An Examination of Lascaux Cave

by Jacqueline M. RobinsonDr. Bass–Prehistoric Rock ArtApril 07, 1998

 

 

Once upon a time on September 12, 1940, five boys and their dog went rabbit hunting. They were hiking around when all of a sudden the dog fell in a hole. The hole was the result of a large tree being uprooted. The boys were worried because they thought that their dog was hurt or perhaps dead. Fortunately, they could hear the dog yapping so they knew that it was not dead. The boys decided that they would go after the dog. They got a long piece of rope and tied it around a tree. Then they started to climb down the hole, which ended twenty-five feet below the surface of the earth. When the boys got to the bottom they discovered that they were in some sort of tunnel surrounded by hundreds of paintings. For a couple of days the boys kept the tunnel a secret. They decided to mention their discovery to their old art teacher whose specialty was prehistoric art. The teacher traveled down the hole and soon realized that this was not an ordinary discovery. It appeared as though this was much more than some sort of tunnel. They explored a bit more and came to the conclusion that this was in fact a cave that had been covered by the earth for thousands and thousands of years. He told the French government what the boys had found and convinced them to close the hole to the general public (Daniel 82-84). Soon thereafter began decades of work studying and recording everything that lay in this underground cave. It was given the name Lascaux.

Lascaux provides the earliest evidence of art in the world. These paintings are what art was when art first began. It is believed that the paintings of Lascaux were rendered during the Upper Paleolithic Age, or Reindeer Age, which was approximately 30,000 years ago (Abrams 15). This was the time during which modern man first began to emerge. “Lascaux Man created, and created out of nothing, this world of art in which communication between individual minds begins” (Bataille 11). The Lascaux art has been immaculately preserved for thousands and thousands of years. Most of this is due to the fact that the cave had remained undiscovered beneath the surface of the earth. It is because of their incredible condition that it is possible to attempt to understand the past through this art.

The people of the Reindeer Age are referred to as Magdalenians. The bones of these prehistoric men are very similar to modern men’s bones. “The Lascaux Man shared our form, our look, and had what we recognize as creative genius” (Bataille 18). This differs from the bones of even older “men” whose bones were more like the bones of monkeys. The question then arose of whether Homo sapiens came before or after the birth of this art. It is probably safe to say the Homo sapiens evolved before this art, however, much evidence supports the idea that this art was created at a time which coincided with the birth of Homo sapiens (Bataille 18). Thus, art is another way in which man is separated from animal.

The Magdalenians were hunters and gatherers. They traveled in tribes and settled only when they were sure that the resources would not be exhausted. The Magdalenians that settled at Lascaux Cave discovered an area rich in game and fertile soil. These people show signs of intelligence in the tools that they used to hunt, garden, and build. The cave provided these people with shelter but was not their permanent home. There was not a lot of competition in these days except between man and animal. Therefore, these men were able to live for many years relatively untouched (Ruspoli 68).

The first thing that researchers wanted to do at Lascaux was date the paintings and any remains that might have been left there. There were three main ways in which researchers dated Lascaux: pollen testing, carbon 14 dating, and the examination of flints. Pollen testing rests on the idea that whenever someone entered Lascaux, they brought pieces of pollen with them. The pollen would fall off of these people and become impacted in the soil. The pollen that fell remains fossilized in the soil forever. Thousands of years later, researchers are able to examine the soil and look specifically at the pollen deposits. The pollen deposits found in the layers with human bones can tell researchers what the climate was like, what types of vegetation existed, which time of the year the cave was frequently visited, what types of plants the Magdalenians brought into the cave, and when these people moved in order to avoid the glaciers (Ruspoli 26). All of this was very important information about the life of the people of Lascaux.

