Lions hunting bison, Chauvet cave.
"During the Old Stone Age, between 37,000 and 11,000 years ago, some of the most remarkable art ever conceived was etched or painted on the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain,” writes Judith Thurman in The New Yorker, in 2008. “After a visit to Lascaux, in the Dordogne, which was discovered in 1940, Picasso reportedly said to his guide, ‘They’ve invented everything.’ What those first artists invented was a language of signs for which there will never be a Rosetta stone; perspective, a technique that was not rediscovered until the Athenian Golden Age; and a bestiary of such vitality and finesse that, by the flicker of torchlight, the animals seem to surge from the walls, and move across them like figures in a magic lantern show (in that sense, the artists invented animation)." (1)

The filmmaker Werner Herzog was reportedly so intrigued by Thurman’s article, he petitioned the French government the following year for permission to film in the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, in the South of France. The resulting film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was released in 2010. 

“Among the film’s most fascinating insights,” writes Adam Cook, “is the discovery of how those who created the [cave] paintings would use torchlight and shadows, in conjunction with the images, as dramatic tools. One bison, as Herzog points out, is painted with eight legs, to give it a sense of motion. It is what he refers to as a ‘proto-cinema,’ and indeed all the elements are there, which when considering how old these works are in comparison to the cinema, is startling, and moving." (2)

“When our Magdalenian ancestors painted and etched the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain, they were… making images that were essentially cinematic,” writes Edward Wachtel in the abstract for his article, “The First Picture Show: Cinematic Aspects of Cave Art.”  “Their creations have generally been presented as still images—etchings, drawings, paintings—predecessors to photography. However, the tools and techniques they used, including brushes and blowguns, the irregular cave surfaces and lamps fueled by animal fat, conspired to create works and viewing conditions that made images that appeared to move, change color, dissolve, cut, appear and disappear. In short, they made cinematic images—precursors to film and television."(3) 

Rhinos, Chauvet cave.
Other scholars agree and even theorize about the genesis of the proto-cinematic nature of cave art. Matt Gatton argues, in The Camera Obscura and the Origin of Art: The Case for Image Projection in the Paleolithic, that “harsh climates during the Paleolithic forced members of the human lineage to make rudimentary huts and tents. Survival depended on the ability to seal out the elements… [but] random holes in these rough shelters coincidentally and occasionally formed camera obscuras, projecting moving images inside the dwelling spaces,” which were then traced or copied. (4)

Scene from Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams".

Gatton's theory may be debatable; Herzog's Paleolithic fantasy is, ironically, somewhat more plausible: "Arguably, or for me," says Herzog, in an interview with Archaeology Magazine, "the greatest single sequence in all of film history [is] Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadows, and all of a sudden he stops and the shadows become independent and dance without him and he has to catch up with them. It's so quintessentially 'movie'. It can't get more beautiful. It's actually from Swing Time [1938]. And when you look at the [Chauvet] cave and certain panels, there's evidence of some fires on the ground. They're not for cooking. They were used for illumination. You have to step in front of these fires to look at the images, and when you move, you must see your own shadow. And immediately, Fred Astaire comes to mind—who did something 32,000 years later which is essentially what we can imagine for early Paleolithic people." (5)


1.      Thurman, Judith. First ImpressionsThe New Yorker, June 23, 2008.

2.      Cook, Adam. Werner Herzog and the Proto-Cinema. 2012. 

3.      Wachtel, Edward. The First Picture Show: Cinematic Aspects of Cave ArtLeonardo, Vol. 26, No. 2. 1993, p. 135-140. 

4.      Gatton, Matt. Paleo-Camera. 2005. 

5.      Zorich, Zach. Interview: Werner Herzog on the Birth of ArtArchaeology, Vol. 64, No. 2, March/April 2011.