Cave Artists Had Leg Up on Moderns

Scientific American

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Who was the better artist, a caveman or Leonardo da Vinci?

It turns out that early depictions of four-legged animals walking are more accurate in some ways than modern ones—even those crafted by the Renaissance master. The study is in the journal PLoS ONE. [Gabor Horvath et al., Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists: Erroneous Walking Illustrations in the Fine Arts from Prehistory to Today]

Without fancy cameras, we two-leggers can have trouble visualizing the sequence of leg motion in a quadruped's gait. Hungarian scientists recently analyzed a thousand statues, paintings and other art created in prehistory or more recently. Specifically, the researchers checked how the legs of ostensibly moving quadrupeds hit the ground, to see if these depictions matched actual animal locomotion.

Of course, 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge famously captured a horse's motion in stop-motion photographs. Artwork in the centuries prior to his photos got the legs wrong 84 percent of the time. The error rate dropped to 58 percent after his photos came out. But prehistoric artists topped all with just a 46 percent error rate. Perhaps those cave painters paid such close attention to detail because they wanted to avoid being starving artists.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast]

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