August 20, 2019
On a sunny day in September 1940, teenager Marcel Ravidat’s dog Robot vanished down a hole on the hillside of Lascaux, near the town of Montignac in Dordogne, France. Ravidat stood over the opening that had seemingly swallowed up his companion and threw down a handful of pebbles to test the depth. What he heard was a clatter from deep within the belly of the earth. Marcel quickly suspected that Robot had led him to the legendary tunnel locals claimed ran between the Vezere River and the Château de Montignac.
A few days later, on September 12, Ravidat returned with three friends to explore the passage. Entering through Robot’s hole, the boys slid down a 15-meter shaft before being spat out into a great chamber. By the dim light of their oil lamp, they soon realized the chamber was not an old tunnel, but an enormous natural gallery of painted images. Ravidat would later recall that he and his friends could see “a cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave—each animal seemed to be moving.”[I] The boys had made an astounding discovery: evidence of an extinct civilization with an astonishing visual history of a distant iteration of mankind.
The Lascaux Cave is one of 25 caves from the Palaeolithic period located in the Vézère Valley—part of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region in southwestern France. Inside the cave, Upper Paleolithic occupation (dated between 28,000 BC and 10,000 BC) is evidenced by the presence of 6,000 painted figures—of which animals are the main focus—as well as hundreds of stone tools, and small holes along the cave interior that archaeologists suspect may have reinforced tree-limb scaffolding used by painters to reach the upper surfaces. Researchers have noted the depth at which the paintings appear within the cave sets Lascaux apart from other archaeological sites in southern France, such as the Abri Castanet (an excavated rock shelter with occupation layers dating back nearly 40,000 years), also located in the Vézère Valley.[ii]
The walls of Lascaux are decorated with illustrations of horses, deer, aurochs, ibex, bison, and a smattering of cats. Red, black and yellow were the main colors used, created from mineral pigments (ochre, hematite and goethite).[iii] These pigments were applied either by hand, by brushes made of hair and moss, or by blowing powder through a hollow bone.[iv] In addition to painting, engraving is the most frequently used technique in the cave. As a standalone artistic technique, engraving was also applied to some of the paintings, most likely in order to generate another layer of form to the outlines of the animals.
The most photographed section of the cave is known as the Hall of Bulls, the chamber Marcel Ravidat first stumbled upon. It is a space large enough to hold around 50 people. Here, four black bulls emerge as the dominant figures among the 36 animals depicted. One bull measures 17 feet long, and the attention to detail has led experts to believe that the artwork was deliberately plotted out—beginning with an outline of the animal before color was added. The majority of the animals are painted in profile, while their heads are turned slightly toward the viewer, as if to imbue more visual impact through realism.
Beyond the Hall of Bulls is the Axial Gallery, a dead-end passage that has been called the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory.”[v] Here, the ceiling of the cave is adorned with spectacular compositions of red aurochs—a now-extinct species of wild cattle—standing with their heads forming a circle. On one wall, a great black bull stands off against a female auroch on the opposing side. Horses line the passage, with the technique of perspective evidenced by a turning out of their back hooves.
A separate exit from the Hall of Bulls leads to The Passageway, a decorated tunnel that connects to The Nave—a gallery filled with engravings. A black bull, bison, and a herd of swimming deer appear here. Again, the rendering of the bison provides an example of Magdalenian culture’s use of perspective.
Located in the deepest, most confined section of the cave, known as The Shaft, is perhaps the most unique feature of Lascaux: the depiction of a battle between a man and a bison. In the painting, the bison has been pierced by a spear and appears to be dead. Next to the bison and broken spear is a human figure with a birdlike head, also deceased or severely injured. What makes this particular artwork so valuable is the fact that, not only are narrative scenes hardly ever found among Stone Age paintings, but humans, too, are rare subjects of Stone Age art (with the notable exception of Australian Aboriginal cave paintings).
Embedded within the significance of these images is the question: Who painted the Lascaux Cave walls—and why? Geologist and historian Norbert Aujoulat focused the majority of his work on understanding the Lascaux Cave. Aujoulat concluded that due to the stratigraphy and seasonal characteristics of the animals (determined by their coats and the portrayal of mating rituals), the spatial organization of the images, and “a precise temporal logic,” the art of Lascaux was “largely the product of an activity limited in time and possibly belonging to a single generation.”[vi] But why might this generation have taken it upon themselves to produce such a vast and complex body of artwork?
