Cave of Lascaux

by K.C. and M.S.

Imagine you, three of your friends and your trusty dog 'Buddy' take a hike in the woods. The five of you decide that it would be fun just to go deeper into the woods and see what there is to find. As you are walking, you stumble upon a strange looking rock that is small in diameter and is quite dark in the middle. As you slowly work your way toward this rock, one of you notices that the rock is not even a rock at all, it's a cave! This actually did happen to four boys named Marcel, George, Jim, and Simon. Simon was the one with the dog. The dog's name was Robot. It all happened on September 12, 1940 (Baumann, 1962).
This is a drawing of France showing three of the six most valuable caves discovered in France. Drawn by Katie Crylen.

The five of them where just walking in the little oak forest south of the village they lived in called Montignac, France. The boys and their dog walked up to the top of Lascaux Hill which was covered in pine trees and was their favorite place to search through and pretend they were explorers. This very day Robot got lost and didn't answer to Simon's whistle. It turned out that the poor pup had fallen into a hole in the ground. Marcel turned to the other three, and said, "I know already what it is. It's a cave, but there's no way of telling how big it is or how far down it goes" (Baumann 1962, p.11). The four boys decided that even though Simon's dog Robot was down there, in the dark, all by himself, it would be best to go home and come back with a rope and a decent light. The next morning Marcel, Jim, Simon, and George all went back to that fateful spot up on Lascaux Hill where the dog had disappeared into that hole in the earth. As they lowered one another into the dark unknown, they never thought that they had discovered one of the most important sites of prehistoric man. Lascaux is far superior to some of the other caves in France including Les Trois-Freres, Niaux, Altamira, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles because Lascaux is much larger than these other caves, and the artifacts are better preserved. One can look at the paintings and tell exactly what they are and symbolize (Brodrick, 1963).

During the time of 15,000 to 13,000 BCE, (late Aurignacian period, which is another name for one of the prehistoric eras) humans were much less developed than they are today. Humans were less developed in all areas, such as socially and technologically. They lived in huts in the forest and in underground dwellings or caves. Little information about the prehistoric era exists except for archeology and the finding of cave of Lascaux was a door into the past. This door consisted of a main cavern and many steep galleries. The walls are covered in painted, drawn, and engraved animals on the ancient stone.

The news of Lascaux traveled quickly and the cave was accessible to the public. People came from all around the world to see this place. The heavy traffic and change of atmosphere caused the colors and details of the art to fade and almost disappear. The once perfectly preserved, highly detailed paleolithic mural paintings could have been ruined by the thousands upon thousands of people going through the cave. In 1963, the cave was closed to the public. Only specific scientists could go into the caverns of Lascaux.

Lascaux would have been dismissed as just another cave if it were not for the magnificent paintings found. Abbe Breuil was one person who studied and tried to understand and explain the existence of the different animals found covering the walls at Lascaux. Breuil was an explorer and a scientist. Alan Houghton Brodrick (1963) called Breuil "the Father of Prehistory." In Breuil's lifetime he wanted to revolutionize prehistory which, of course, was before the invention of writing. Breuil studied caves. When he learned of Lascaux, it was a great find for him and everyone else in the world. Breuil learned of the existence of the Lascaux cave when he was staying in a little town by the name of Brive. It was the very same day that the four boys discovered Lascaux that Abbe Breuil saw sketches of the animal paintings existing on the walls, and immediately he wanted to go check the cave out. Abbe Breuil found evidence that humans lived and occupied caves from the dawn of human existence inside the caverns of Lascaux.

The opening to Lascaux was not much larger then a foxhole. As Breuil put it, "It [the cavern] gave onto a steep slope, slippery and slimey . . . with flakes of worked flint of poor quality, some fragments of reindeer horns and many pieces of conifer charcoal . . . " (Brodrick, 1963, p. 232). The pictures on the walls turned out to be quite a battle to reach. Breuil and his workers figured out that the ground was a different shape 17,000 years ago and the places on the walls with the paintings were much easier to reach. The ground had sunk deeper and deeper over the years and made it hard to reach up to the prehistoric paintings. When Breuil entered the cave, just before reaching the paintings, there was a very thick coating of calcite crystals, with some of the best-preserved pictures painted on them.
This drawing is a map of the Lasceaux cave showing what each gallery has in it and where it is. Click on the picture for detailed explanation. Drawn by Meghan Stedt.

