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Lascaux Cave

Lascaux Cave

Lascaux Cave is a Palaeolithic cave situated in southwestern France, near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne region, which houses some of the most famous examples of prehistoric cave paintings. Close to 600 paintings – mostly of animals - dot the interior walls of the cave in impressive compositions. Horses are the most numerous, but deer, aurochs, ibex, bison, and even some felines can also be found. Besides these paintings, which represent most of the major images, there are also around 1400 engravings of a similar order. The art, dated to c. 17,000 – c. 15,000 BCE, falls within the Upper Palaeolithic period and was created by the clearly skilled hands of humans living in the area at that time. The region seems to be a hotspot; many beautifully decorated caves have been discovered there. The exact meaning of the paintings at Lascaux or any of the other sites is still subject to discussion, but the prevailing view attaches a ritualistic or even spiritual component to them, hinting at the sophistication of their creators. Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1979, along with other prehistoric sites in its proximity.

The discovery

On 12 September 1940 CE four boys examined the fox hole down which their dog had fallen on the hill of Lascaux. After widening the entrance, Marcel Ravidat was the first one to slide all the way to the bottom, his three friends following after him. After constructing a makeshift lamp to light their way, they found a wider variety of animals than expected; in the Axial Gallery they first encountered the depictions on the walls. The following day they returned, better prepared this time, and explored deeper parts of the cave. The boys, in awe of what they had found, told their teacher, after which the process towards excavating the cave was set in motion. By 1948 CE the cave was ready to be opened to the public.

Occupation by humans

Around the time Lascaux cave was decorated (c. 15,000 BCE), anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens) had been well at home in Europe for a good while already, since at least 40,000 BCE. Following the archaeological record, they seem to have been abundantly present in the region between southeastern France and the Cantabrian Mountains in the north of Spain, which includes Lascaux. The cave itself shows only temporary occupation, probably linked to activities related to creating the art. However, it is possible that the first couple of metres of the entrance vestibule of the cave – the space the daylight could still reach - might have been inhabited.

The art at Lascaux was both painted on & engraved into the uneven walls of the cave, the artists working with the edges & curves of the walls to enhance their compositions.

From the finds originating from the cave, we know that the deeper parts of the cave were lit by sandstone lamps that used animal fat as fuel, as well as by fireplaces. Here, the artists worked in what must have been smoky conditions, using minerals as pigments for their images. Reds, yellows, and blacks are the predominant colours. Red was provided by hematite, either raw or as found within red clay and ochre; yellow by iron oxyhydroxides; and black either by charcoal or manganese oxides. The pigments could be prepared by grinding, mixing, or heating, after which they were transferred onto the cave walls. Painting techniques include drawing with fingers or charcoal, applying pigment with 'brushes' made of hair or moss, and blowing the pigment on a stencil or directly onto the wall with, for instance, a hollow bone.

The catch is that there are no known deposits of the specific manganese oxides found at Lascaux anywhere in the area surrounding the cave. The closest known source is some 250 kilometres away, in the central Pyrenees, which might point to a trade or supply route. It was not uncommon for humans living around that time to source their materials a bit further afield, tens of kilometres away, but the distance in question here may indicate that the Lascaux artists put in a superb amount of effort.

Besides the paintings, many tools were found at Lascaux. Among these are many flint tools, some of which display signs of being used specifically for carving engravings into the walls. Bone tools were also present. The pigments used at Lascaux contain traces of reindeer antler, most likely introduced either because antler was carved right next to the pigments or because it was used to mix the pigments into water. The remains of shellfish shells, some of them pierced, tie in well with other evidence of personal adornment found among humans living in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic.

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The art

The art at Lascaux was both painted on and engraved into the uneven walls of the cave, the artists working with the edges and curves of the walls to enhance their compositions. The resulting impressive displays depict mainly animals, but also a significant amount of abstract symbols, and even a human. Of the animals, horses dominate the imagery, followed by deer and aurochs, and then ibex and bison. A few carnivores, such as lions and bears, are also present. The archaeological record of the area shows that the depicted animals reflect the fauna that was known to these Palaeolithic humans.

The entrance of the cave leads away from the daylight and straight into the main chamber of the cave, the Hall of the Bulls. Aptly named, this space contains mostly aurochs, a now extinct type of large cattle. In a round dance, four large bulls tower above fleeing horses and deer, the relief of the walls serving to emphasise certain parts of the paintings. The animals are shown in side-view, but with their horns turned, giving the paintings a liveliness indicative of great skill. So far, these animals are easily identifiable, but others are less clear-cut. See, for instance, the seemingly pregnant horse with what looks like one horn on its head. Another mysterious figure is depicted with panther skin, a deer's tail, a bison's hump, two horns, and a male member. Creative minds have suggested it may be a sorcerer or wizard, but what it really represents is hard to determine.

Beyond the Hall of the Bulls lies the Axial Gallery, a dead-end passage, but a spectacular one at that. It has been dubbed the 'Sistine Chapel of Prehistory,' as its ceiling is home to several eye-catching compositions. Red aurochs stand with their heads forming a circle, while the main figures of the Gallery stand opposite one another: a mighty black bull on one side, a female aurochs on the other, seemingly jumping onto some sort of lattice that has been drawn underneath her hooves. There are horses in many shapes, including one known as the 'Chinese horse,' with its hooves depicted slightly to the back, demonstrating a use of perspective far ahead of its time. Towards the back of the passage, a horse gallops with its mane blowing in the wind while its companion falls over with legs in the air.