Perhaps the most famous theory was advanced by the priest and archaeologist Henri Breuil, who spent a great deal of time examining Lascaux shortly after its discovery. Relying on his training as an ethnographer, Breuil determined the paintings might have played a role in prehistoric peoples’ belief in “hunting magic.”[vii] This theory suggests that those who decorated the cave did so during rituals designed to manifest power over animal prey, and to ensure a successful hunt. Breuil’s theory, however, is not universally agreed upon, one reason being that there are multiple painted scenes that are seemingly unrelated to hunting—the swimming deer in The Nave, for example.
Other experts have also challenged Breuil’s theory by pointing to Chauvet, another decorated Stone Age cave located in the Ardèche department of southern France. In his documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” filmmaker Werner Herzog explored the Chauvet Cave in rare and remarkable detail. The art left in this cave is even older than the paintings at Lascaux—an astounding 32,000 years old, making it some of the oldest ever discovered. At the Chauvet Cave, nearly all of the animals depicted are predators, rather than prey, and the few prey animals that appear do so in scenes absent of any human involvement. As Herzog explains, many of these creatures were painted with multiple limbs, to evoke movement in two dimensions, or “protocinema.” This particular technique does not appear at Lascaux. Furthermore, the animals of Chauvet Cave interact only with each other, with one particular image showing a pair of woolly rhinos engaging in a territorial confrontation.
Thus, the most widely accepted theory is that the Lascaux Cave paintings are a product of spiritual rituals. Paleolithic scholar André Leroi-Gourhan has analyzed that Lascaux was a sacred sanctuary used for initiation ceremonies.[viii] Leroi-Gourhan wrote that due to Lascaux’s isolation it would have been conducive to these rituals. Experts have noted that this explanation is consistent with the observation that some sections of the cave are more heavily decorated than others, implying these chambers were particularly sacred.
Following discovery in 1940, Lascaux was opened to the public in 1948. By 1955, about 1,200 people were visiting the site each day. Such heavy traffic triggered noticeable damage to the cave. Exposure to light, changes in air circulation, and the increase in carbon dioxide caused lichen and crystals to grow along the walls, thus endangering the preservation of the paintings. As a result, the cave was closed to visitors in 1963—23 years after its discovery—and was subsequently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
However, rather than leave the cave to be gradually erased from public consciousness, the French Ministry of Culture began the intensive project of creating an exact replica. Completed and opened in 1983, Lascaux II is located 200 meters from the original (near the town of Montignac) and is comprised of the main chambers of the cave, with the accuracy of the replicated paintings measured down to millimeters. Today, Lascaux II continues to function as an anthropological and artistic site, and facilitates teaching, exploration and discovery.
Chalmin, E. “Discovery of Unusual Minerals in Paleolithic Black Pigments from Lascaux (France) and Ekain (Spain).” SLAC PUB (November 2006).
Groeneveld, Emma. “Lascaux Cave.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 6, 2016.
“Lascaux Cave and Early Cave Art.” Factsanddetails.com. Last modified September 2018.
“Lascaux Cave Paintings.” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. Accessed July 19, 2019.
Lawson, Andrew A. ““Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe.” Oxford Scholarship Online (March 2015). DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199698226.001.0001.
Looney, Mary Beth. “Hall of Bulls, Lascaux.” Smarthistory. Last modified November 19, 2015.
[i]Troy Lennon, “How a Dog Called Robot Helped Reveal Lascaux’s Prehistoric Art Gallery,” The Daily Telegraph, last modified September 10, 2015. https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/today-in-history/how-a-dog-called-robot-helped-reveal-lascauxs-prehistoric-art-gallery/news-story/717e1cb7dc68c1302f2575e5cdc67fe9
[iii]E. Chalmin, “Discovery of Unusual Minerals in Paleolithic Black Pigments from Lascaux (France) and Ekain (Spain),” SLAC PUB, November 2006. https://www.slac.stanford.edu/cgi-wrap/getdoc/slac-pub-12224.pdf
[vi]Andrew J. Lawson, “Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe,” Oxford Scholarship Online, March 2015, DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199698226.001.0001.
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