So much for Steamboat Willie. The earliest concrete archaeological evidence of animation comes from around 3000 BCE, which makes the art form about the same age as Christmas. The animation in question appears on a small (8 cm by 10 cm) eathenware goblet, depicting eight hand painted "frames" of a long-horned goat making two leaps towards a plant. The goblet was found by a team of archaeologists in late 2004 as they excavated the ancient site known as Burnt City in the Sistan-Baluchistan province in southeastern Iran. It was found near the skeleton of what the scientists believe to be the creator.

Though cave walls and surviving pottery from this and even earlier times often portray animals and plants in narratives, they are most often depicted on a scene-by-scene basis (comics per Scott McCloud's excellent definition) or as simple repetition. The eight frames of the goblet show no narrative change other than the change in position of the goat—clearly an effort to describe motion rather than salient events.

I hazard that, being on a goblet which the holder can rotate, this may be the earliest known zoetrope as well.

Source: Press release by the Iranian Cultural Heritage News Agency 30 December 2004
See an animation of the frames (along with cheesy goat bleatings) at