Magdalenian Hunter-Gatherers Created Art by Firelight, Archaeologists Say

Archaeologists have examined the engraved limestone plaquettes excavated from Montastruc, a rockshelter site in southern France. These plaquettes are likely to have been made using stone tools by Magdalenian people, an early hunter-gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The Montastruc plaquettes were incised with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago and have patterns of heat damage which suggests they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire.

Photographs and digital tracings of two plaquettes from the Montastruc site, France. Scale bars - 10 cm. Image credit: Needham et al., doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266146.

Photographs and digital tracings of two plaquettes from the Montastruc site, France. Scale bars – 10 cm. Image credit: Needham et al., doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266146.

Stone plaquettes — a type of portable art which can be defined in simple terms as having a tabular surface flat enough to support engraving — were a diverse artistic phenomenon in the Upper Paleolithic.

They feature a breadth of engraved or painted depictions, including: figurative or stylized animals; humans and anthropomorphic forms, usually highly stylized; abstract or geometric motifs; and more rarely aspects of the environment or habitation areas, such as rivers or built structures.

Plaquettes are found in greatest frequency in Western Europe, including Portugal to the southwest, Jersey and Normandy to the northwest, and with high concentrations in France, Spain and Germany.

They are only rarely reported from Central and Eastern Europe and are absent from Britain, despite the presence of other types of Magdalenian parietal and portable art.

In new research, University of York archaeologist Andy Needham and colleagues examined 50 limestone plaquettes from the Montastruc site in France.

They identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed in close proximity to a fire.

They then experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them: under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago.

“It has previously been assumed that the heat damage visible on some plaquettes was likely to have been caused by accident, but experiments with replica plaquettes showed the damage was more consistent with being purposefully positioned close to a fire,” Dr. Needham said.

“In the modern day, we might think of art as being created on a blank canvas in daylight or with a fixed light source; but we now know that people 15,000 years ago were creating art around a fire at night, with flickering shapes and shadows.”

Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art.

It may have activated an evolutionary capacity designed to protect us from predators called pareidolia, where perception imposes a meaningful interpretation such as the form of an animal, a face or a pattern where there is none.

“Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain,” Dr. Needham said.

“We know that flickering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects and this might help explain why it’s common to see plaquette designs that have used or integrated natural features in the rock to draw animals or artistic forms.”

The team’s paper was published in the journal PLoS ONE.


A. Needham et al. 2022. Art by firelight? Using experimental and digital techniques to explore Magdalenian engraved plaquette use at Montastruc (France). PLoS ONE 17 (4): e0266146; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266146


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