Marc Azéma of the University of Toulouse—Le Mirail and independent French artist Florent Rivère published their discovery in the June issue of Antiquity. They report that Stone Age artists used torches to create an animation effect on cartoon-like drawings inside caves.
"Stone Age artists intended to give life to their images," Azéma wrote. "The majority of cave drawings show animals in action."
The paintings show various animals in states of motion. Without the torch effect, the images appear to simply be of superimposed animals with multiple heads and appendages. But when the lighting effect is administered, the paintings appear to move in sequence.
Azéma has spent 20 years studying Stone Age animation techniques, citing 53 figures in 12 French caves.
"That such animation was intentional is endorsed by the likely use of incised disks as thaumatropes," Azéma wrote.
Astronomer John Hershel first developed thaumatropes in 1825. The "miracle wheel," works by spinning several images on a disk to create the illusion of movement. The world's oldest known film is the Roundhay Garden Scene, created in 1888.
"Paleolithic thaumatropes can be claimed as the earliest of the attempts to represent movement that culminated in the invention of the cinematic camera," Azéma and Rivère wrote.
Cave paintings have been thrust back into the public consciousness recently with the new film "Prometheus," which speculates that the ancient artworks provide a map to finding extraterrestrial life. And while these movies are certainly of a more primitive nature, they do contain far fewer plot holes.