A second exit from the Hall of the Bulls leads to the Passage, which houses mostly engravings but also some paintings of a large variety of animals. In the Nave, following the Passage, a large black bull as well as two bisons stand out because of their wild power, seemingly fleeing. Opposite, a freeze shows five deer who appear to be swimming. After the Nave, the Chamber of Felines throws some predators into the mix, with engravings of lions dominating the room. In another branch of the cave, the room known as the Shaft adds some more material for discussion. Here, besides the wounded bison with its intestines sprawling out from its gut, are a woolly rhinoceros, a bird on what might be a stick, and a naked man with an erect member. This image clearly tells a story, although it is hard to be certain exactly what that story might be.

The cave today

The original cave was closed to the public in 1963 CE after it became clear that the many visitors caused, among others, the growth of algae on the cave walls, dealing irreparable damage to the paintings. Despite the closure, fungi have spread within the cave, and efforts to control these issues and protect the art are ongoing. Those looking for an alternative experience can visit Lascaux II, a replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery sections, which was opened in 1983 CE and is located at a mere 200 metres from the original cave.

Discovery of the Lascaux Cave Paintings

The Paleolithic illustrations were found on 12 September 1940.

One of archaeology’s most exciting discoveries was made by four French teenagers and possibly a dog. Versions of the story differ in detail, but Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas came across a hole in the ground in woods near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne region of south-west France. Whether they had a dog called Robot with them and it chased a rabbit into the hole is uncertain. Another version has Ravidat finding the hole on September 8th and taking the other three back with him on the 12th.

There was a local story about a secret tunnel that led to buried treasure and the boys thought this might be it. After dropping stones into the hole to get an idea of how deep it was, one by one they went cautiously down into what proved to be a narrow shaft. It led down 15 metres (nearly 50ft) to a cave whose walls were covered with astonishing paintings. Marsal said later that going down the shaft was terrifying, but the paintings were ‘a cavalcade of animals larger than life’ that ‘seemed to be moving’. The boys were worried about getting back up again, but they managed it using their elbows and knees. Tremendously excited, they promised each other to keep their discovery a secret and explored it again the next day. After that they decided to show it to friends for a tiny admission fee.

The news quickly spread and so many people came to see the cave that the boys consulted their schoolmaster, Leon Laval, who was a member of the local prehistory society. He suspected it was a ruse to trap him in the hole, but when he went cautiously down and saw the paintings he immediately felt sure they were prehistoric and insisted that no one must be allowed to touch them and they must be guarded against vandalism. The youngest of the boys, 14-year-old Marsal, persuaded his parents to let him pitch a tent near the entrance to keep guard and show visitors round. It was the start of a commitment to the paintings which lasted to his death in 1989.

Word of the discovery reached the Abbé Breuil, an eminent prehistorian, who vouched for the paintings’ authenticity. The sensational news spread through Europe and the rest of the world and in 1948 the family that owned the land organised daily tours that eventually brought thousands of visitors every year to see for themselves.

There were more paintings in galleries that led off the main cave and they confirmed previous discoveries, which had showed that, unlike other animals, the first human beings believed in religion, magic and art. They buried their dead formally with equipment for another life and they may have believed in a great mother goddess, the source of all life. They seem to have had a deep sense of the numinous, of something outside human beings that is powerful, mysterious and uncanny.

The paintings convey this. Dated to about 15,000 BC, though they may have been created over a longer period than formerly realised, they show bulls of the now extinct aurochs species, oxen, horses and stags as well as arrows and traps. Early humans were hunters and one of the purposes of the paintings may have been to bring about successful hunting in real life. There is a figure of a man with a bird’s head, perhaps a shaman, who carried out rituals in the cave. Recent theories link some of the paintings with constellations in the sky, including the Pleiades and Taurus, or connect them with ritual dancing, which can induce trances and cause visions.

The thousands of visitors to Lascaux did not mean to harm the paintings, but they did, simply by breathing on them. The occasional visitor fainted because the atmosphere was so thick. Condensation formed on the walls and ceilings, moisture ran down the paintings and lichens and mould developed. High-powered lighting added to the damage and the paintings began to fade. Lascaux was closed to the public in 1963 by the French minister of culture, André Malraux, and only experts were allowed in. A replica of the site was built close by for the public in 1983 and draws 300,000 visitors a year. Efforts to halt the damage to the original paintings are continuing. In 2009 the French ministry of culture brought close to 300 experts from many different countries together in Paris to consider ways to halt the deterioration. Their recommendations were published in 2011, but misgivings about the site have not been allayed.


On 12 September 1940, the entrance to the Lascaux Cave was discovered by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat when his dog, Robot, fell in a hole. Ravidat returned to the scene with three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas. They entered the cave through a 15-metre-deep (50-foot) shaft that they believed might be a legendary secret passage to the nearby Lascaux Manor. [8] [9] [10] The teenagers discovered that the cave walls were covered with depictions of animals. [11] [12] Galleries that suggest continuity, context or simply represent a cavern were given names. Those include the Hall of the Bulls, the Passageway, the Shaft, the Nave, the Apse, and the Chamber of Felines. They returned along with the Abbé Henri Breuil on 21 September 1940 Breuil would make many sketches of the cave, some of which are used as study material today due to the extreme degradation of many of the paintings. Breuil was accompanied by Denis Peyrony, curator of Les eyzies (Prehistory Museum) at Les Eyzies, Jean Bouyssonie and Dr Cheynier.

The cave complex was opened to the public on 14 July 1948, and initial archaeological investigations began a year later, focusing on the Shaft. By 1955, carbon dioxide, heat, humidity, and other contaminants produced by 1,200 visitors per day had visibly damaged the paintings. As air condition deteriorated, fungi and lichen increasingly infested the walls. Consequently, the cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings were restored to their original state, and a monitoring system on a daily basis was introduced.

