Here’s a place where we can get in touch with our earliest ancestors (or at least get an idea, more on that later) and try to get a feel of what the world was for them, how they saw it and how they lived in it.
Imagine a group of people gathered around a sacred place, painting subjects that were important for them, to the light of a torch or a small ceramic lamp with so much care.
Maybe they didn’t even have written language yet but they were still communicating and letting the people of the future know about them.
What is Lascaux?
It contains some of the best preserved and most spectacular works of Upper Paleolithic art, made by early humans.
Due to the care observed to make these paintings (some even with scaffolding) and the period of time they took, it is believed that the cave was a sacred place used for rituals.
To get in context, let’s explore a little bit of the timeline. After millions of years of natural evolution and the extinction of dinosaurs somewhere around 65 million years ago, mammals thrived.
Around 6,5 million years ago, the first hominids started appearing on the Earth.
Around 200.000 years ago the modern man, Homo Sapiens started to populate the planet.
Now, to get some perspective, ancient Egypt started around 5000 years ago and in my article about Babylon, we’re talking about 4000 years ago and these were full blown civilizations.
The cave was discovered in September 1940 by four local boys who were looking for their dog. It seems they kept their find a secret for a week, after which they informed their school teacher about it.
The cave was opened to the public in 1948 and the school teacher and one of the boys, Marcel Ravidat, were appointed as guides.
The toll on the paintings
Nobody had foreseen the effect that opening and closing the cave and the more than 100.000 visitors a year would have on the precious drawings.
The atmospheric conditions that had preserved the paintings during 17.000 years had been lost and Ravidat was the first to detect a green fungus deteriorating some of the images.
The cave was closed to the public in 1963 when the restoration process began.
In 1983 a replica cave, Lascaux II was opened to the public after 10 years of meticulous work to copy the original paintings with exquisite detail.
Despite all this, the International Committee for Preservation of Lascaux affirms that the paintings are in grave danger under the action of algae and fungus, even today.
They are pleading to the international community to sign a petition online for the French Government to ensure the right conditions so that these splendid works of art can be preserved.
Here’s their video explaining the situation:
The cave remains closed and only a handful of scientists are allowed in from time to time to check the situation.
However, you can visit the replica cave and still marvel at its pictures.
The paintings represent the peak of art of the Upper Paleolithic and in some ways visiting the cave is like stepping into a prehistoric zoo.
There are more than 600 paintings of horses, cows, bulls, stags, wolves, bears, lions and a rhinoceros, some even 15 feet long.
Aside from the animals, there is a variety of abstract figures. One of the animals is famously called “The Unicorn” though it clearly has two horns. However it doesn’t look like any real animals of the region.
Some experts believe that it may be a human in animal costume, maybe to get closer to other animals during the hunt or maybe to represent a mythical creature.
A red and black horse is very fat and has a feather drawn on the side. Maybe it’s a pregnant mare of just the fact that ancient people preferred fat prey?
This incredible cave is divided into seven sections:
The Hall of the Bulls (aka The Rotunda)
It can be found right after the entrance; it hosts about six big bulls, some cows, stags, horses a bear and the famous “Unicorn”.
The Axial Gallery
It showcases 161 images, of which 58 are mostly animals and the rest are geometric forms.
There are drawings on each side of the chamber, featuring the Chinese Horses, the Falling Cow and the Upside-Down Horse.
It features images of many horses, ibexes and bisons totaling 385 figures.
It hosts over a thousand drawings, 500 animals and 600 geometric forms, which makes it a dense display of art in a small space.
It only contains eight figures, but they’re some of the most intriguing in the entire cave. Indeed here is where the Scene of the Dead Man is located and it’s the only painting that may include a narrative, a message for us to decipher.
The man wears a bird mask of some sort and appears to be “dead” or lying down very rigidly and is the only representation of a human in this cave.
The bison has a spiky mane and the rhinoceros appears to be — pardon my French — pooping. A small bird decorates a long stick.
The interpretations of what this scene might mean are very imaginative and varied, but I guess we won’t ever really know what it means.
It presents us with the Frieze of the Swimming Stags on the right wall, and pictures of ibexes, bisons and the Great Black Cow on the left.
It’s called so because of the six felines depicted, even though there are about 80 figures in total. Still, this is the larger concentration of felines in the entire cave.
You can watch an amazing animated walk-through from the official website.
I found a very thorough description of each of the sections if you’d like more detail.
Lauren Brown, a visitor of this website from Bristol, UK, said:
There is still a lot of academic debate about whether symbols found in caves actually represented abstract ideas and will continue to do so unless someone finds a “Rosetta Stone” to unlock them! The first symbols have been tentatively interpreted as counting/numerical symbols. Perhaps to track hunts or days/moon cycles, etc.
I am a non-credit student of paleolithic thinking and such, but I do have a friend from Colorado who is at Oxford for a couple of years. She did an interesting paper about counting in the paleolithic era.
It is even beyond me except to grasp how she feels people came to count, first on their fingers, then by cutting marks on ivory and bone. Marking off the calendar or animals hunted are possibilities.
So much of what paleolithic peoples used was made from organic materials, hides, wood, etc so we will probably never really know but what the academics decide amongst themselves.
It’s interesting to imagine those souls ever thinking people would be puzzling over their art eons later, nevermind extracting DNA from their teeth to see where and how they lived! If those cave walls could talk!
What you can visit today, Lascaux II
Located 200 m away from the original, the second cave is a replica of about 200 paintings from the Hall of the Bulls and the Axial Gallery.
Monique Peytral, the artist in charge of the replicas, used the same techniques as the Paleolithic artists.
You will first go through an exhibit that gives you all the information about this ancient site including the method and the layout of the cave.
You can get there by train, getting off at the station-Condat-Lardin (10 km from Montignac-Lascaux) or drive from Paris for about 5:30 hours.
For more information on visiting Lascaux II you can call tel: +33 (0) 5 53 05 65 65 – Fax: +33 (0) 5 53 06 30 94.
What did you know about Lascaux before?
Did you know this jewel from our past is in need of urgent help today?
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