All Blog Posts

Where It All Began

June 21, 2017
Entrance to Lascaux Cave
Entrance to Lascaux Cave





As previously mentioned, I don’t study our travel itinerary before leaving on a trip, although I did notice that one of our destinations in France was Lascaux. Lascaux was mentioned on page one of my first art history book.


If you’re unfamiliar with Lascaux, it was discovered as World War II was heating up. Four boys were exploring the forest near Lascaux when their dog fell down a hole. After rescuing the dog from an underground cave, the boys returned with lights to explore. What they found has astonished the world ever since.





Lascaux Cave discovered in 1940





Twenty-five thousand years ago, our ancestors transformed this cave into a prehistoric Sistine Chapel. I’d seen photographs in numerous art books over the years but wasn’t prepared for the visceral reaction I experienced, unexpected since the original cave was resealed in the 60s because of damage from humidity and pollen brought in by thousands of tourists. Knowing I wouldn’t be looking at the real cave minimized my enthusiasm, so I wasn’t prepared for this excursion to be the highlight of my trip.





An exact replica was constructed nearby; five years were spent recreating the walls of the cave—with particular attention paid to the contours, textures and colors of the walls—and another five years replicating the paintings using the exact materials and methods of Cro-Magnon artists.


Much of what we know about these pictures is speculation, but we do know they weren’t mere decoration. No one lived in caves this far underground. Some form of illumination was required, yet fire produces smoke that would have killed anyone working here. The solution; find burnable material that doesn’t produce smoke. Juniper bushes in the region do just that—burn without smoke.





I was blown away by the power and skill of these paintings. Photographs don’t reveal the contours of the walls, failing to show how artists chose specific locations to enhance the animals and make them appear three dimensional, more lifelike. Many show impressive skill, and the accuracy of these images is remarkable considering that they were drawn from memory (no photo references). Paint, made from pulverized stone, was blown from the mouth on the walls, using hands and fingers as brushes and shields to achieve the desired effects.





Horses are painted in a style eerily reminiscent of Chinese paintings created thousands of years later. The gradation of tone and variety of lines are exceptional. On another wall a giant buffalo is drawn to suggest a herd beyond, and the perspective is correct.


In spite of well-observed accuracy, it’s interesting that animal heads are always shown in profile, even though horns are placed at a different angle so both can be seen, a technique utilized in Egyptian art twenty thousand years later, as well as in the work of modern painters like Cezanne and Picasso, or images of Mickey Mouse.




Many caves can be found in France, so why was this one selected? The shape of the cave provides a possible answer—a vaulted oval—similar to ancient temples and naves in Gothic churches, yet archeologists are not in agreement as to why these images were made. Did prehistoric men believe they were preserving hunted animals by capturing their spirits in this sacred place, thereby ensuring a continual supply of food? Why are so many of the depicted animals pregnant? Aside from one curious exception, why are there no images of humans?


The only human depicted is a curious figure of a human with a bird-like head, obviously male, lying down. Was it okay to depict this individual because he was already dead and capturing his spirit wasn’t a concern? Was this someone special, a holy man, a pictograph symbolizing the tribe in general? Great art always provides more questions than answers. Carbon dating can’t give us an accurate timeline for work created here because the pigments are inorganic and can’t be dated, but it’s reasonable to think images were created over thousands of years.




The only human depicted at Lascaux


Lascaux must have served a variety of purposes; a place to celebrate rites of passage for tribal members, a place to gather before a hunt to summon the spirits of animals, a place where the highest technology of the era was put on display. Here, far from prying eyes, our ancestors faced their hostile world by setting history in motion, their soot-covered fingers pointing the way to the future.




What would those responsible for the cave paintings think of the visitor's center half a mile from their cave?




Follow my blog with Bloglovin  








That is impressive considering what they had to work with. I'm sure on the Internet there are all sorts of crazy theories. [starts humming X-Files theme song]
By: PT Dilloway on June 21, 2017
oh my gosh- you had an amazing time going through this cave ...thanks for sharing this with us!
By: Kathe W. on June 21, 2017
I'm totally intrigued that it's been replicated (with the original sealed off) and that even then, it's still so awe-inspiring! Makes me wonder what future archeologist will think if they happen upon both the original AND the replica!
By: Kelly on June 21, 2017
Captivating! Thank you for this.
By: jenny_o on June 21, 2017
I am in awe of such a discovery and so glad that it's been replicated so the original cannot be subjected to further damage. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on June 21, 2017
Such great stuff, and intriguing work. Thanks for sharing and greetings!
By: blogoratti on June 21, 2017
I would so love to see these caves. One day soon maybe. I have to admit though, I thought by the title "Where it all began" that you had found where Adam and Eve first lived. I think there was a garden nearby.
By: Mitchell is Moving on June 21, 2017
As they would probably think it is normal to want to continue to venerate a place they'd always venerated, i think they would be more like us (with the exception of technology) than we like to think.
By: messymimi on June 21, 2017
It is sad you couldn't see the actual cave drawings but understand wanting to keep the original safe from human pollution. How wonderful that they went to such effort to recreate the art. Their talent lives on. .
By: Arkansas Patti on June 21, 2017
This is amazing! I had no idea these cave drawings were in France. I just assumed they were in some more ancient, middle eastern locale. I never fail to learn something from your posts, Stephen. Thanks!
By: scott park on June 21, 2017
Sometimes the least expected can provide the most interest.
By: red Kline on June 21, 2017
I'd heard of the drawings, but had no idea it had become a tourist attraction, and then been sealed off. I might feel cheated at only seeing the replica. You know, because I'm special, and would never emit humidity or be a pollen carrier!
By: Val on June 21, 2017
Very impressive Stephen, I would like to see the original.
By: Jimmy on June 21, 2017
I would like to see this!
By: Sage on June 21, 2017
Any reference to the Lascaux Cave paintings triggers a span of thoughts and complete fascination. Who were the artists, when did they do the work, why, how did they master the skills, what was the intended audience, was it a record and on and on. I glad you made the visit and shared your post.
By: Tom Cochrun on June 21, 2017
Fascinating post. It reminds me of one of those conundrums I have often come across in life: why did men start painting? Was the purpose ritual? Was there an aesthetic intention behind or did this aesthetic intention come after? Greetings from London.
By: A Cuban In London on June 22, 2017
this I would love to see. possibly there were openings that allowed light in back then that closed up over time. and possibly it wasn't men who painted but women. we always seem to want to think that people living 25,000 years ago were little more than beasts and incapable of creating art and beauty but they were after all modern humans and much like us.
By: Ellen Abbott on June 23, 2017
How exciting you got to see these drawings! I've known about them since I read Jean Auel's Earth's Children series a few years ago (a series of books about a Cro-Magnon girl raised by Neanderthals about 30,000 years ago). These caves were featured prominently in the book "The Land of Painted Caves" in this series. How lucky you got to see them!
By: Pixel Peeper on June 25, 2017
Choosing the projections on the rock to make them appear three dimensional ..... well they were much ahead than us I suppose.
By: joe on June 26, 2017
Certainly more questions than there are answers. For all the discoveries to date, I am sure there are likely many more to be discovered.
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 28, 2017

Leave a Comment


Return to All Blog Posts Main Page

RSS 2.0   Atom