Carbon 14 dating examines bones and charcoal excavated from the cave and makes it possible to give precise dates as to when humans traversed the cave. Carbon 14 dating showed that there were two main divisions of time in which the Magdalenians probably used the cave and painted the pictures. The first group used the cave before the Ice Age, and the second group used it after the Ice Age. Thus, it was a period of about two to three centuries in which the Magdalenians visited the cave (Ruspoli 27). It is important to remember that the cave was used by people long before the Ice Age, but their visits may not have been as frequent or as long. Because of this, they would not be represented in one of the two main groups. Most of the paintings in Lascaux took place just prior to and immediately after the Ice Age. There are, however, some pieces of art in the cave that were done as long as 30,000 years ago (Ruspoli 27).

Examining flints was a third method researchers used to examine Lascaux. The researchers divided the flints up according to what they had been used for in Magdalenian life. They then dated the most frequently found type of flint. This gave them some idea of when the flints were used. A researcher named Dr. Allain microscopically examined the flints to see what type of wear they had. Certain flints that were found in areas of engraving show a special kind of wear that suggests that they were used to peck at the walls of the cave. When dating these flints, it is sometimes possible to date a specific piece of art (Ruspoli, 27). All of three methods of dating Lascaux provide researchers with an intimate view of the life leads by many of the Magdalenians. By knowing the environment that surrounded these people and the things that they did helps researchers generate hypotheses as to what the art means.

While some researchers were working on the dating of the art and artifacts of Lascaux, others were working on making a general map of the entire cave. After much excavation had been done, researchers discovered that the cave was actually much larger than they had first thought. Many areas of the cave were blocked by thousands of years of sediment build-up and glaciation damage (Ruspoli 97). It took many years, but a map was finally drawn up of Lascaux Cave.

Upon entering the cave, one encounters the Rotunda or Hall of the Bulls. One descends into this hall through the main entrance tunnel. The very first image one encounters in the cave is a horse’s head and neck with a fuzzy mane. The second image is the Unicorn. The Unicorn is one of the most famous pictographs in Lascaux. It has been the subject of many debates as to what it represents. Some believe that it is a depiction of a specific type of animal and others believe that it is some sort of shaman-like depiction. Other highlights in the Hall of the Bulls include the frieze (a long row of aurochs and horses) and Aurochs 18. Aurochs 18 is the largest figure in prehistoric art measuring eighteen feet in length. It is a stunning pictograph and includes a red cow drawn underneath it. Painting in the Hall of the Bulls must have been very difficult for the Magdalenians because of the cave walls rough texture with many ridges and holes. The technique used to paint this area was probably dominated by dabbing the paint in between crevices with some sort of animal hair attached to a stick. Fingers were probably not used because there is no smudging around the outlines of the animals (Ruspoli 99-108).

When arriving to the end of the Hall of the Bulls, one enters the Axial Gallery. The Axial Gallery is a windy and narrow pathway that gets very tight in some areas. The ceiling is fairly low in some places making it necessary to really focus on where you are going. The walls are uneven in many places and many of the artists used this to their advantage. The first pictograph on the North Wall of the Axial Gallery is the Cow with the Collar. It has a red body and a black head and neck. Its body was painted in such a way that the artist used the uneven wall to show depth and perspective. Opposite the Cow with the Collar is a beautiful picture of a stag roaring its head. It has many symbols drawn below it, which remain unexplained. Other highlights include the three Chinese horses, The Great Black Auroch, and the Fleeing Horse (Ruspoli 109-117).

At the end of the Gallery, the path turns very narrow. This is known as the Meander. The highlight of this part of the cave is the Upside-down Horse. It is in a very unique position of being upside down. It has been hypothesized that maybe it is a depiction of a horse playing in the grass or maybe a horse that has fallen down while being chased. It is difficult to photograph this horse because half of his body lies on one side of a wall and the other half is painted on a curved piece of the same wall. It is the last pictograph in the Meander because the path after it becomes nearly impossible to travel down (Ruspoli 118-122).

Ibexes, horses, and ponies of all different colors dominate the South Wall of the Axial Gallery. The main figure on the South Wall is the Falling Cow. The figure is drawn with much detail and special attention was given to creating perspective. The angle of the animal’s legs show it in a state of trying to remain balanced. The Falling Cow differs from all other pictographs on the South Wall because of its style and technique. In front of the cow is a strange grid-like design. This has not yet been explained by researchers (Ruspoli 122-123).