Replicas Edit

Conservation problems in the original cave have made the creation of replicas more important.

Lascaux II Edit

Lascaux II, an exact copy of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery was displayed at the Grand Palais in Paris, before being displayed from 1983 in the cave's vicinity (about 200 m or 660 ft away from the original cave), a compromise and attempt to present an impression of the paintings' scale and composition for the public without harming the originals. [8] [12] A full range of Lascaux's parietal art is presented a few kilometres from the site at the Centre of Prehistoric Art, Le Parc du Thot, where there are also live animals representing ice-age fauna. [13]

The paintings for this site were duplicated with the same type of materials such as iron oxide, charcoal and ochre which were believed to be used 19 thousand years ago. [10] [14] [15] [16] Other facsimiles of Lascaux have also been produced over the years.

Lascaux III Edit

Lascaux III is a series of five exact reproductions of the cave art (the Nave and Shaft) that, since 2012, have traveled around the world allowing knowledge of Lascaux to be shared far from the original.

Lascaux IV Edit

Lascaux IV is a new copy of all the painted areas of the cave that forms part of the International Centre for Parietal Art (Centre International de l'Art Pariétal). Since December 2016 this larger and more accurate replica which integrates digital technology into the display is presented in a new museum built by Snøhetta inside the hill overlooking Montignac. [17] [18]

Pottery & Prints Edit

French pottery from the region – decorated with images of the Lascaux paintings – were once produced and sold in abundance within the surrounding regions as objet d'art and souvenirs, are now difficult to find as the images have been copyrighted. Prints of the images are only available for purchase through the Lascaux museum store.

In its sedimentary composition, the Vézère drainage basin covers one fourth of the département of the Dordogne, the northernmost region of the Black Périgord. Before joining the Dordogne River near Limeuil, the Vézère flows in a south-westerly direction. At its centre point, the river's course is marked by a series of meanders flanked by high limestone cliffs that determine the landscape. Upstream from this steep-sloped relief, near Montignac and in the vicinity of Lascaux, the contours of the land soften considerably the valley floor widens, and the banks of the river lose their steepness.

The Lascaux valley is located some distance from the major concentrations of decorated caves and inhabited sites, most of which were discovered further downstream. [19] In the environs of the village of Eyzies-de-Tayac Sireuil, there are no fewer than 37 decorated caves and shelters, as well as an even greater number of habitation sites from the Upper Paleolithic, located in the open, beneath a sheltering overhang, or at the entrance to one of the area's karst cavities. This is the highest concentration in Europe.

The cave contains nearly 6,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures, and abstract signs. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. [19] Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using red, yellow, and black colours from a complex multiplicity of mineral pigments [20] : 110 [21] including iron compounds such as iron oxide (ochre), [22] : 204 hematite, and goethite, [21] [23] as well as manganese-containing pigments. [21] [22] : 208 Charcoal may also have been used [22] : 199 but seemingly to a sparing extent. [20] On some of the cave walls, the colour may have been applied as a suspension of pigment in either animal fat or calcium-rich cave groundwater or clay, making paint, [20] that was swabbed or blotted on, rather than applied by brush. [23] In other areas, the colour was applied by spraying the pigments by blowing the mixture through a tube. [23] Where the rock surface is softer, some designs have been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern, and others have deteriorated entirely.

Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. [24] Geometric images have also been found on the walls.

The most famous section of the cave is The Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, aurochs, stags and the only bear in the cave are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 5.2 metres (17 ft 1 in) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion. [24]

A painting referred to as "The Crossed Bison", found in the chamber called the Nave, is often submitted as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs create the illusion that one leg is closer to the viewer than the other. This visual depth in the scene demonstrates a primitive form of perspective which was particularly advanced for the time.

Parietal representation Edit

The Hall of the Bulls presents the most spectacular composition of Lascaux. Its calcite walls are not suitable for engraving, so it is only decorated with paintings, often of impressive dimensions: some are up to five metres long.

Two rows of aurochs face each other, two on one side and three on the other. The two aurochs on the north side are accompanied by about ten horses and a large enigmatic animal, with two straight lines on its forehead that earned it the nickname "unicorn". On the south side, three large aurochs are next to three smaller ones, painted red, as well as six small deer and the only bear in the cave, superimposed on the belly of an aurochs and difficult to read.

The Axial Diverticulum is also decorated with cattle and horses accompanied by deer and ibex. A drawing of a fleeing horse was brushed with manganese pencil 2.50 metres above the ground. Some animals are painted on the ceiling and seem to roll from one wall to the other. These representations, which required the use of scaffolding, are intertwined with many signs (sticks, dots and rectangular signs).

The Passage has a highly degraded decoration, notably through air circulation.

The Nave has four groups of figures: the Empreinte panel, the Black Cow panel, the Deer swimming panel and the Crossed Buffalo panel. These works are accompanied by many enigmatic geometric signs, including coloured checkers that H. Breuil called "coats of arms".

The Feline Diverticulum owes its name to a group of felines, one of which seems to urinate to mark its territory. Very difficult to access, one can see there engravings of wild animals of a rather naive style. There are also other animals associated with signs, including a representation of a horse seen from the front, exceptional in Paleolithic art where animals are generally represented in profiles or from a "twisted perspective".

The apse contains more than a thousand engravings, some of which are superimposed on paintings, corresponding to animals and signs. There is the only reindeer represented in Lascaux.

