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The prehistory of cartoons

The earliest known cave art, at the 32,000-year-old Chauvet Cave in the French Ardèche, where a bison is drawn with eight legs, displayed at the "Prehistory of the Cartoon Strip and the Motion Picture Cartoon" exhibitMarc Azéma / Passé simple / le Centre de Préhistoire du Pech-Merle (Lot) / le Musée de Préhistoire d'Orgnac - Grand Site de France (Ardèche)

We all loved cartoons as children, and many adults still do. They are funny, and they usually tell a story, either in consecutive panels, as in comic strips, or by using animation techniques, as in motion-picture cartoons. The modern comic strip dates from the late 19th century, when artists such as Rudolph Dirks, inventor of the Katzenjammer Kids, began drawing them for American newspapers; and the animated cartoon was born in 1907, when French artist Émile Cohl began drawing people and other images directly onto movie film.

But a special exhibit in the south of France claims that the origins of the cartoon can be traced back much further, to the earliest known cave art more than 30,000 years ago. The exhibit, at the prehistory center of the Pech-Merle Cave in the Lot Valley, is titled “Préhistoire de la Bande Dessinée et du Dessin Animé” (“Prehistory of the Cartoon Strip and the Motion Picture Cartoon”). It was mounted by prehistorian and filmmaker Marc Azéma of the University of Toulouse in France. Azéma argues in nearly 30 beautifully illustrated panels that early cave artists used some of the same animation techniques that cartoonists use today. And although the exhibit is intended for the general public, it is based on Azéma’s Ph.D. thesis research, which he summarized in a 2005 paper for the International Newsletter On Rock Art, which is edited by French cave art expert Jean Clottes.

Earlier this month, I visited the exhibit and the spectacular Pech-Merle Cave, one of the small number of French painted caves still open to the general public. In panel after panel, Azéma shows how cave artists created the sensation of movement in the animals they drew both by superimposing multiple numbers of legs, heads, and other body parts and by orienting groups of animals in dynamic ways that suggest motion, which is similar to what animators do today. In the Lascaux Cave, for example, some 20 horses were drawn with multiple heads, legs, or tails. One Lascaux horse was drawn with five superimposed heads and several manes. Similar techniques were used at La Marche Cave in France’s Vienne department, where a horse was drawn with so many heads, tails, and backsides that it looks like a blur on the cave wall.

Azéma finds such animation techniques even in the earliest known cave art, at the 32,000-year-old Chauvet Cave in the French Ardèche (see panel above), where a bison is drawn with eight legs. Azéma even suggests that the artist who painted Chauvet’s famous Horse Panel, which features four superbly drawn horses’ heads, might have intended to depict one horse in motion—although he adds that it is not possible to know for sure.

As a special bonus, the exhibit includes cartoon strips drawn by Gilles Tosello, an artist and prehistorian at the University of Toulouse who conducts research at Chauvet. Tosello portrays what he imagines to be the origins of one of Chauvet’s most spectacular artworks, Le Grand Panneau (The Great Panel), which features troops of horses, rhinoceroses, and bison apparently being pursued by lions. In Tosello’s telling, a young woman artist sees the predatory attack from her hiding place in tall grass nearby and then shows her fellow prehistoric humans what she saw by painting the scene on the wall of the cave.

The exhibit continues until 3 November.