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Friday, December 21, 2012

Cave art is more accurate than modern art

In the 1880’s, Eadweard Muybridge (and no, that’s not his original name. He was born Edward Muggeridge) pioneered photography of animals in motion. He’s most famous for having solved the age-old riddle of whether all four of a horse’s hooves ever leave the ground at once (answer: yes--see below).

Muybridge’s photographs put together into a film.

Since his experiments, we’ve had a better understanding of animal locomotion, and this knowledge shows in post-Muybridge art work. The error rate for correctly depicting animals in motion fell from 84% before his studies came to light to 58% afterwards. Now, would you like to know how good prehistoric people were at depicting moving animals? The error rate in cave art is 46%.

This interesting comparison is courtesy of some Hungarian researchers led by Gabor Horvath of Eotvos University. They collected 1000 examples of art containing quadrupeds in motion. Their samples included both 2D (paintings, drawings, reliefs) and 3D (statues) art pieces. Because the authors assume that there are 60 possible combinations for placement of all four feet (right forefoot in front and on the ground, right forefoot forward but raised in the air, etc.), 16 of which occur in nature, they come up with an error rate for random foot placement of 73%. That is, before Muybridge’s studies, people did worse than chance at depicting moving animals.

To see what the authors meant, let's look at a couple of examples. First, here's a drawing of a horse from the Lascaux Caves in France.

Even if you're not sure where the ground would be in this drawing (is the left forefoot lifted?) this animal is anatomically correct. Score one for cavemen. 

On the other hand, look at this pre-Muybridge modern drawing:

A horse would only assume this posture with the left forefoot raised in front of the animal if the right hindfoot was behind the left hindfoot. Showing the animal with the right hind foot placed forward is incorrect. Sorry Da Vinci.

Horvath G, Farkas E, Boncz I, Blaho M, & Kriska G (2012). Cavemen were better at depicting quadruped walking than modern artists: erroneous walking illustrations in the fine arts from prehistory to today. PloS one, 7 (12) PMID: 23227149.

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