The oldest, most beautiful art ever?
If I half-close my eyes, I can almost see our Paleolithic ancestors at work in this cool subterranean chamber: mixing their ochre and manganese pigments by the light of lamps powered by animal fat. Then, applying them to the limestone walls to produce the stampeding horses and bulls that mesmerize us some 20,000 years later.
Were they recounting stories of hunting expeditions, these prehistoric artists who used the Lascaux caves—as did hundreds of others in southern France and northern Spain—as gigantic canvases? Or did their paintings hold some deeper spiritual meaning? Were they even, as some have suggested, an early form of animation, with the flickering firelight conveying the impression of animals in motion?
The significance of the rock art created in Europe during the last Ice Age, many millennia before ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids, is still hotly debated, even as the art itself, sadly, deteriorates. Among France’s most celebrated, the Lascaux works are so fragile that the caves, in the picturesque Dordogne region, have been closed to the public since 1963. The Great Hall of the Bulls in which I’ve stood, literally open-mouthed, is not the original gallery, but an astonishingly faithful replica, part of a €66 million (US$71 million) International Centre for Cave Art which opened in December 2016 at the foot of the hill where the caves and their treasures were discovered in 1940.
Within the gleaming, high-tech Centre, the interior of the caves has been painstakingly reconstructed, down to every last contour and cavity—and so have the 600 paintings and more than 1,000 engravings which adorn Lascaux’s walls and ceilings. Stepping inside, I found myself quickly transported to the real caves, the authenticity of the experience heightened by the recreation of the chilly temperature, dank smell and muffled sounds.
The Great Hall’s famous frieze of 36 animals—including four enormous black bulls, one of them 17 feet (5.2 metres) long—might be a reproduction, but it induces genuine awe and wonderment.
Archaeologists believe some of Lascaux’s beasts were painted using surprisingly sophisticated techniques, such as blowing dried paint through a tool made from hollow bird bones. In one image, in a rear chamber, two bulls appear to be charging, their mighty horned heads much larger than their hind-quarters. How did Stone Age hunter-gatherers learn to render movement and perspective so skillfully? It took thousands of years until the artists of the Renaissance rediscovered these.
Marcel Ravidat, a teenager from the nearby village of Montignac, in the Vézère valley, stumbled across the network of caves after his black and white mongrel, Robot, fell down a hole while pursuing a rabbit. So spectacular were the artworks found beneath the heavily forested, undulating hills—depicting bison, antelope, ibex, cats, a bear and a rhinoceros, as well as a sole semi-human figure with the head of a bird—that the local Catholic priest, Abbé Breuil, called the site a "prehistoric Sistine Chapel".
That human figure with a bird head and stylized hands has been a source of much wonder and interpretation. And who knows what the bird-man’s erection means, or what message the bird on a stick below him was meant to convey to a Paleolithic audience?
Opened to the public in 1948, Lascaux soon fell victim to its own popularity, with increased humidity and carbon dioxide inside the caves causing fungal infestations which damaged the paintings. After it closed, with only a few scientists allowed to visit, what became known as Lascaux II was built, opening in 1983. An accurate copy of the Great Hall of the Bulls and another lavishly decorated chamber, the Painted Gallery, drew millions of visitors.
This has now been eclipsed by Lascaux IV, which took a team of 50 painters and sculptors years to complete, aided by digital photographs and 3D printing. (Lascaux III, an exhibition of facsimiles of the art, has been travelling the world since 2012, except for Covid-19 disruptions.) The stylish glass and concrete complex also features multi-media displays and interactive galleries.
Compelling as the recreated images are, nothing beats the real thing for authenticity—and Pech Merle, near the village of Cabrerets, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, is among the few remaining sites in France accessible to the public. The two-kilometre-long chain of caves houses some of the country’s oldest rock art, including the famous “Spotted Horses”, estimated to be 29,000 years old. Even though the two large, dappled equines—standing back to back, partly superimposed on a 4-metre-wide panel—were already familiar to me from photographs, I experienced a little shiver when I actually clapped eyes on the originals.
For many years the horses' distinctive black markings—which some believe were painted using a spitting technique—mystified archaeologists, because DNA evidence indicated that only black and bay equines roamed Europe in that period. The Pech Merle horses were assumed to be mythical or imaginary, and therefore to have some spiritual or symbolic significance. In 2011 came a bombshell: after re-analyzing DNA samples, a team of researchers established that dappled horses did exist way back then. For some, it was case closed; the University of York’s Terry O'Connor declared that “people drew spotty horses because they saw spotty horses”. Others, such as the prominent French prehistorian Jean Clottes, refused to rule out another meaning beyond the naturalistic, pointing to similar black spots painted above and below the horses.