The Passageway is the area of the cave that curves to the right of the Hall of the Bulls. The Passageway connects the Hall of the Bulls to the Apse and the Nave. The ceiling of the Passageway is very low and until excavation had to be crawled through. The sidewalls have eroded quite a bit and much calcite has built up over the years. All of these factors make it very difficult to pick out much of the rock art in this part of the cave. This part of the cave includes pectographs as well as pictographs. Because many of the lines of the pictures have been worn away, it makes it nearly impossible to photograph the Passageway rock art (Ruspoli 128-130).

Directly after the Passageway is the Nave. The Nave is very similar in structure to the Gallery although much larger. It has a fairly steep slope and before excavation was reached only by crawling on hands and knees. Most of the figures in the Nave are engraved because the rock was easily pecked away (Ruspoli 131-2). The Panel of the Imprint is the first part of the Nave, and it includes the panel of seven engraved ibexes. Many horses and a bison follow the ibexes. Many symbols and signs accompany the animals depicted in the Panel of the Imprint. Some of the symbols indicate wounds while others represent arrows. Many of the symbols are simply impossible to interpret (Ruspoli 132-8). The Great Black Cow is the next section of the Nave. Like its name, this section is dominated by the pictograph of a large black cow. This cow was painted over a frieze of horses. There appears to be two distinct groups of horses. One group was done earlier than the other. The scene of the Great Black Cow and the many horses surrounding it is considered by some to be the most beautiful scene in the cave. It is very colorful and unique (Ruspoli 138-140). The Crossed Bison is the third section of the Nave. The main focus of this section is two male bison fighting eachother. The scene measures eight feet across and is one of the best examples of the Magdalenians use of perspective. It is thought that this painting is a symbol of natural selection in the animal kingdom (Ruspoli 140-1). The final section of the Nave is the Swimming Stags. As the name implies, this section of the Nave is dominated by a string of stags that are shown swimming in an imaginary river. This is the only depiction of stags in Lascaux (Ruspoli 141-2).

Moving through Lascaux Cave, the next large section of the cave is the Chamber of the Felines. It is the part of the cave that is just past the Nave. It is very difficult to get into because it is narrow, steep, and the path is not totally stable. In the Chamber of the Felines, one must crouch down to look at the petroglyphs. As the name suggests, there are a number of cats depicted in this area of the cave. There are also a number of signs, horses, and incomplete pictures. One of the highlights of this section of the cave is the frontal view of a horse. In addition there is a petroglyph of two lions mating. This is another symbol of the study of animal behavior in the cave. The end of the Chamber of the Felines soon becomes impenetrable (Ruspoli 144-5).

Backtracking a little bit, one will find the section of the cave named the Apse. The Apse can be found in between the Nave and the Chamber of the Felines as a path that swerves to the right. The Apse is considered to be the most sacred place in Lascaux judging by the number of ceremonial artifacts found there. In addition, there are thousands of petroglyphs found in the Apse. Most of the petroglyphs are of signs, symbols, and a few pictures. Most of the petroglyphs are very small and faint. There is a lot of superimpositioning in this area again suggesting that this was a sacred place. Everything is pecked with immense detail. Animals depicted in this area are mostly deer. The Major Stag can be found in this area of Lascaux. It measures over six and a half feet making it the largest petroglyph in Lascaux. Photographs can not be taken in this area of the cave because it is nearly impossible to catch the petroglyphs under even the best light. Outsiders are left with only sketches of what lies inside the Apse (Ruspoli 146-7).

The final section of the cave lies just beyond the Apse and is called the Shaft. The Shaft is accessible only by going down a long ladder into the depths of the cave. It is very closed off and is quite possibly the heart of the cave. Here lies the Famous Scene. It is a pictograph of a bison and a man apparently fighting. The bison has been penetrated by a spear of some kind and seems to be dying. The man in the picture has a bird-like head and is falling backwards as though he too is dying. Next to the man is a stick with a bird on top of it. This scene has been subject to many debates and many interpretations. Some feel as though this is some sort of shamanic depiction. Others feel as though this is a representation of the order of nature (Ruspoli 150). This scene is very unusual for Upper Paleolithic art because humans are rarely depicted and pictures depicting scenes are also uncommon (Daniel 86). The interpretation will be discussed more later in this paper.