The Well presents the most enigmatic scene of Lascaux: an ithyphallic man with a bird's head seems to lie on the ground, perhaps knocked down by a buffalo gutted by a spear at his side is represented an elongated object surmounted by a bird, on the left a rhinoceros moves away. Various interpretations of what is represented have been offered. [25] A horse is also present on the opposite wall. Two groups of signs are to be noted in this composition:

  • between man and rhinos, three pairs of digitized punctuation marks found at the bottom of the Cat Diverticulum, in the most remote part of the cave
  • under man and bison, a complex barbed sign that can be found almost identically on other walls of the cave, and also on paddle points and on the sandstone lamp found nearby.

Interpretation Edit

The interpretation of Palaeolithic Art is problematic, as it can be influenced by our own prejudices and beliefs. Some anthropologists and art historians theorize the paintings could be an account of past hunting success, or could represent a mystical ritual in order to improve future hunting endeavors. The latter theory is supported by the overlapping images of one group of animals in the same cave location as another group of animals, suggesting that one area of the cave was more successful for predicting a plentiful hunting excursion. [26]

Applying the iconographic method of analysis to the Lascaux paintings (studying position, direction and size of the figures organization of the composition painting technique distribution of the color planes research of the image center), Thérèse Guiot-Houdart attempted to comprehend the symbolic function of the animals, to identify the theme of each image and finally to reconstitute the canvas of the myth illustrated on the rock walls. [27] [ further explanation needed ]

Julien d'Huy and Jean-Loïc Le Quellec showed that certain angular or barbed signs of Lascaux may be analysed as "weapon" or "wounds". These signs affect dangerous animals—big cats, aurochs and bison—more than others and may be explained by a fear of the animation of the image. [28] Another finding supports the hypothesis of half-alive images. At Lascaux, bison, aurochs and ibex are not represented side by side. Conversely, one can note a bison-horses-lions system and an aurochs-horses-deer-bears system, these animals being frequently associated. [29] Such a distribution may show the relationship between the species pictured and their environmental conditions. Aurochs and bison fight one against the other, and horses and deer are very social with other animals. Bison and lions live in open plains areas aurochs, deer and bears are associated with forests and marshes ibex habitat is rocky areas, and horses are highly adaptive for all these areas. The Lascaux paintings' disposition may be explained by a belief in the real life of the pictured species, wherein the artists tried to respect their real environmental conditions. [30]

Less known is the image area called the Abside (Apse), a roundish, semi-spherical chamber similar to an apse in a Romanesque basilica. It is approximately 4.5 metres in diameter (about 5 yards) and covered on every wall surface (including the ceiling) with thousands of entangled, overlapping, engraved drawings. [31] The ceiling of the Apse, which ranges from 1.6 to 2.7 metres high (about 5.2 to 8.9 feet) as measured from the original floor height, is so completely decorated with such engravings that it indicates that the prehistoric people who executed them first constructed a scaffold to do so. [19] [32]

According to David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes who both studied presumably similar art of the San people of Southern Africa, this type of art is spiritual in nature relating to visions experienced during ritualistic trance-dancing. These trance visions are a function of the human brain and so are independent of geographical location. [33] Nigel Spivey, a professor of classical art and archeology at the University of Cambridge, has further postulated in his series, How Art Made the World, that dot and lattice patterns overlapping the representational images of animals are very similar to hallucinations provoked by sensory-deprivation. He further postulates that the connections between culturally important animals and these hallucinations led to the invention of image-making, or the art of drawing. [34]

André Leroi-Gourhan studied the cave from the 1960s his observation of the associations of animals and the distribution of species within the cave led him to develop a Structuralist theory that posited the existence of a genuine organization of the graphic space in Palaeolithic sanctuaries. This model is based on a masculine/feminine duality – which can be particularly observed in the bison/horse and aurochs/horse pairs – identifiable in both the signs and the animal representations. He also defined an ongoing evolution through four consecutive styles, from the Aurignacian to the Late Magdalenian. Leroi-Gourhan did not publish a detailed analysis of the cave's figures. In his work Préhistoire de l'art occidental, published in 1965, he nonetheless put forward an analysis of certain signs and applied his explanatory model to the understanding of other decorated caves.

The opening of Lascaux Cave after World War II changed the cave environment. The exhalations of 1,200 visitors per day, presence of light, and changes in air circulation have created a number of problems. Lichens and crystals began to appear on the walls in the late 1950s, leading to closure of the caves in 1963. This led to restriction of access to the real caves to a few visitors every week, and the creation of a replica cave for visitors to Lascaux. In 2001, the authorities in charge of Lascaux changed the air conditioning system which resulted in regulation of the temperature and humidity. When the system had been established, an infestation of Fusarium solani, a white mold, began spreading rapidly across the cave ceiling and walls. [35] The mold is considered to have been present in the cave soil and exposed by the work of tradesmen, leading to the spread of the fungus which was treated with quicklime. In 2007, a new fungus, which has created grey and black blemishes, began spreading in the real cave.

As of 2008, the cave contained black mold. In January 2008, authorities closed the cave for three months, even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual was allowed to enter the cave for twenty minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions. Now only a few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave and just for a few days a month, but the efforts to remove the mold have taken a toll, leaving dark patches and damaging the pigments on the walls. [36] In 2009 the mold problem was pronounced stable. [37] In 2011 the fungus seemed to be in retreat after the introduction of an additional, even stricter conservation program. [38] Two research programs have been instigated at the CIAP concerning how to best treat the problem, and the cave also now possesses a climatisation system designed to reduce the introduction of bacteria.

