Anthropologists investigating caves in France have found artefacts that may have represented animated movement by using "flickering" images.
At the heart of cinematography is the principle of retinal persistence, the phenomenon whereby the human eye retains images of an event for fractionally longer than it actually happens. This is what lets us see movement in films as continuous, even though films are no more than a series of rapidly changing pictures.
Marc Azema, a researcher at the Prehistoric Art Research and Study Centre in Toulouse, said it appeared that Stone-Age humans had discovered retinal persistence and used it to make toys and artefacts that foreshadowed the modern cinema.
In a paper to be published in the academic journal Antiquity, Mr Azema and Florent Rivere, a co-researcher, said: "Paleolithic (Stone-Age) artists invented the principle of sequential animation, based on the properties of retinal persistence. This was achieved by showing a series of juxtaposed or superimposed images of the same animal."
The artefacts on which the researchers based their theory have been found in Stone-Age cave dwellings in France including the renowned Chauvet cave in the Ardeche and the Baume-Latrone cave in Gard, Languedoc-Roussillon.
They consist of small discs made from bone and engraved on each side with slightly different images of the same animal. It had been thought they were buttons or pendants used for decoration.
The researchers found that if a string was threaded through the central hole and then stretched tight to make the disc twirl, then the two images started to merge, creating an optical illusion of movement.
They tested out the idea on a paleolithic bone disc renowned for its clear images, showing on one side a deer standing up and on the other the animal falling down.
Using an exact replica, the researchers found that when spun: "The animal goes down then gets back up in a fraction of a second and vice versa."
The artist, they suggest, was trying to animate the end of a successful hunt.
The researchers said: "Thus the paleolithic artists invented an optical toy, whose principle was only to be found again with the invention of the thaumatrope in 1825, which is itself the direct ancestor of the cinematic camera."
Source: The Australian