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Image: Cave drawing
Pierre Andrieu  /  AP
Researchers surveyed depictions of four-footed animals throughout history and found that the representations of bulls and other animals on the walls of the prehistoric Lascaux Cave were generally more anatomically correct than modern renderings.
By Senior writer
updated 12/5/2012 11:39:04 PM ET 2012-12-06T04:39:04

Paleolithic people living more than 10,000 years ago had a better artistic eye than modern painters and sculptures — at least when it came to watching how horses and other four-legged animals move.

A new analysis of 1,000 pieces of prehistoric and modern artwork finds that "cavemen," or people living during the upper Paleolithic period between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, were more accurate in their depictions of four-legged animals walking than artists are today. While modern artists portray these animals walking incorrectly 57.9 percent of the time, prehistoric cave painters made mistakes only 46.2 percent of the time.

Modern artists are also worse at capturing the gait of horses and other quadrupeds than taxidermists, anatomy textbook writers and toy figurine designers, the researchers reported Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Four-legged gait
Four-legged animals walk by moving their legs in the same sequence. First, the left hind foot hits the ground, then the left front foot, followed by the right hind foot and finally the right front foot. Only the speed at which four-legged animals complete this sequence differs.

But this simple gait often escapes the notice of artists. In 2009, biological physicist Gabor Horvath, a researcher at Eotvos University in Hungary, found that 63.6 percent of the animals depicted in anatomy textbooks were drawn in impossible gaits. Half of toy horses, lions, tigers and other quadrupeds were also wrong. Even depictions in natural history museums failed much of the time: Just over 41 percent of those showed errors.

In the new study, Horvath and his colleagues wanted to look at the same question over the history of art. In the 1880s, photographer Eadweard Muybridge used motion pictures to show how horses and other quadrupeds really walked. This knowledge spread, so Horvath and his colleagues split their analysis into three time periods: prehistoric art; historical art made before Muybridge's work; and art made after 1887, when Muybridge's work would have been public. [ Gallery: Where Science Meets Art ]

Getting animals right
The researchers plucked 1,000 examples of art from online collections, fine art books and Hungarian museums, as well as on stamps and coins. Chance alone would dictate that artists mess up depictions of four-legged gait 73.3 percent of the time, the researchers calculated. Art produced after prehistory but before Muybridge showed more errors than chance would predict. In fact, 83.5 percent of depictions from this time period were wrong.

The erroneous drawings even included one sketch of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci, known for his anatomical sketches. In the sketch, the horse has its right hind foot and left front foot down with its other two feet lifted, an unstable position. In fact, four-legged animals keep three legs on the ground at any given time.

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It's possible that the high level of pre-Muybridge errors may reflect artists mimicking their peers' anatomically incorrect work, the researchers wrote. But Paleolithic man seems to have been a keen observer of four-footed fauna. Cave art got its depictions right about 54 percent of the time, far better than chance.

Muybridge's work did improve depictions of four-legged walks, the study suggested. But with a success rate of 42 percent, post-1880s artists still aren't doing as well as cavemen. Taxidermists squeak by with a success rate of about 57 percent, according to Horvath's 2009 work.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappasor LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Ancient rock art from around the world

  • AP

    Even 15,000 years ago, humans were compelled to decorate the interior walls of their abodes. Back then, in the Stone Age, home was often no more than a cave, but the artwork was sophisticated and sublime. The Altamira Cave in northern Spain contains some of Europe's best known and best preserved Paleolithic rock art, including the painted ceiling shown here. Scholars consider the paintings, primarily of bison and other wildlife, masterpieces of creative genius. Click the "Next" label to see seven more examples of rock art from around the world.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lascaux cave drawings threatened by fungus

    Pierre Andrieu  /  AP

    The famed Lascaux caves in France have been shuttered since 1963, when green algae and mosses began to cover the 15,000- to 17,000 year-old murals of bulls, horses, and other creatures. The deterioration was blamed on chemical reactions with visitors' breath. As a consolation, the government built a replica cavern nearby, which remains a top tourist draw. But the spread of fungus in the original cave hasn't stopped, thanks in part to global warming, researchers said at a recent meeting about the artwork. Ideas to fight the fungus include the use of biocides and an elaborate climate control system.

  • Uranium traces help date oldest rock art in Britain

    Sergio Ripoli

    Rock art in Britain appears to date back at least 12,800 years, according to scientists who used minute traces of radioactive uranium in a limestone crust to date the rock art. The crusts formed over the etchings of bison and other creatures, so the dates set a minimum age for the work. The finding helps round out a picture of Ice Age Ice-Age hunter-gatherers occupying the caves each spring to find horse, reindeer, and other wildlife for meat, hides, and fur. This overdrawn image here shows a stag engraving in the biggest cavern at Creswell Crags.

  • Earliest oil paintings in Afghan cave

    National Research Institute for

    The world's earliest known oil paintings are found in a series of intact - albeit weather-beaten and looter-ravaged - caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley. Archaeologists dated the paintings to the mid-seventh century, which is several hundred years before the painting technique emerged in Europe. The murals depict Buddhas and mythical creatures and were made with what appear to be walnut and poppy-seed oils, scientists say. The site of the paintings is perhaps more infamously known as where the Taliban blew up two giant stone Buddha statues in 2001.

  • South African rock reveals history of the San

    Image: Aerial view of Nyirangongo
    Alexander Joe  /  AFP/Getty Images

    Painted walls and overhangs in South Africa are helping scholars piece together the millennia-long history of the San, a group of hunter-gatherers who became extinct after European colonization in the 19th century. More than 40,000 paintings in 500 rock shelters have been discovered. They depict animals such as the eland - a type of spiral-horned antelope - and hunters and are thought to represent religious beliefs of the San. Researchers hope that by firmly dating the paintings, they can see how the people changed over time.

  • Rock depicts supernova

    John Barentine  /  Apache Point Observatory

    The star symbol right of center in this rock carving may represent the fiery death of an ancient star in the year 1006. If so, it would be the first North American representation of a celestial event, previously known from astronomers' records in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The supernova of 1006 was likely as bright as the quarter moon, according to computer simulations. This piece of rock art was discovered in the White Tank Regional Park outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Rock art under siege in Nevada

    Debra Reid  /  AP File

    Figures and shapes etched into rocks all around Nevada hint at stories of people who roamed the land centuries to millennia ago. But rock art enthusiasts fear vandals and looters will destroy the etchings before scientists have sufficient tools and knowledge to comprehend the historical record. The problem, according to groups mobilizing to protect the ancient artwork, is Nevada's rapid growth, which is putting people much closer to sites such as the petroglyphs shown here in the Pah Rah Mountain Range near Reno.

  • Gas caught between rock and an art place

    Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP

    The more than 10,000 carvings and paintings of bulls, sheep, hunters, the hunted, warriors and wildlife all etched and stroked onto the cliff walls along Utah's Nine Mile Canyon make up what is known as the world's longest art gallery. The rock art dates to between A.D. 700 and 1300 and archaeologists believe it is the creation of the Fremont people, who were the ancestors of modern-day Utes. But the rock isn't the only draw to the remote stretch of Utah: It's also rich in oil and gas. A rush to exploit the natural resources has raised concerns that dust kicked up by industrial truck traffic could harm the artwork.

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