Lascaux Cave and the Stunning Primordial Art of a Long Lost World
Glimpsing into the mind of the Paleolithic man is by no means an easy task. The veil of time is a continuous mystery, a fog that envelops the early history of humans and covers it with a shadow of secrets, riddles, and enigmatic archaeological discoveries. But what we can piece together is far from primitive.
There is so much more to the Paleolithic man than we dare to imagine at first, a complex and natural view of the world, and a perfected symbiosis of man and nature – a true and right bond. And perfect proof of early man’s heightened awareness of the natural world is the Lascaux Cave – a masterpiece of Paleolithic cave painting , and an important vision of the world that existed roughly 17 millennia ago. Join us as we travel in the footsteps of our hunter gatherer ancestors, as we traverse the enigmatic and wild world of the Upper Paleolithic , in an attempt to understand the enigmatic world of the man that was.
The Accidental Discovery of the Lascaux Cave
The Lascaux Cave lies in southwestern France, in the Dordogne department and near the village of Montignac. This magnificent cave wasn’t discovered until 1940, and then by chance. And the discoverer was – a dog!
On September 12th, 1940, a dog by the name of Robot fell into a hole while out on a walk with its owner, an 18 year-old boy named Marcel Ravidat. Marcel and three of his teenage friends decided to descend into the hole in hopes of saving the dog and discovered that it was a 50 feet (15 meters) deep shaft. Once inside, the boys knew that they discovered something truly unique.
The walls of the cave system were covered with colorful and detailed depictions of animals of all kinds. Roughly 10 days later, the boys returned, but this time with someone more knowledgeable. They brought Abbe Henri Breuil, a Catholic priest and archeologist, as well as his colleagues and experts, Mr. Cheynier, Denis Peyrony, and Jean Bouyssonie.
Together they explored the cave, and Breuil proceeded to make many detailed and valuable sketches of the cave and the paintings on the walls. Sadly, the Lascaux Cave was open to the public eight years later, in 1948. And it was this that partly sealed its fate.
It became a sensation and received many visitors – almost 1,200 per day. The authorities and experts failed to foresee the consequences that this would have on the cave art . The combined breaths of so many humans inside the cave each day and the carbon dioxide, humidity, and heat that they produced, took its toll on the art and by 1955 many of them had suffered damage.
Visitors to Lascaux Cave. ( THIERRY / Adobe Stock)
Improper ventilation caused an increase in humidity and lichen and fungi appeared throughout the cave. Eventually, in 1963, the cave was closed and great efforts were made to restore the art to its original state.
The numerous art that adorns the walls of Lascaux Cave is seemingly the product of several generations of people. It is clear that this cave was important, either as a ritual, sacred site, or as a place of habitation. Either way, it is clear that it was in use for many years – decades. The art is dated to roughly 17,000 years before present – in the early Magdalenian cultures of the Upper Paleolithic.
The Hall of Bulls
The most prominent and most extraordinary section of the cave is the so-called Hall of Bulls . Seeing the art that is painted on these white calcite walls can truly be a breathtaking experience, providing a deeper and meaningful bond with the world of our ancestors, with the mythical, primordial lives of the Paleolithic.
The main painted wall is 62 feet (19 meters) long, and it measures 18 feet (5.5 meters) at the entrance to 25 feet (7.5 meters) at its widest point. The high vaulted ceiling dwarfs the observer. The animals painted are all on a very large, impressive scale, some reaching 16.4 feet (5 meters) in length.
The largest image is that of an aurochs, a type of extinct wild cattle – thus the name the Hall of Bulls. There are two rows of aurochs painted, facing each other, with stunning accuracy in their form. There are two on one side and three on the opposite side.
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Auroch’s head in the Hall of Bulls at Lascaux Cave. ( bobdu11 / Adobe Stock)
Around the two aurochs are painted 10 wild horses and a mysterious creature with two vertical lines on its head, which seems to be a misrepresented aurochs. Beneath the largest aurochs are six smaller deer, painted in red and ochre, as well as the solitary bear – the only one in the entire cave.
Many of the paintings in the hall seem elongated and distorted, because many of them were painted to be observed from one particular position in the cave which gives the undistorted view. The Hall of Bulls and the magnificent display of art in it has been cited as one of the great achievements of mankind.
The Axial Gallery
The next gallery is the Axial one. It too is adorned with a host of animals, painted in red, yellow, and black. The majority of the shapes are those of wild horses, with the central and most detailed figure being that of a female aurochs, painted in black and shaded with red. A horse and the black aurochs are painted as falling – this reflects a common hunting method of the Paleolithic man , in which animals were driven to jump off of cliffs to their death.
High above is an aurochs head. All the art on the Axial gallery required scaffolding, or some other form of aid in order to paint the high ceiling. Besides the horses and aurochs, there is also a representation of an ibex, as well as several megaloceros deer. Many of the animals were painted with stunning accuracy and the use of three dimensional aspects.
There are also odd symbols, including dots and connected rectangles. The latter could represent some sort of a trap which was used in hunting these animals. The black aurochs is around 17 feet (5 meters) in size.
Painting of megaloceros, giant deer, with line of dots in the Lascaux Cave. (Gabriela Ruellan / Public Domain )
The Passageway and the Apse
The part that connects the Hall of Bulls with those galleries called the Nave and the Apse, is called the Passageway. But even though it is just that – a passageway – it holds a great concentration of art, giving it as much significance as a proper gallery. Sadly, due to the air circulation, the art is quite deteriorated.
It consists of 380 figures, including 240 complete or partial depictions of animals like horses, deer, aurochs, bison, and ibex, as well as 80 signs, and 60 deteriorated and indeterminate images. It also contains engravings in the rock, notably those of numerous horses.
