonies today–a departure from the real world that transfixed its audience and bound it in a powerful shared experience. “It was a show!” say Clottes.
Thousands of years later, you can still feel the power of that show as you walk the chambers of the cave, the sound of your own breath heavy in your ear, the constant drip, drip of the water falling from the walls and ceilings. In its rhythm you can almost make out the thrum of ancient music, the beat of the dance, as a storyteller casts the light of a torch upon a floating image, and enthralls the audience of the tale.
Note: Chauvet Cave is closed to the public. To get a better idea about the cave’s hidden treasures, view the flawed documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
Chip Walker, “The First Artist,” National Geographic, Jan 2015, page 57