Organized through the initiative of the French Ministry of Culture, an international symposium titled "Lascaux and Preservation Issues in Subterranean Environments" was held in Paris on 26 and 27 February 2009, under the chairmanship of Jean Clottes. It brought together nearly three hundred participants from seventeen countries with the goal of confronting research and interventions conducted in Lascaux Cave since 2001 with the experiences gained in other countries in the domain of preservation in subterranean environments. [39] The proceedings of this symposium were published in 2011. Seventy-four specialists in fields as varied as biology, biochemistry, botany, hydrology, climatology, geology, fluid mechanics, archaeology, anthropology, restoration and conservation, from numerous countries (France, United States, Portugal, Spain, Japan, and others) contributed to this publication. [40]

In May 2018 Ochroconis lascauxensis, a species of fungus of the Ascomycota phylum, was officially described and named after the place of its first emergence and isolation, the Lascaux cave. This followed on from the discovery of another closely related species Ochroconis anomala, first observed inside the cave in 2000. The following year black spots began to appear among the cave paintings. No official announcement on the effect or progress of attempted treatments has ever been made. [41]

The problem is ongoing, as are efforts to control the microbial and fungal growths in the cave. The fungal infection crises have led to the establishment of an International Scientific Committee for Lascaux and to rethinking how, and how much, human access should be permitted in caves containing prehistoric art. [42]

Lascaux Cave - History

Form: Most images from Altamira and Lascaux depict profile views of the animals done with diagrammatic contour lines. (Not unlike the form lines used in Kwakiutl art.) The profile view is the most effective and clear way of depicting the animals. There is no depth or space created and the scale and sizes of the animals vary widely possibly because these were not concerns of the artists nor are the images designed to relate to one another.

Iconography: Bisons could represent a number of things: strength, virility, and or food. The spaces these images were painted in might have been some of the world's first churches or temples. The caves and the ritualized descent into them may have been iconic of rejoining the earth. Rising out of the cave might have been symbolic of rebirth.

Context: These paintings were probably not meant purely as decoration. The technology used is based on the available resources. The artists that made these bison either blew the pigments on to the wall or mixed them with animal fat medium as the medium. They used stones for palettes and made brushes or blowpipes from reeds.

The images were probable used for some kind of religious or magical function and most likely as an attempt by early man to control his environment. By descending into a cave, which in some ways is a sacred womb like space, early humans could paint the bison they were attempting to control. Possibly using the images as "stand ins" for specific rituals. The spaces they are painted in were reused over and over again. The images are layered because they were often painted over by later artists.

Interestingly enough both the sites in Lascaux and Altamira were discovered accidentally. In the case of Altamira, the Marquis Marcelino de Sautuola was not believed that his discoveries were legitimate and this gave rise to the use of scientific method to legitimize such finds.

Why is Lascaux Cave in France so important?

Starting with its discovery, the cave was discovered by a couple of boys trying to find their dog in the early part of the 20th century. The discovery of the cave was accidental, however, it was important discovery in the long line of some earlier discoveries mainly at Altamira but other places as well. The cave is Lascaux France is probably the most important because it legitimized some of the earlier discoveries that might’ve been questionable especially because it was discovered during a so-called scientific rational age not during the 19th century when it would being attacked or at least looked at skeptically.

Other factors that make Lascaux important are mainly due to the amount of murals found in the cave and a couple of small clay objects. Probably the most important part of the cave for a general education is the great Hall of the Bulls. The large chamber contains hundreds of overlapping paintings that were probably done over the course of literally two or 3000 years. The reason why this is important and this also shown at another cave in Chauvet France. You may want to check out “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which is available on Netflix. I think just the first half hour is worthwhile the rest of the video seems like bunch of religious or mystical crap that the director wanted to get into.

There are two really important sections of the mural in the cave. The first one is in the Hall of the Bulls.

Here are some of the more important physical and visual elements that you should be aware of in looking at prehistoric cave painting. Most paintings in caves were painted using a combination of animals fat and naturally occurring pigments that were made from ground of minerals or ground up dirt.

The Significance of Lascaux Cave Paintings Back in Those Days

Lascaux is located in south-west France. The site has earned international fame as a tourist hot-spot for its prehistoric cave paintings. Situated near the village of Montignac, the Paleolithic art is estimated to be a good 15,000 years old.

Lascaux is located in south-west France. The site has earned international fame as a tourist hot-spot for its prehistoric cave paintings. Situated near the village of Montignac, the Paleolithic art is estimated to be a good 15,000 years old.

Lascaux cave paintings have made Vezere valley in France a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 1979. It is famous for the surrealistic images of animals that research reveals lived 15,000 years ago. They were part of the discovery made on 12 September, 1940. The caves were chanced upon by four teenagers, and their dog. After World War II, the site was opened to the general public. However, the increasing number of visitors resulted in an unprecedented release of carbon dioxide and visible damage to the paintings.

In 1963, the caves were officially closed to the public, with the intent of restoration and preservation of the art. Today, the Lascaux paintings are monitored regularly and the sites have been segregated on the basis of exhibit into:

  • Great Hall of the Bulls
  • Lateral Passage
  • Shaft of the Dead Man
  • Chamber of Engravings
  • Painted Gallery
  • Chamber of Felines

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Lascaux II exhibits replication of the artwork depicted in Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery. Lascaux artwork can also be seen at Le Thot, Center of Prehistoric Art, France. Preservationists from the Archaeological Survey Department have been battling fungus and black mold since 2000. The climatic conditions within the caves are now monitored to preserve the exhibits.


Lascaux paintings are about 2,000 in all and while 600 of the animal figures can be identified, the rest are a trip back into prehistoric times. Geometric figures of equines, cattle, felines, birds, bears, rhinoceros, humans, and stags are dominant. The effect of the ‘bulls in motion’ give us an insight into the precision and dedication of the artists. The Paleolithic cave painters displayed unique perspective in the non-figurative images. The night sky depictions actually correlate with constellations. These ‘visions’ within paintings of humans and the sky also highlight the fact that the artists indulged in the ritual of trance-dancing.

