11 Feb 2013 09:00
COA VALLEY, Portugal -- 18 January 2013 -- WHOEVER carved the graceful figures into the rocks of this valley on the upper reaches of the River Douro had no camera, pencils or paper. Though recent discoveries by Portuguese archaeologists have confirmed that the Palaeolithic Sapiens Sapiens that inhabited the Coa Valley 30,000 to 10,000 years ago were among the first humans to invent animation.
Using a quartzite tool, they carved thousands of depictions of animals, some of which - like the Przewalski's horse at the site on the upper part of the Coa Valley at Penascosa - show a clear understanding of movement depicted in animation, archaeologists here say.
"We cannot prove what the carvings were intended to do exactly...But if you consider cinema, then it is like two or three frames a second," says Antonio Batarda, an archaeologist who specializes in the animated figures of the Coa Valley Archaeological Park.
"What they are doing with these figures, when you analyse it...Is cinema," says Luis Miguel de Silva Simoes Luis (Luis Luis), another archaeologist at the Coa Valley Archaeological Park Museum.
"They break down movement and recompose it...What you then see is a goat or horse moving it's legs or head," he explains.
One sheltered site still shows the remains of ocre-painted figures, which are mostly of large herbivores such as the Aurochs - a bovine species about three times the size of the bulls and cows we see today. Other rock panels at the various sites here depict classic species of the Pleistiocene like the large deer Megalocerus, the Ibex, Aurochsen, horses and various species of goat - to name but a few. Rare human figures are also depicted. The tradition of carving on the rock panels here continued through the Neolithic and right up until recent centuries with Christian motiffs.
Back in the Palaeolithic, the Coa Valley - which still has a unique micro-climate - would have provided an easy environment for the small groups of Sapiens Sapiens living a nomadic hunter-gather existence. Outside of the valley, large predatory species like lions were common and the River Coa provided a certain security and was abundant in game.
Strangely, many of the figures carved onto the rocks beside the River Coa depict animals which would have been a significant challenge for Palaeoloithic man to hunt.
"Hunting was important...But it was mostly entertainment, as it was mostly the animal behaviour which seemed to have interested them," Antonio Batarda says, adding that it is impossible to prove what the animated figures (or the non-animated ones) were actually used for.
It is likely, he says, that the animations were indeed just that, using fire and screens in co-ordinated movement to create the illusion of movement, rather like the special effects on the stage of a late Victorian theatre. Animals were of great importance to Palaeolithic man and were likely to have been a form of entertainment in themselves, Batarda adds.
There are around one hundred panels depicting animated movement. Sometimes it is subtle, such as a horse flicking it's ears or a goat sticking out it's tongue. Others are more complex and show a horse moving it's head or a goat involved in a mating display.
Not all the archaeologists here are certain about the sites being an ancient cinema, but all agree that the carvings are definately animations.
"I compare it with comic books...I think it may be pushing it a bit to say it was cinema. Though it was the first time we know that animation was used," says Antonio Martinho Baptista, the Director of the Coa Valley Archaeological Park.
Mr Martinho Baptista says that the Palaeolithic humans who inhabited the Coa Valley were nomadic and wandered around in small groups of 30-50 individuals over a radius of around 90 miles and were probably around a thousand or so in number.
The site was discovered in the mid 1990s during archaeological surveys to construct a hydro-electric dam. It soon became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus far, archaeologists have found around 100 outdoor rock carvings which show some form of animation.
"I believe it had a function...This was public art," says Martinho Baptista. He says that as it was public - it was probable that the carvings were used for story telling and education. Religion may have also played a part, the figures show many pregnant animals, possibly signifying some kind of reverence for the creation of new life.
This makes sites of outdoor Upper Palaeolithic art like the Coa Valley very important in our understanding of our ancient ancestors, he adds. While the Lascaux cave paintings are famous, Mr Martinho Baptista believes cave art was rare and that much of the art of the Upper Palaolithic was outdoors carved on rocks like in the Coa Valley.
"Why did we find the art at Lascaux? Because they were protected. Nowadays, we think that the open air Palaeolithic art was much more common...Though much of it has been destroyed by wind and rain...Probably cave art in this time was exceptional," says Luis.
One of the more tender carvings depicts a moment of affection between two horses, a favourite of the museum's director. For Martinho Baptista, this is a prime example of the keen eye of Palaeolithic man. "It's a masterful work...It was made 20,000 years ago...But could be shown in a gallery by a modern artist today," he says.
Whatever the actual true use of these rock carving animations was, it is clear that these recent discoveries by Portuguese archaeologists in the Coa Valley render the popular image of prehistoric man quite obsolete. "Palaeolithic man was an artist just like some contemporary ones," Martinho Bapista says. -ends- approx 700 words