The next gallery is the Apse, which has a vaulted spherical ceiling that reminds one of an apse in a Romanesque Basilica, thus the name. The ceiling at its highest is around 9 feet (2.7 meters) in height, and around 15 feet (4.6 meters) in diameter. Note that in the Paleolithic period , when the engravings were made, the ceiling was much higher, and the art could only have been made with use of scaffolding.
Judging from the round, almost ceremonial shape of this hall, as well as an incredible number of engraved drawings and the ceremonial artifacts found there, it is suggested that the Apse was the core of Lascaux, a center of the whole system. It is noticeably less colorful than all the other art in the cave, mostly because all the art is in the form of petroglyphs, engravings on the walls.
It contains over a 1,000 figures displayed – 500 animal depictions and 600 symbols and markings. Many of the animals are deer, and the only reindeer depiction in the entire cave. Some of the unique engravings in the Apse is the 6 foot (2 meter) tall Major Stag , the largest of the Lascaux petroglyphs, the Musk Ox panel, the Stag with the Thirteen Arrows, as well as the enigmatic carving called the Large Sorcerer – which still remains largely an enigma.
Passageway art at Lascaux Cave. (Adibu456 / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Mystery That is the Shaft
One of the more mysterious portions of Lascaux is The Well , or the Shaft. It has a 19.7 foot (6 meter) altitude difference from the Apse and can only be reached by descending the shaft via a ladder. This secluded and hidden part of the cave contains just three paintings, all done in simple black pigment of manganese dioxide, but so mysterious and captivating that they are by far some of the most significant works of Prehistoric cave art .
The main image is that of a bison. It seems to be in an attacking position, and in front of him, seemingly struck, is a man with an erect penis and the head of a bird. Beside him is a dropped spear and a bird on a pole. The bison is seemingly depicted as being disemboweled or having a large and prominent vulva. The whole image is highly symbolic, and possibly depicts an important part of the belief of ancient Lascaux dwellers.
The famous shaft scene of Lascaux Cave, a man with a bird head and a bison. ( bobdu11 / Adobe Stock)
Besides this scene, is a masterly depiction of a wooly rhinoceros, besides whom there are six dots, in two parallel rows. The rhino seems much older than the bison and the other pieces of art, further attesting that Lascaux was the work of many generations.
The last image in the Shaft is a crude depiction of a horse. One amazing find that was discovered in the sediments of the floor, just below the image of the bison and the rhino, is a red sandstone oil lamp – belonging to the Paleolithic and the time of the paintings. It was used to hold deer fat, which provided light for the painting.
It looks like a large spoon which made it easy to hold while painting. Interestingly, upon discovery it was found that the receptacle still contained remains of burnt substances. Tests determined that these were the remnants of a juniper wick which lit the lamp.
Oil lamp found in Lascaux Cave from the Magdalenian culture. (Sémhur / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Nave and the Chamber of Felines
The Nave is the next gallery and it too displays stunning works of art. One of the most popular of the Lascaux art pieces is the depiction of five swimming stags. On the opposite wall are panels that display seven ibex, the so-called Great Black Cow , and the two opposing bison.
The latter painting, known as the Crossed Bison , is a stunning work of art, showing a keen eye that masterfully presented perspective and three dimensions. Such an application of perspective was not seen in art again until the 15th century.
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Painting of wild cow at Lascaux Cave. ( bobdu11 / Adobe Stock)
One of the deepest galleries in Lascaux is the enigmatic Chamber of Felines (or Feline Diverticulum) . It is roughly 82 feet (25 meters) long and quite difficult to reach. There are more than 80 engravings there, most of which are horses (29 of them), nine bison depictions, several ibexes, three stags, and six feline forms. The very important engraving in the Chamber of Felines is that of a horse – which is represented from the front as if looking at the viewer.
This display of perspective is unparalleled for the prehistoric cave paintings and shows the great skill of the artist. Interestingly, at the end of the narrow chamber are painted six dots – in two parallel rows – just like the ones in the Shaft beside the rhino.
There was an obvious meaning to them, and alongside many repeating symbols throughout the Lascaux cave, they could represent a means of written communication – lost in time. All together the Lascaux Cave contains almost 6,000 figures – animals, symbols, humans.
Today, the Lascaux Cave is completely sealed off – in hopes of preserving the art. Since the 2000s, black fungi was spotted in the caves. Today, only scientific experts are allowed to enter Lascaux and only a day or two per month.
Modern entrance to the Lascaux Cave. Contained therein are Upper Palaeolithic paintings now off-limits to the public. (Ethan Doyle White / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The cave is subject to a strict conservation program, which is currently containing the mold problem. Luckily, the magnificence of the Lascaux Cave can still be experienced in earnest – several life sized replicas of the cave panels were created. They are the Lascaux II, III, and IV.
Peering Beyond the Veil of Time
Time is merciless. The earth’s cycle never stops and millenniums pass and fade out into oblivion. The purpose of the Lascaux Cave is lost with those same millenniums. Ritual, evocative, sacrificial – we can never know for certain.
What we do know is that the world of the Paleolithic man was far from primitive. These men were one with nature, well aware of their position in the order of things, and dependent on the gifts that nature offered.
As we contemplate this art, we finally realize that the time has come for us to rekindle the flame of the past, and to reconnect with the lost heritage of our most distant ancestors. And seeing these complex, beautiful, and at times unsettling images – we are thrust into a world about which we know very little, a world about which we could have a completely wrong opinion.
Top image: The Primordial art of the Lascaux Cave. Source: Public domain
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