These paintings are deduced as beyond ‘decorations’, since research reveals that they did not show any signs of prolonged habitation. This is indicative of the fact that the caves were used for preserving and transmitting information. Archaeological experts spotted realistic images superimposed for the ‘stampede’ effect. While the images appear linear, the sudden burst of colored and stylized detail speaks volumes for the versatility of brush and dynamic hand movement.

The primitive inhabitants immortalized their lifestyle, artwork, and crude tools via exquisite and exclusive renderings. Their hand at foreshortening, contrasting color schemes, and three-dimensional illusions brings many a modern painter to Lascaux each year. The paintings tell visitors a lot about the inhabitants of the era and the level of intellect through the fact that they used the cave walls to pass on vital information about animal and human life then.

Their sense of aesthetics and prevalent culture crosses all linguistic and social barriers, appealing to even the indifferent-to-art visitor to the caves. The ancient caves give us an idea of the painter’s sanctuary for rites and ceremonies and some serious revelations about their hunting and group strategies. A visit to the site is an intense learning process full of opportunity for the painter to observe and replicate genius in transforming real time agility of the animal world on canvas.

These paintings offer the visitor an understanding of the development of intercultural communication between group hunters centuries ago. The walls display the versatility of the painter through preserved sophistication of hue and choice of location.

Reindeer was considered as the main source of food for the creators at that time. However, the caves do not feature any reindeer painting.

Facts about Lascaux Caves 10: the notable part of the caves

The Hall of the Bulls is considered as the most prominent part of the caves where you can spot stags, equines and bulls.

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The Shaft

(A door, a landing and a ladder have been added, as well as what appears to be a pipe to send fresh air into the Shaft, which often has toxic quantities of carbon dioxide in it. A man's face looking up is at the very bottom of the image - Don )

A difference in altitude of 6 metres separates the Apse from the bottom of the Shaft. The Scene, hidden by a projection of the cave wall, unrolls on the wall facing the descent by ladder.

Photo and text: © Norbert Aujoulat, CNP, Ministere de la Culture, 2004
Source: http://www.american-buddha.com/lascaux.3.htm

This is one of the most studied and argued about paintings in Lascaux. It is in what is known as the Well, or the Shaft, and is reached by climbing down a ladder from the Apse.

The main scene includes a disembowelled bison, a man with a bird's head who appears to have been felled by the bison, a spear, and a bird on a pole.

Was the man a shaman with a bird as totem? Did the painter believe that dead people became birds? We shall never know.

Source: Display at Lascaux Révélée

The shaman and the bison from the shaft.

Beside the panel of the man killed by the bison, is this apparently unrelated image of a wooly rhinoceros, which is a superbly realised portrait of a dangerous animal. The six black dots are of unknown significance.

Source: Display at Lascaux Révélée

The two photographs stitched together show that either the same artist used different techniques for the two panels, or the panels are separated by time and creator. The rhinoceros is done in a more realistic style, with thicker outlines.

(This is by far the best photo I have seen of the man, bison and rhino - Don )

In marked contrast to previous chambers - the Apse, the Passage or the Hall of the Bulls - the Shaft includes only a limited number of figures, eight in total. Four are animals (horse, bison, rhino and bird), while three are geometric signs.

In the centre of this composition, a human figure attracts all the attention, although only in its relation to the animals around it. This is one of the few scenes which invites the spectator to construct a story to explain what the artist has depicted.

Text: Translated and adapted from http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/

Another version of the rhino, from 1947, when Time Magazine visited Lascaux and took the first good photographs of the cave.

Photo: © Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, http://life.time.com/culture/inside-lascaux-rare-unpublished/#8

Black horse in the Shaft. This is the only figure on this part of the wall. It is a mediocre work, when we compare it to the masterpieces of the main part of the Lascaux caves, since it is limited to the head of a horse, the neck, and the start of the back.

Note that the drawings in the Shaft were drawn using only the black pigment, manganese dioxide.

Text: Translated and adapted from http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/

While studying the Shaft Scene in 1957, Glory reported discovering some new engravings near and in the painting: a small bovine head above the bison's tail, and a large horse head with its muzzle crossing the bison's upper foreleg.

These are documented on pp 290-291 of Lascaux inconnue ( Leroi-Gourhan et Allain, 1979 ).

In 1975 A. Leroi-Gourhan and others re-examined the Shaft's wall to confirm or dispute these quite unusual findings. They were unable to find any evidence for the existence of such engravings.

An oil lamp (a deer fat lamp), found in the sediments in the floor of the Shaft at Lascaux cave in Montignac, Dordogne, Aquitaine, France. Magdalenian culture, 17 000 BP. It can be viewed in the National Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac.

The red sandstone lamp was found by Abbé André Glory at Lascaux. André Leroi-Gourhan, said in 1982 that Abbé Glory was the man who best knew Lascaux.

Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons license, photographer Sémhur, 25 September 2009
Source: Original on display at Le Musée National de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac

The lamp is just as beautifully completed on the back as the front. Note the layers of sandstone symmetrically circling the bowl of the lamp.

Source: Original on display at Le Musée National de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac

Another version of the lamp of rose-coloured sandstone, found at the foot of the Shaft Scene during excavations by Andre Glory, 1959. It bears two signs on the upper face of the handle.

Photo and text: http://www.american-buddha.com/lascaux.4a.htm

Glory's most spectacular find in the Shaft was a lamp (bruloir ) in a ground layer below the tail of the rhinoceros. "Shaped like a large spoon made of red sandstone, 8 3 /4 inches long by 4 3 /16 inches wide and 1 1 /4 inches thick, the lamp is finely polished and symmetrical. Its shallow oval cup serves as a receptacle for fuel. It has a capacity of two fluid ounces. The upper surface of the handle is decorated with two abstract signs of chevrons fitted into each other, such as are found painted or engraved in various parts of the cave."