Source: Balades et Patrimoine
Academic spats notwithstanding, there is more to Pech Merle than the Spotted Horses. Inside the Chapel of the Mammoths, I was transfixed by the Black Frieze, with its 25 large black drawings of woolly mammoths, bison, bulls and horses. I was also intrigued by the enigmatic Wounded Man, a naked figure drawn in ochre and pierced by eight lines. Reindeer, a lion, a bear and a dozen human figures also populate the nearly 600 paintings and numerous engravings at this site; there is even a prehistoric sculpture, of a bison carved in natural relief.
What is also striking about the art, though—which is thought to date from three separate flowerings of Paleolithic culture: the Gravettian era (around 25,000 BCE), the Solutrean (around 18,000 BCE) and the Magdalenian (around 15,000 BCE)—is the preponderance of geometric signs and symbols, many of them similar to those found at other sites, including Lascaux, Chauvet, Cougnac and Altamira, in Spain. A Canadian researcher, Genevieve von Petzinger, identified 32 types of abstract marks at multiple rock art locations across Europe—signifying, she argues, that they must have conveyed information, and therefore represent a key step towards the development of writing.
As at Lascaux, it was local teenagers who unearthed Pech Merle’s treasures, in 1922, although the richly decorated Combel Gallery came to light only in 1949, when rubble obstructing the mouth of the cave was cleared. And, as at Lascaux, the paintings at Pech Merle were beautifully preserved thanks to the entrance having become closed, creating an airtight seal which protected the art from the elements and temperature changes.
When we think of Stone Age artists, in France or elsewhere, many of us think of men, since they, it is believed, hunted the animals which often constitute the artistic subjects. But we should no longer unthinkingly assume that the artists were male. As the author and art historian Janine Burke noted in a piece for The Conversation in 2013, women as well as men would have been involved in dismembering the kill, and would therefore have been familiar with anatomical details. Indeed, a study by Dean Snow, an archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University, concludes that many of the hand stencils which surround the Spotted Horses at Pech Merle were, in fact, made by women.
Children were artists, too. A number of Paleolithic sites feature fluted lines on the walls and ceilings, produced by human fingers drawn through wet clay. A study at Rouffignac, in the Dordogne established that the flutings there were made by very young children, aged between two and five—and at heights which would have required them to be hoisted aloft by adults. What a vivid image that conjures up, not only of painting as a family affair—“Were the children acting as ‘paintbrushes’ for those holding them up?” ask Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder, authors of the 2006 study—but also of the intimacy of family life in prehistoric times. Children are believed to be responsible for flutings at Pech Merle and Altamira, too. Their hand and foot prints have been found at many sites.
The Rouffignac cave system, located near the beautiful village of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac, is another of the handful of accessible French rock art sites. Unlike those which stood untouched for millennia until relatively recently, the caves have been known since at least 1575, and were already a tourist attraction in the 19th century. However, the importance of the art was not fully recognized until a group of French archaeologists visited in 1956.
As with Pech Merle, the number of daily visitors at Rouffignac is limited, as are group sizes and visit duration. When I went an electric train gently conveyed me and a small group of excited companions into the caves. They extend for 10 kilometers (seven miles) and were used as a hide-out by French Resistance fighters during the Second World War. They have also been occupied by various species of extinct cave bear, as attested to by claw-mark scratchings on the walls.
Much of the 13,000-year-old art, consisting mainly of engravings and black line drawings, is situated deep inside the caves, and two-thirds of it depicts now-extinct woolly mammoths, which Stone Age tribes clearly revered. These magnificent creatures were also hunted for meat, and for tusks and bones, which were used to make tools.
I’ve puzzled, with no persuasive answers to my inner voice asking me searching questions, over why there is such a preponderance of representations at Rouffignac, which is also known as the Cave of the Hundred Mammoths. That’s because 158 images have now been identified. These account for 30 per cent of all mammoths portrayed in Paleolithic art, anywhere.
Rouffignac’s aptly named Great Ceiling is covered in an extraordinary riot of animals—65 in all, including bison, ibex, horses and woolly rhinoceroses. Just like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, prehistoric artists must have painted these lying on their backs, using chunks of manganese dioxide to sketch the black drawings, and flints or bone tools to carve the engravings. Such pure motivation to render under so much discomfort, but so beautifully, the objects of their enduring interest.
Why? What drew Paleolithic people to these caves? Were they hiding from the fearsome mammoths? Not at all, they hunted them. What about sheltering from the Arctic temperatures? Life was tough in the Ice Age: the temperatures in that region ranged from 43°F (6°C) in summer to a shivering wintertime of -22°F (-30°C). Tools and the remains of food found at Pech Merle suggest Cro-Magnon spent time visiting the gloomy chambers, but only occasionally.
The archeological evidence is abundantly clear; these were not residences. People descended with the intention of painting for a few hours or perhaps a day or so at a time, but they were not routinely living in the caves on a daily basis. They drew, painted or etched onto the rockface their brilliant creations, then moved back on to the tundra, and resumed their hazardous, edgy, and always precarious, existence.
