Ancient cattle by firelight – The Lascaux caves

Property 85 – Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley

Southern France today is a deeply modified landscape. It’s been continuously inhabited for many thousands of years, and closely settled since Roman times. Hardly a stone remains unturned and almost any section of ground that wasn’t made of solid rock has been cultivated for hundreds of years. The landscape is littered with farms, castles, small villages and my favourite, vineyards.

That degree of human occupation makes the recent discovery of the Lascaux cave very improbable. A group of local boys exploring this deeply cultivated landscape in 1940  somehow managed to stumble on a cave which had remained undiscovered and apparently untouched for the last 17,000 years. There are no shortages of caves in the area, but Lascaux happens to contain some of the most spectacular prehistoric cave art to be seen anywhere.  The several “rooms” of the cave contain hundreds of paintings of people, bison, horses and aurochs* (prehistoric cattle), an artistic explosion of the highest order.

The paint seems to be made mainly from various types of ground-up local stones, stuck to the wall with animal fats. The fact that these admixtures still adhere to the wall is incredible to me – this is another World Heritage site which has benefited from neglect.

The meaning of the paintings is hotly debated – the animals displayed are clearly familiar to the artists, given the anatomically accurate drawings. However reindeer, the most common food in archaeological finds, are not shown in the cave. It is possible that the paintings celebrate past hunting successes, or possibly are connected with beliefs that drawing a terrifying animal robs it of its power. Sadly, since the Lascaux culture has left no written documents so we are unlikely to ever know. The artistic skill is remarkable for the period, showing a primitive form of perspective.

I wish we knew more about these people. In evolutionary terms 17,000 years isn’t very long at all, so it is likely that they were like low-tech versions of ourselves. The more I learn about our ancestors the more I start to understand which aspects of our culture are fundamental. I strongly suspect that a lot of the things we think are important are quite transitory. The Lascaux caves seem to show what things were important to ancient people – safe places, important animals, and certain types of ritual behaviour.

After their discover the the Lascaux caves became almost immediately famous. By 1955 the exhalations of thousands of visitors had begun to visibly damage the artwork. A fungus was discovered which spread rapidly and threatened the integrity of the site. As a result the site was closed to visitors for good in 1963. More damage had been done in 8 years than in the previous 17,000. Even today scientists and archaeologists are only allowed to work in the cave for a few hours a month. The mould doesn’t seem to be getting worse but it is unlikely that the site will be open to visitors ever again.

But take heart! Visitors today are able to see a near-identical replica of the cave which has been built nearby. Sadly, this is all I was able to see on my visit. Although it’s not the real thing, it’s still a very spooky experience. The dim lighting lets the replica paintings dance on the walls as if they were illuminated by firelight. Granted, shuffling through the cave with fifty whining American tourists isn’t exactly realistic, but it’s a credit to the artist that the paintings can even compete.

The World Heritage listing for this site actually includes hundred of prehistoric sites in the area. Visitors with anthropological interests could easily spend weeks exploring the area. I didn’t, but mainly because I was on a timeline to get to Carcassonne. To be honest, that may have been a mistake. I can think of few things more pleasant than exploring prehistoric sites by day and drinking wine and eating cheese by night.

*Interestingly, the singular form of aurochs is also aurochs. This now-extinct animal was domesticated in ancient times and seems to be the ancestor of the two main extant branches of cattle – the European and Indic varieties.

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