One way that prehistoric people were better scientific observers than modern ones

Illustration for article titled One way that prehistoric people were better scientific observers than modern ones

Until the photographer Eadward Muybridge filmed a horse running in the early 20th century, nobody was entirely certain what position horse legs were in while the animals ran. In retrospect, after scientists analyzed Muybridge's films frame-by-frame, it turned out that many statues and paintings created of running horses before that time were incorrect. With one odd exception. A group of Hungarian scientists examined over 1,000 examples of prehistoric cave paintings and modern artistic illustrations of four-legged animals running, and found that the most accurate representations by far were prehistoric.


Indeed, the error rate in prehistoric cave paintings like the elephant painting you see here is half the error rate in modern illustrations before Muybridge's time. Prehistoric artists appear to have known a lot more about animal behavior than people who lived thousands of years later.

Write the scientists in PLoS One:

The lowest rate of error in quadruped walking illustrations analized by us, was found in cave art (46.2%) . . . The 46.2% error rate of the prehistoric quadruped walking illustrations is nearly half of the 83.5% error rate of the pre-Muybridgean illustrations. This is surprising, since it could be justly expected that the prehistoric man, with a primitive culture and artistic techniques, would work with a much greater rate of error than his later counterparts. Prehistoric men illustrated the walking of quadrupeds with almost the same error rate (46.2%) as the taxidermists of natural history museums (41.1−43.1%).

The accuracy of the prehistoric artists' representations is too common for it to be mere chance. The researchers speculate that prehistoric hunters, whose entire lives might depend on observing the movements of animals, may have paid much more attention to the creatures' gaits than more modern artists.

Read the whole scientific paper over at PLoS One


Makes sense to me. I imagine early hunter-gatherers also were far more observant about the plant life around them. Hell, I think my Mom is more observant than most people these days, because her family used to collect edible wilds in their woodlot, especially in the spring to add some fresh greens to the diet after the long winter on Manitoulin Island, ON. While she never collected any edible wilds as an adult, as a matter of course she taught me the names of a lot of plants, which I just assumed everyone knew until one summer in Uni, when I worked on a plant survey in a provincial park.

During the summer, some of the Noobs on the Park's interpretive staff asked to tag along so they could learn to id plants. I was shocked when they didn't know what Wild Carrot/Queen Anne's Lace was. They asked me to explain how I knew what it was, which I struggled to do. While I had never had any formal botany training, my eyes had been trained to see the shapes of different plants, while theirs were not.