When the lamp was discovered, 'it still contained sooty substances grouped in a circle at the bottom of the cup on a magma of fine dust' These particles were tested and determined to be the remains of a juniper wick used for ignition.

It is from the Magdalenian culture, 17 000 BP. It can be viewed in the National Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Shaped like a large spoon made of red sandstone, 8 3/4 inches long by 4 3/16 inches wide and 1 1/4 inches thick, the lamp is finely polished and symmetrical. Its shallow oval cup serves as a receptacle for fuel.

The upper surface of the handle is decorated with two abstract signs of chevrons fitted into each other, such as are found painted or engraved in various parts of the cave. When the lamp was discovered, it still contained sooty substances grouped in a circle at the bottom of the cup. These particles were tested and determined to be the remains of a juniper wick used for ignition.

Alain Roussot and André Glory at Lascaux, 1953

( Note that in this photo André Glory is using a translucent medium directly on the surface of the cave, in order to trace the image - Don )

Lascaux IV

Interior of Lascaux IV

Lascaux III, another version of the replicas, now tours museums around the world while Lascaux IV was opened in 2016. This enormous complex, built into the mountainside, overlooks the site and the town of Montignac and comprises of a new multi-media museum and a number of reproductions of further tunnels and entrances to the original cave.

Lascaux IV and its high-tech touch screens are a far-cry from the caves that Robot the dog found himself lost in on that September morning in 1940. However, the site remains an enduring monument to exploration, discovery and the perennial importance of art.

Lascaux Cave - History

Lascaux is the setting of a complex of caves in south-western France famous for its Palaeolithic cave paintings. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old.

They primarily consist of images of large animals, most of which are known from fossil evidence to have lived in the area at returned to the scene with three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas, and entered the cave by means of a long shaft.

The teenagers discovered that the cave walls were covered with depictions of animals. The cave was closed to the public in 1963 to preserve the art. After the cave was closed, the paintings were restored to their original state and were monitored daily.

In January 2008, authorities closed the cave for three months even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual was allowed to enter the cave for 20 minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions.

In the late 1950s the appearance of lichens and crystals on the walls led to closure of the caves in 1963. This led to restriction of access to the real caves to a few visitors every week, and the creation of a replica cave for visitors to Lascaux.

In 2001, the authorities in charge of Lascaux changed the air conditioning system which resulted in regulation of the temperature and humidity. Estimated to be up to 20,000 years old, the paintings consist primarily of large animals, once native to the region.

Lascaux is located in the Vézère Valley where many other decorated caves have been found since the beginning of the 20th century (for example Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume in 1901, Bernifal in 1902).

Lascaux is a complex cave with several areas (Hall of the Bulls, Passage gallery). It was discovered on 12 September 1940 and given statutory historic monument protection in December of the same year.

There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. A painting referred to as ‘The Crossed Bison’, found in the chamber called the Nave, is often held as an example of the skill of the Palaeolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs show the ability to use perspective.

Since the year 2000, Lascaux has been beset with a fungus, variously blamed on a new air conditioning system that was installed in the caves, the use of high-powered lights, and the presence of too many visitors.

As of 2006, the situation became even graver – the cave saw the growth of black mould. The pigments used to paint Lascaux and other caves were derived from readily available minerals and include red, yellow, black, brown, and violet. No brushes have been found, so in all probability the broad black outlines were applied using mats of moss or hair, or even with chunks of raw colour.

Almost every square inch of its limestone walls and ceiling are covered with overlapping petroglyphs in the form of engraved drawings. In all, there are more than one thousand figures: some 500 animals (mostly deer) and 600 geometric signs or other abstract markings.

The Apse accounts for more than half of the decorative art in the entire cave. Curiously, the greatest density of images occurs in the deepest part of the chamber where the Apse meets the Shaft.

Early Humans Made Animated Art

S tone steps descended into the ground, and I walked down them slowly as if I were entering a dark movie theater, careful not to stumble and disrupt the silence. Once my eyes adjusted to the faint light at the foot of the stairs, I saw that I was standing in the open chamber of a cave.

Where the limestone wall arched into the ceiling was a line of paintings and drawings of animals running deeper into the cave. The closest image resembled a bison, with elongated horns and U-shaped markings on its side. The bison followed several horses painted solid black like silhouettes above them was an earthy-red horse with a black head and mane. In front of that was a very large bison head that was completely out of scale with respect to the other images.

It was the summer of 1995, and in the dim glow, I gazed at the ghostly parade just as my ancestors did roughly 21,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dates from Lascaux cave suggest the art is from that period, a time when wooly mammoths still roamed across Europe and people survived by hunting them and other large game. I stood in silence as I tried to decode the work of the ancient people who had come here to express something of their world.

When Lascaux cave was discovered in 1940, more than 100 small stone lamps that once burned grease from rendered animal fat were found throughout its chambers. Unfortunately, no one recorded where the lamps had been placed in the cave. At the time, archeologists did not consider how the brightness and the location of lights altered how the paintings would have been viewed. In general, archeologists have paid considerably less attention to how the use of fire for light affected the development of our species, compared to the use of fire for warmth and cooking. But now in Lascaux and other caves across the region, that’s changing.

