Paleolithic parenting and animated GIFs

The creation of the moving image represents a technical advance in the arts comparable with the invention of the steam engine during the industrial revolution.

The transition from static to moving imagery was a watershed event in human history, through which people discovered a new way of capturing the visible world — or so it seemed.

It turns out, however, that long before the advent of civilization, our Paleolithic forebears figured out that movement seen in living creatures around them could, by cunning means, be captured in crafted illusions of movement.


Let’s run with the hypothesis that this 14,000 year old artifact is indeed a toy. What does this tell us about its creator and the children for whom it was made?

Before people started congregating in large settlements and forming highly stratified societies, they weren’t enmeshed in a struggle for survival where daily life was all about finding the next meal without becoming one. On the contrary, the conditions of life were congenial to the pursuit of crafts that helped cultivate the imagination and promote delight of the young ones.

While in our world, animation may most often be used for surrogate parenting — a way of giving kids a blind watcher that frees up parental hands for more pressing matters (like sending and receiving text messages) — I doubt that this was how our ancestors used toys.

For one thing, the contemporary challenges of time management are stunningly contemporary. We have accomplished an extraordinary feat: figured out how to live longer than ever while also having a sense that we have less time than ever.

Did the Paleolithic dad say: Watch the running deer while I skin this rabbit and mom grinds those acorns?

I don’t think so. Much more likely was the age-old bonding experience of shared delight as a child’s face lights up and finds pleasure in near-endless repetition. Paleolithic parents had plenty of time to play with their children.

These weren’t over-worked parents looking for ways to occupy neglected children. They were parents whose own lives were inseparable from those of their offspring. This was an epoch in which life was not partitioned into the discrete segments that define our own.

These were toys that came straight from the hands of the toy maker. They didn’t have to stand up to comparison with newer, better, more expensive toys; nor were they at risk of getting lost in mountains of discarded toys.

Again, a lesson in values: that those who have less, generally have a capacity to appreciate more.

Do I belong to what Melvin Konner called:

… a long line of credulous people … who seem to believe that we have left something behind that is better in every way than what we have now and that the most apt way to solve our problems is to go backward as quickly as possible[?]

I don’t think so.

It’s easy for Konner and others to dismiss this kind of interest in human origins as being driven by a naive conception of an idyllic natural state, but who if anyone is actually proposing the impossible: a return to a mythical Eden?

The issue here isn’t whether we might by some means recreate or return to our Paleolithic past, but rather, how an understanding of that past might better inform the way we perceive the present.

We live under the spell of many beguiling technological false promises, none more pernicious than the notion that doing things faster, frees time. The promise of the future is always that it’s going to be better.

When it turns out that human beings cracked the code of animation 14 to 20,000 years ago, this should give us pause to consider not merely the significance of this event as a technological breakthrough. We can also reflect on the differences between then and now in terms of how this facility in representation gets utilized in human culture.

Thanks to the invention of and portability of the animated GIF, it’s now possible for humans en masse to catch a glimpse of a prehistoric precursor of the very same technology: still images conjured to create the illusion of movement.

What is not the same is the way human minds are typically engaging with the technology.

I would argue that the Paleolithic human mind, operating in its relatively uncluttered world, would, with delight and with relatively undistracted attention appreciate the full effect. The moving deer would not only be captivating but perhaps also magical.

While the motion might rely on a way of tricking the eye, the toy might thereby be infused with the spirit of the deer. While the child was entertained he was perhaps also receiving an early initiation in the art of hunting.

For the audience of the animated GIF, however, the most common effect is at most to prompt a momentary muscle-flex — a retweet — perhaps accompanied with an audible reaction — “cool” — as within a second or two attention turns elsewhere.

Never has humanity been so well-fed while also experiencing so much growing hunger. Our restless attention forever longs for more when the present never seems to provide enough.

As we go forward, we also go backward, and not in a good way.

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