Were they a kind of shrine, then, a dedication to the gods, to be visited on mystical days, perhaps special times in the year, depending upon the seasons? Was the art part of some magical shamanism, and the artists, the religious leaders of their time?
I’ve reflected in this for a long while. Other scholars have thought about this too, and this theory fits with my own feelings about their spiritual significance. I’ve spent time in all these caves. The portraits and symbols are just so infused with meaning. Surely the artists weren’t simply rendering what they saw around them, effectively recording a guide to the fauna of that era? It’s so much more mysterious and humbling than that.
I believe they were performing, as artists do—but also bestowing, devoting, making an offering to their gods. The scenes they drew, painted or engraved were ritualistic and ceremonial. It was about more than just recreating past exploits, or trying to ensure a successful hunt by creating images of their intended, hoped-for prey. The discovery that children from a narrow age range were responsible for the flutings at Pech Merle has prompted speculation that their work may have been designed to mark the passage from infancy to childhood. Of course, the flutings could equally have been made just for fun, but the gravity of the art, its capacity to evoke wonder, is surely meaningful, visionary, purposeful.
It might not be possible to fully imagine the workings of a Stone Age mind, but the Cro-Magnon brain was just like ours—the same size, the same sophisticated circuitry. If we empathetically step inside their world for a moment, we can see that our shared cognitive capacity means they would have been compelled, like us, to be forever seeking meaning: imagining, expressing, creating significance in their lives. Pursuing spirituality; restlessly following the beguile of the unknown. It’s just so human.
Intriguingly, our early ancestors may also have possessed scientific as well as artistic talents. Some astronomical researchers believe they have identified constellations of stars, and even maps of the world, among the murals at Lascaux and at Spain’s Cueva de El Castillo site. If they are correct, Cro-Magnon may have been the first to chart the night sky, and sketch the first maps. Searching for understanding of the world, and the great cosmos beyond.
That would give extra potency to what Picasso trenchantly declared after visiting the Paleolithic cave art of northern Spain: “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.”
We assuredly are the same people—the same cognitive capacities, the same mind, the same degree of intelligence, the same abilities to steer through a complex social, political and economic environment. Indeed, put a Cro-Magnon in a contemporary outfit with a haircut, and let them walk down Main Street, USA. No one would give a second glance. Cro-Magnon was way before us, but for all intents and purposes a modern.
Through our understanding of their art and design, with its echoes of our own, we can learn much about our own backstory across the epochs. The essential lesson? They are we—Homo sapiens, us.
We share, Cro-Magnons and we moderns, so much else. We have corresponding needs: to have a good foothold on life, to be as free from harm as possible, to make a living, feed and clothe ourselves, establish a family, keep it secure, to nurture the next generation. Over the millennia, too, there has always been a very human compulsion to navigate the politics of in groups and out groups, and enjoy the rewards and suffer the risks of interacting with others.
They did that in their hunter-gatherer bands, right across the millennia of their nomadic lives. We do that in our contemporary settings – workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, pubs.
And, durably, achingly, we both need to give expression to our lives. It no longer seems to be an exclusively modern accomplishment to spend a measure of discretionary time exercising that all-too-human creative side. That’s what people do now, and they did then.
And yet, there’s a dark side. If Picasso was right, he hinted at a core problem of humanity—one that has been thrown into stark relief by the acts of these ancient peoples. Humankind is indeed enormously talented, with creativity and survival skills aplenty—but we are always prone to over-reaching. So too were our ancestors in south-western France. There’s no woolly mammoths left, remember. They were driven to extinction, hunted by the smartest predator on the tundra.
We are still destroying species, but now there’s a burgeoning 7.6 billion of us rather than a few thousand, and we are achieving destruction at a previously unimaginable rate. Neither Cro-Magnon then, nor us now, have been able to move beyond our need to seize, dominate, and deplete—a desire that’s fundamentally at odds with our capacity to find meaning, create beauty, and live peacefully.
Humans, in any era: dark and light, hero and villain, creator and destroyer. With one difference. We now have no excuses. While Cro-Magnon peoples were not aware of the unintended effects of their choices, we, uncontrovertibly, know the consequences of our activities. Doing nothing in response is not, anymore, a viable option.
Burke, Janine (2013) Hands on the wall: were the first artists actually women? The Conversation, October 21: https://theconversation.com/hands-on-the-wall-were-the-first-artists-actually-women-19232
Sharpe, Kevin, & Van Gelder, Leslie (2006). Evidence for cave marking by Palaeolithic children. Antiquity, 80(310), 937-947. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00094527
Snow, Dean (2013). Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art. American Antiquity, 78(4), 746-761. doi:10.2307/43184971
Von Petzinger, Genevieve (2016) The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols. New York, United States: Atria Books.