On September 12th 1940 a young man named Marcel Ravidat discovered the entrance to a cave at Lascaux in France. Returning with three friends, they entered the cave and discovered what is to date the most extensive and detailed series of Palaeolithic cave paintings ever seen.
Painted some 17,000 years ago in local pigments mixed with animal fats and plant juices applied (it is thought) with moss, animal fur, and by blowing through reed tubes, the paintings depict abstract images and a range of Palaeolithic animals and people in vivid detail. In all, there are some 2,000 distinct images, including over 600 identifiable animals including horses, aurochs and deer.
The caves were opened to the public in 1948, which swiftly resulted in damage and degradation of the paintings due to exposure to light and changes in humidity and oxygen levels in the caves. They were closed to the public in 1963 and restoration work was carried out. In 1983, Lascaux II opened 200m from the cave, containing detailed replicas of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery. Reproductions of other Lascaux artwork can be viewed at The Centre of Prehistoric Art at Le Thot.
No-one knows for sure why our ancient ancestors made the paintings. Given the inaccessibility of the caves it is likely that more was at play than a simple creative impulse. They may be shamanistic ‘trance’ images, or the artists may have had some spiritual or religious goal in mind. Like Stonehenge, the paintings could be connected to observable astronomical phenomena such as the constellations or the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, or they may serve a more prosaic purpose, perhaps as a teaching tool or record of prior hunting successes.
I’ve known about the Lascaux paintings for years, but it still blows my mind that people living 17,000 years ago could create such vivid and detailed images, especially in such an awkward location and with what were, quite literally, prehistoric tools. No, I couldn’t draw that, and I wouldn’t even try.