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A rtists at Lascaux used fire to see inside caves, but the glow and flicker of flames may also have been integral to the stories the paintings told. “Today, when you light the whole cave, it is very stupid because you kill the staging,” says Jean-Michel Geneste, Lascaux’s curator, the director of France’s National Center of Prehistory, and the head of the archaeological project I worked on that summer. Worse yet, most people only see cave paintings in cropped photographs that are evenly lit with lights that are strong and white. According to Geneste, this removes the images from the context of the story they were meant to tell and makes the colors in the paintings colder, or bluer, than Paleolithic people would have seen them.

Reconstructions of the original grease lamps produce a circle of light about 10 feet in diameter, which is not much larger than many images in the cave. Geneste believes that early artists used this small area of light as a story-telling device. “It is very important: the presence of the darkness, the spot of yellow light, and inside it one, two, three animals, no more,” Geneste says. “That’s a tool in a narrative structure,” he explains. Just as a sentence generally describes a single idea, the light from a grease lamp would illuminate a single part of a story. Whatever tales may have been told inside Lascaux have been lost to history, but it is easy to imagine a person moving their fire-lit lamp along the walls as they unraveled a story step-by-step, using the darkness as a frame for the images inside a small circle of firelight.

Geneste supports his hypothesis by pointing to the various sizes of animals. “If you want to have several animals in a narrative relationship it is necessary to have them small,” he says. “If you want only one animal, you make them big.” If Geneste is right, the paintings I saw in the Hall of Bulls could have been read like a comic strip, as a series of frames: first the bison, then two black horses, more horses, a focus on the bison, and so on down the length of the chamber.

“When you light the whole cave, it is very stupid because you kill the staging.”

What’s more, a flickering flame in the cave may have conjured impressions of motion like a strobe light in a dark club. In low light, human vision degrades, and that can lead to the perception of movement even when all is still, says Susana Martinez-Conde, the director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Ariz. The trick may occur at two levels one when the eye processes a dimly lit scene, and the second when the brain makes sense of that limited, flickering information.

Physiologically, our eyes undergo a switch when we slip into darkness. In bright light, eyes primarily rely on the color-sensitive cells in our retinas called cones, but in low light the cones don’t have enough photons to work with and cells that sense black and white gradients, called rods, take over. That’s why in low light, colors fade, shadows become harder to distinguish from actual objects, and the soft boundaries between things disappear. Images straight ahead of us look out of focus, as if they were seen in our peripheral vision. The end result for early humans who viewed cave paintings by firelight might have been that a deer with multiple heads, for example, resembled a single, animated beast. A few rather sophisticated artistic techniques enhance that impression. One is found beyond the Hall of Bulls, where the cave narrows into a long passage called the Nave.

Freeze Frame: Five stag heads in the Nave region of Lascaux cave might represent a single stag in different stages of motion. Photo by Norbert Aujoulat

H igh on the Nave’s right wall, an early artist had used charcoal to draw a row of five deer heads. The images are almost identical, but each is positioned at a slightly different angle. Viewed one at a time with a small circle of light moving right to left, the images seem to illustrate a single deer raising and lowering its head as in a short flipbook animation.

Marc Azéma, a Paleolithic researcher and filmmaker at the University of Toulouse in France, has studied dozens of examples of ancient images that were meant to imply motion and has found two primary techniques that Paleolithic artists used to do this. The first is juxtaposition of successive images—the technique used for the deer head—and the second is called superimposition. Rather than appearing in sequence, variations of an image pile on top of one another in superimposition to lend a sense of motion. Superimposition can be seen in caves across France and Spain, but some of the oldest examples come from Chauvet cave in France’s Ardèche region. Burned wood and charcoal streaks along Chauvet’s walls indicate that campfires and pine torches lit the cave.

At 32,000 years old, the oldest paintings at Chauvet cave are about 10,000 years older than those at Lascaux, but they are no less accomplished. One of the most extensive images in the cave is the “Grand Panneau,” a large panel that shows lions, rhinoceroses, bison, horses, and a wooly mammoth. Azéma explains that the panel may relate two separate narratives of lions stalking prey. Near the center of the panel is a charcoal drawing of a rhinoceros that seems to have seven or eight horns, as well as several backs. The rhinos look as if they are piled on top of one another, but Azéma has teased apart each section of the image to show that it could in fact be one rhino in varied positions. In this superimposition, he says, the rhino raises and lowers its horn. Azéma refers to these images as the beginning of cinema because they depict both narrative and motion.

Ancient herd: Running horses, cattle, and deer line the walls in the Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux cave. Photo by Norbert Aujoulat

D uring my visit, the light inside Lascaux shined steady and just strong enough for me to make out the colors in the rock walls and the paintings. We were only permitted to stay for about 20 minutes, which was enough time to see all the images except for a few that are difficult to reach. Preserving the artwork there has been a constant battle. Intermittently since 2001, Lascaux has been closed due to infestations of molds and fungus that threaten many of the paintings. One type of black mold even seems to feed on the light that people bring into the cave.

I had stood in the Nave with barely enough room to turn around without brushing against the walls. Looking at the art felt like reading a partially translated language. The shapes of the animals were familiar, but their meaning was obscured by the distance between my mind and those of 21,000 years ago. Paleolithic art may have been spiritual—prayers for a successful hunt—or maybe they related specific events—the time when a pride of lions hunted a large rhinoceros. Or perhaps it was like modern-day art, and fulfilled a variety of roles that aren’t easily put into categories. Even though the images were mostly of animals, what the art conveyed to me was humanness. The images were an attempt to express a reaction to a dynamic environment. Now that we live in a halogen and LED lit world, it’s easy to forget that the way we illuminate the world affects how we see it.

Zach Zorich is a freelance science journalist and contributing editor at Archaeology magazine.

Watch the video: Lascaux Cave and the Stunning Primordial Art of a Long Lost World (January 2022).