Scientists discover ancient, previously unknown, 3D cave drawings

The image of the horse in La Pasiega Cave is shown without and with DStretch processing.
Raquel Asaien / Pedro Saura

  • Archaeologists have found three new drawings dating back tens of thousands of years in a Spanish cave.
  • And they used an optical technique called holography to see cave art like never before.
  • This technology made the art look three-dimensional, which helped archaeologists make their new discovery.

Archaeologists have discovered new Paleolithic animal paintings dating back tens of thousands of years hidden in a cave using updated imaging technology.

More than 700 paintings line the rock walls of La Pacija Cave in north-central Spain, which was first discovered by anthropologists in 1911.

For the most part, scientists have viewed them as two-dimensional drawings. But ancient artists actually incorporated the outcrops, depressions, and fissures of the rock into their art that can’t be fully appreciated in the two-dimensionality.

Which is why a team of researchers recently used a technique called stereoscopy to observe cave art in a new and unique way. They published their findings in the journal Antiquity in August.

Holography is a technique that uses two separate images to give the illusion of 3D.

“The artists played with the lights and shadows produced by the volumes of the cave walls,” archaeologist Raquel Asaien, lead author of the paper, told Insider via email.

For example, a crack in the wall might locate a horse’s chest. Archeology or sketches may miss the nuances in rocks that 3D images can bring to life.

Old technology reveals new details

Stereo photography dates back to the 19th century, and in itself is not new. Perhaps the most well-known use of it is in View-Masters, a children’s game that presents separate images to the left and right eyes, creating the illusion of 3D.

Asaien and her colleagues used a similar technique, taking two images 2.5 inches apart to mimic the average pupillary distance of a human eye.

Using software including Photoshop and DStretch, they processed the images for 3D glasses or virtual reality devices.

Once the scientists were able to see the 3D graphics, they saw three new shapes between the walls of the cave that had not been seen before.

The figures included two horses and an extinct cattle species called the aurochs.

“Those numbers have always been there, but perhaps the way they were studied kept them hidden,” Assian said.

The image of the aurochs in La Pasiga Cave uses the natural features of the cave, such as crevices, to help identify the animal.
Raquel Asaien / Pedro Saura

“The most exciting thing we discovered is that the way artists used the natural shapes of rocks changed over time,” said Assyan.

The newer drawings included more rocky features, and only needed a few more drawn lines added to capture the outlines of the animals.

Asaiyan said art can help viewers connect with the people who made it and make them realize how similar they are.

“We don’t know what messages they wanted to convey or what they were intended for,” she added, but she believes they looked for beauty in these drawings.

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