Most people are astounded by the fact that all of the paintings have lasted thousands and thousands of years without decaying or fading. As put earlier though, if the French government hadn't closed the cave to the public, the paintings WOULD have started decaying and becoming harder and harder to see. The animals would have been lost. Breuil said that:

"The usual cause of deterioration . . . is an exchange of the air with the exterior. In summer cold air from a grotto moves out and warm air from without moves in. In winter the process is reversed, but causes no damage, whereas in summer the outside air, with a high degree of humidity, deposes on the cold cavern walls a dew' that is corrosive might lie buried in the passage floor at the foot of the picture, but excavation there, as we have seen,produced only some assegais and lamps" (concave stones) (qtd. in Brodrick, 1963, p.233).
In other words, the natural removal and turning of air in Lascaux does not cause deterioration of the paintings.

The area in which the Lascaux caves are found is considered to be "the sole region of Paleolithic mural paintings" in Europe (Grand, 1967, p.34). The animal art found in the caves present different species: bulls, bison, and horses. Along with the many animals on the walls, there can be found some signs of human or semi-human representation. The human figures are not as richly defined or carefully executed as is the animal art. Grand (1967) notes that, Man's ". . . presence is a furtive, marginal one" (p. 20). Therefore not much effort was put into representing him. Animals, however, were as important to early man as life was; animals were life itself.

The depictions of animals involved in the hunt helped to assure or reassure the hunters of great success. Abbe Breuil said, "That only those peoples who lived by hunting and, collaterally, by fishing, had practiced this (hunting magic) art" (qtd. in Grand, 1967, p. 20). The fertility of the flocks and the success over the hunted animal are seen in frescoes of the caves. An important fact to note here is that these caves were not dwellings for humans, but were instead "places (that) could have served only as specially chosen repositories for the secrets of a civilization" (Grand, 1967, p. 24).

Another word that could be used to describe Lascaux would be a "Sanctuary." A sanctuary is a sacred place where sacred things are kept, in this case the pictures of the animals that kept man kind alive. It was their holy spot. Lascaux was, in other words, a holy place where the humans did not necessarily go to "pray" for a good hunt, but it was where the people would go to draw what they thought (or hoped) would be a good hunt (Baumann, 1962).

There have been different theories attempting to explain the existence of the mural paintings found in caves. The painting Grand (1967) called "Hunting Magic" looked at individual clusters or groupings of animals, while more recently, the entire collection of 2,188 animal figures found in 110 different caves has been scrutinized carefully as a whole. " . . . the portrayal of real animals by the prehistoric artist becomes a particular manifestation of a vast output directed entirely toward an almost doctrinal presentation of a duality of nature" (Grand, 1967 p. 30).
This is an example of a typical bull that would be found in the Lascaux cave.

According to Grand (1967), one of the pictures which is of a Large Bull. This bull is unique because still today the brushstrokes make it appear to be rich, velvelty, and soft. The bull has a sense of depth which is given by the use of shadowing around the eye and nostrils. Another picture is of an upside down horse at the end of one of the galleries in the cave. It is named the "Bister Horse". It has a black mane, and a brown body. This horse reveals a massive silhouette that is compared to so-called "Chinese horses." What the scientists call the "leaping cow" (5ft. 7in. long) has been suggested that the rear legs are raised up to avoid hitting the paintings of the little horses underneath him. Another type of cow which is drawn in the cave is not as large. The cow's head looks delicate, the lines are finely drawn, and has a very long forehead. One other composite animal known in Lascaux is "The Unicorn." It had a simple tail, a square mask like head, spots, and a much larger belly than any of the other paintings. (Grand, 1967). These paintings are described in vague detail to just show how the drawings were seen.
This is an example of a typical horse that could be found in the Lascaux cave, interpreted by Katie Crylen.

Cave men and women were once thought to be primitive (not as developed). They were far from humans today, but were still highly skilled) as one may think. However, the cave drawings at Lascaux proved their fine motor skills and their thought through their drawings, engravings, and the fact that they used paints, tools, and brushes to make these highly detailed animals. The Lascaux cave allows scientists to learn more about the land, people, and culture of the late Aurignacian period. It has also proven itself to be one of the greatest finds of this time period. (Grand, 1967).

Works Cited

This webpage was written by by K.C.and M.S., 5/31/98, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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