There was a time before art and then there was art. What happened? Where did anyone get the idea of depiction, that it’s possible to make a small flat approximation of a real object? How could a person stumble upon the idea of images on a wall?



Harsh climates during the Paleolithic forced members of the human lineage to make rudimentary huts and tents. Survival depended on the ability to seal out the elements. The Paleo-camera theory, based on experiments with Paleolithic tent reconstructions, holds that small random holes in these rough shelters coincidentally and occasionally formed camera obscuras, projecting moving images inside the dwelling spaces. Though the term ‘camera obscura’ sounds like a piece of modern of technology, it is nothing more than a dark chamber (of any size) with a hole (or holes) in the side.

The people inside the tent camera obscura could not see the living animal outside at the same time they saw its image inside. The image and object were in opposite directions from each other. In that perceptual moment the animal on the wall was independent of any real object — it was a representation, a two-dimensional approximation of the physical world. A randomly projected image stands for a real object; it says bison without being a flesh and blood bison, planting the idea of a referent, the conceptual beginning of art.

The camera obscura’s images are readily socializable, meaning that everyone in the tent can see the same image at the same time, unlike a dream or a hallucination. With the camera’s image the group can collectively experience, discuss, investigate, and interpret. One of the sticking points of the origin-of-art has been that the notion of representation must be socially held. It is the communal aspect of the camera’s image that makes the Paleo-camera Theory anthropologically feasible.



Homo erectus gained command of shelter construction, a skill adopted by subsequent types of hominids: H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapien. Human evolution occurred within the context of huts and therefore randomly projected images. Over time many eyes saw the images. The open question is in whose brains would the ideas of representation and spirituality slowly begin to germinate?



By the Upper Paleolithic (roughly 40,000 to 10,000 years ago), people were in full command of the tent camera obscura, using projected images in ritual and artistic practices. The best evidence of the use of projected images comes from small engravings (which exhibit tell-tale image tracing characteristics) found at Paleolithic habitations sites.


GATTON, Matt. "First Light: Inside the Palaeolithic camera obscura" in Acts of Seeing: Artists, Scientists and the History of the Visual -- a volume dedicated to Martin Kemp (Assimina Kaniari and Marina Wallace, eds.). London: Zidane, 2009.

GATTON, Matt; CARREON, Leah; CAWEIN, Madison; BROCK, Walter; and SCOTT, Valerie. "The Camera Obscura and the Origin of Art: The case for image projection in the Paleolithic" in the Official Proceedings of the XV World Congress of the Union Internationale des Sciences Préhistoriques et Protohistoriques (UISPP) 35, Global State of the Art--SO7 (Giriraj Kumar and Robert Bednarik, eds.) BAR S2108. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010.

GATTON, Matt. "Paleo-camera and the Concept of Representation" in Pleistocene Coalition News, Vol. 2: Issue 3 (John Feliks, ed.) May-June, 2010.

GATTON, Matt. "Paleo-camera, Phase II: Projected images in art and ritual (or why European Upper Paleolithic art looks the way it does)" in Pleistocene Coalition News, Vol. 2: Issue 4 (John Feliks, ed.) July-August, 2010.

GATTON, Matt. "The Camera and the Cave: Understanding the style of Paleolithic art" in Pleistocene Coalition News, Vol. 2: Issue 5 (John Feliks, ed.) September-October, 2010.

GATTON, Matt; and CARREON, Leah. "Probability and the Origin of Art: Simulations of the Paleo-camera Theory" in APLIMAT, Journal of Applied Mathematics, Volume 4 (2011).

GATTON, Matt; and CARREON, Leah. "Projecting Projection: A statistical analysis of cast-light images" in Pleistocene Coalition News, Vol. 4: Issue 4 (John Feliks, ed.) July-August, 2012.

GATTON, Matt. Echoes of Light: The role of projected images in the development of human culture (in-process).


Paleolithic Camera Obscura Theory in the introduction of Season 1, Episode 5 "Hiding in the Light" of Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. Available on National Geographic Channel, FOX, and Netflix. Series written by Ann Dryan and Steven Soter, and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson (first aired April 6, 2014).

Paleolitische Tent, Bibliotheek Twee Bronnen, Artefact Festival, Thema: De Prehistorie van het Beeld, STUK Kunstencentrum, Leuven, Belgium (February 13-23, 2014).

Probabilità e l'origine di arte: Simulazioni della teoria della Paleo-camera, Museo di Paleontologia, Dipartimanto di Scienze della Terra, Università della Calabria. La Notte dei Musei, all'iniziativa del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali. Cosenza, Italia (Sabato 14 Maggio 2011).

Paleo-camera Installation, Gatton and Getsinger, VTI Building, Jefferson Community and Technical College, Louisville, USA (April, 2010).

Le cinéma/Pré-cinéma, Exposition, Malle pédagogique, Collège au cinéma dans le Calvados, Editées par la Maison de l’Image Basse-Normandie, Pôle Régional d’Education à l’Image, Avec le soutien du Conseil Général du Calvados-Office Départemental d’Action Culturelle du Calvados, de la Direction régionale des affaires culturelles de Basse-Normandie. Caen, France (2009-2010).

Camera Obscura Installation, Art Sparks, Speed Art Museum, Louisville, USA (2007-2008).

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a great service..."

-Armando Prats
Media Theorist
University of Kentucky

“...revolutionary and insistently plausible...”

-Diane Heilenman

...amazingly thorough and convincing.

-Matthew Landrus
Art Historian
University of Oxford

"Perceptually and cognitively sound"

-Valérie Scott
Indiana University Southeast


“Matt’s work on the palaeocamera is an excellent piece of reconstructional archaeology, it is the fresh, innovative, out of the box kind of thinking that is really needed in archaeology today.”

-David Chapman
Reconstruction Archeologist
Ancient Arts, UK


"...elegant as well as clear..."

-Virginia Steen-McIntyre

"Fiat Lux"

-Pierre Cattelain
Director of the Musée du Malgré-Tout

'the penny drops'

-Nigel Spivey
University of Cambridge

"...very persuasive..."

-Patrick Hughes


"What seemed highly suggestive if hypothetical when I first heard Matt speak, now seems increasingly convincing. The multiple positions of limbs etc. is highly exceptional in art from any period and requires a specific explanation. The system of representation is highly sophisticated and seems to me to have required extensive development over a long period. It makes sense to me to propose a model in which a society with a developed method for representing animals in a more "normal" way discovered how to use the camera obscura to create a new kind of image that made new demands on the spectators. That the images are small and on portable surfaces helps the idea a good deal. Not least, these are not "primitive" representations."

-Martin Kemp
Art Historian
University of Oxford


“...very convincing ....separates 'how' from 'why.'”

-Edwin Segal
University of Louisville



"Why hasn't anybody thought of this before?"

-Donald R. Anderson
Photography Professor
Monterey Peninsula College

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