Friday, December 13, 2013

Paleolithic Cave Art at Lascaux, France

In 1940, in southwestern France, a group of school boys stumbled upon an amazing sight--a huge cave complex housing over 600 paintings and over 1500 engravings. The images showed several kinds of animals--birds, as well as cattle, bison, deer, and horses--and hundreds of "signs," shapes, dots, and other patterns. After archaeologists had a chance to study the cave art, they determined that the imagines were left by hunter-gatherers more than 15,000 years ago.

The caves at Lascaux contain some of the earliest known art in human history, dating back to somewhere between 15,000 and as far back as 27,000 years ago. The Paleolithic cave paintings consist mostly of realistic images of large animals. The other common theme of the paintings is a number of human hand prints. Pigments (paints) are made from ingredients such as plants, berries, rust, charcoal and dirt. The paintings demonstrate the advancement of Cro-Magnon humans and their way of life, and actually show the quality of the art and of the materials used getting better over time.

The cave complex at Lascaux is huge, with many rooms and tunnels underground. Such a place would have offered shelter and protection for a band of hunter-gatherers. The evidence shows that groups of humans returned to Lascaux year after year, and added their own paintings to earlier ones.

There is some mystery surrounding the purpose of the cave paintings. Aside from just a human desire to express ideas and artistic visions, the paintings might have also had a religious or spiritual significance. There is some evidence that the Paleolithic people at Lascaux threw spears or shot arrows at pictures of animals to ensure a successful hunt through magic. This had the added benefit of acting as a sort of target practice, making the hunt more likely to be successful anyway.

Because the water vapor and heat from people going to visit the site at Lascaux, along with certain bacteria and fungi, started to damage the paintings, the French government built an exact replica of the caves and closed off the original to the public.

Luckily the official website for the Lascaux caves has a fantastic virtual tour. It is really worth taking a few minutes to check it out.

And, for a little fun...

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