On September 12,1940, in an oak forest just outside the small town of Montignac in southwestern France, four schoolboys crawled into a hole in the ground that had been exposed by the roots of a falling tree. Once inside, they crawled several dozen yards along a dark passage before finding themselves in a cavity across whose walls cascaded large and vibrant polychrome images of a variety of mammals, notably aurochs, the extinct ancestor of today’s cattle. The boys had discovered the cave of Lascaux, now generally acknowledged to be the finest among several hundred decorated caves known from the last Ice Age of southern France and northern Spain.
Lascaux, a solution cavity in Cretaceous limestones, is decorated principally in three areas: the Hall of Bulls, into which the schoolboys stumbled; the narrow Axial Gallery beyond it; and the Lateral Gallery, which opens to its side. Paintings have been preserved mainly in parts of the cave where the walls are coated with a layer of “cauliflower calcite” that trapped the particles of mixed pigment daubed or blown onto them. In other areas, notably the Lateral Gallery, thousands of finely incised animal engravings are preserved, but only tiny traces of paint remain.
The painted animal images are beautifully observed but are also rendered using a variety of sophisticated conventions found elsewhere, for example, leaving an unpainted space between the far-side legs and the body of an animal seen from the side to produce the effect of perspective. Also as elsewhere, the animal images are accompanied by a host of abstract signs whose significance has been variously interpreted. Most likely, they formed part of a larger symbolic system that equally embraced the animal images, which in this cave are predominantly of horses, although the total fauna represented is quite diverse.
Painting and engraving of animal and abstract images in caves (and the decoration of “portable” objects) started in the Franco-Cantabrian area at some time before 32,000 years ago and continued at least intermittently until the end of the last Ice Age (which witnessed a radical climate-mediated erosion of the artists’ economic base) some 11,000 years ago. The artists themselves were Cro-Magnons, early European Homo sapiens who led a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle of remarkable technological and probably social sophistication and who left evidence of symbolic activities of many kinds, including notation and music as well as graphic art. Lascaux itself was evidently decorated by a team of specialists who rigged up scaffolding to undertake their work and who worked by the light of dozens of rudimentary fat-burning lamps that they left behind. Exactly what the art was created for is unknown.
Stylistic, technological, and pollen evidence, as well as some radiocarbon dates, suggests that Lascaux was decorated some 17,000 years ago, just after the peak of the last Ice Age but during a brief respite from the most severe climates of that period. Excessive visitation following its discovery led to deterioration of the cave’s condition, and in 1963 it was closed to the general public. It is currently totally closed due to continuing conservation concerns.
- Bahn, P. G. (1998). The Cambridge illustrated history of prehistoric art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Ruspoli, M. (1987). The cave of Lascaux: The final photographs. New York: Abrams.
- White, R. (2003). Prehistoric art: The symbolic journey of humankind. New York: Abrams.