Palaeolithic people created art by firelight, new study suggests

The research focused on a collection of 50 limestone plaquettes from the rock-shelter site of Montastruc in southern France, which was occupied in the Magdalenian period (23,000-14,000 years ago).

A recent study exploring engraved stone plaquettes from the Magdalenian site of Montastruc in southern France has shed new light on the role that fire may have played in their creation.

The study used experimental archaeology as well as VR technology to explore the relationship between fire and the engraved plaquettes. Image: Needham et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0 (

It has previously been suggested that fire was an important part of how people in the Palaeolithic experienced cave art, with flickering light from torches bringing the images on the cave walls to life. Now a new project by researchers at the University of York and Durham University is investigating the impact this phenomenon could have had on engravings on portable art as well.

The research focused on a collection of 50 limestone plaquettes from the rock-shelter site of Montastruc, which was occupied in the Magdalenian period (23,000-14,000 years ago). The plaquettes, which are now housed in the collection of the British Museum, were discovered during excavations of the site in the 1860s, and there is therefore very limited information available about their original archaeological context. Consequently, the researchers used 3D modelling and virtual reality software, as well as experimental archaeology, to find out more about how they would have been used by the prehistoric people who made them.

Many of the plaquettes from Montastruc were found to show heating patterns, including colour changes and thermal fractures. These could be the result of incidental taphonomic action, or a functional use unconnected to the engravings such as hearth construction or cooking, but it is also very possible that they were caused by non-functional activities directly connected to the engravings on the stones.

The VR simulations showed how the soft, flickering light of a small hearth would have illuminated the engravings, blurring the shapes and giving them a sense of movement, particularly in cases where multiple animals have been superimposed on top of each other, with the light picking up first one figure and then another, enhancing the viewer’s sense of narrative. Under these low-light conditions, the plaquettes may even have triggered a psychological response called pareidolia, which causes people to identify recognisable forms, such as animal figures, where they do not exist.

Co-author of the study Izzy Wisher notes that these findings reinforce the idea of the hearth as the hub of the Magdalenian community, with the plaquettes playing an important role in the long evenings sat around the fire, telling stories and making art.

The research has been published in PLOS ONE (