Now that the layout of the Lascaux has been examined, it is time to look at what types of images are depicted in the cave. The images can be divided into two broad categories: animals and symbols. Many of the animals have already been discussed. However, a closer examination is quite beneficial when trying to discover what the art means. There are seventeen bison depicted in Lascaux the most famous of which is found at the bottom of the Shaft. It is the bison depicted fighting the man in the Famous Scene. Bison were very important in the lives of the Magdalenians. They were hunted for food, fur, bones, horns, and hooves. Every part of the dead bison was utilized. Although the bison was important for diet, it was also important in religion (Ruspoli 35). Aurochs were also important during the Reindeer Age. The auroch is depicted 52 times at Lascaux suggesting that it too was important for diet and religious reasons. The auroch is the ancestor of present-day bulls. It was an antagonist to the bison that lived during this time (Ruspoli 37). The musk-ox, a cross between an ox and a sheep, was also depicted at Lascaux. The Magdalenians used the musk-ox’s fleece for clothing and warmth (Ruspoli 39). The horses painted and etched at Lascaux are the most frequently depicted animals. There are many different species shown, but the most represented is the Przevalski horse. Horses were hard for the Magdalenians to hunt, but once killed provided these early humans with hide used for shoes and bags and teeth for ornaments (Ruspoli 39). The deer is depicted 85 times at Lascaux. The Magdalenians hunted deer for meat and for their antlers which provided spear points and ornaments. It is important to note that the horse in only depicted in certain areas of the cave suggesting that it was perhaps a big part in the religious lives of these people (Ruspoli 42-5). The ibex is shown 35 times at Lascaux and only in certain places. The ibex was hunted by the Magdalenians and was probably important in religion (Ruspoli 45-8). The reindeer is only shown one time as Lascaux, and it is depicted in the midst of a superimposition panel. The reindeer was the most frequently hunted animal by the Magdalenians judging by the large number of reindeer bones found around the cave. The Magdalenians used every part of the reindeer from its fur to its antlers. The Magdalenians used the reindeer for clothes, bags, tents, ornaments, food, thread, engraving, and spearpoints. The fact that it is depicted only once at Lascaux is important when interpreting the art. If the art was linked to hunting somehow, one would think that the reindeer, the most frequently hunted animal, would be represented more than once (Ruspoli 49-52). The lions depicted at Lascaux appear seven times, and are located in only one section of the cave. The fact that they are grouped together suggest that the artists were concerned with depicting things as they are found in nature (Ruspoli 54-5). There is only one rhinoceros and one brown bear at Lascaux perhaps because they had some sort of spiritual meaning (Ruspoli 55).

Counting the number of symbols at Lascaux was a tedious and rather large project. There are over 400 signs and symbols in the cave. These symbols can be divided into twelve different groups. The straight lines are often shown next to animals and suggest that they were the symbol for a spear. The most frequently depicted symbol at Lascaux is the parallel lines. Although they are the most numerous, they remain unexplained. There are a few groupings of numerous lines whose meaning is also unexplained. The disjunction lines are often in the shape of a star and have been hypothesized that they symbolize a warrior. The branching lines in the cave most likely represent leaves, antlers, or fans. The nested convergent lines probably represent animal tracks due to the fact that they are often found alongside the animals. The huts, or diamond shaped symbol, probably refer to a female. The quadrangular shapes are often found in similar places throughout Lascaux, and thus, suggest that they symbolize rituals or magic. The claviform signs have no explanation. The composite symbols, or v-shaped lines, probably represent wounds on animals. Any type of paired symbols is thought to depict females and males. The dots, found in eight localized areas of Lascaux, have no supported meaning (Ruspoli 154-62).

As stated earlier, there is only one human-like form depicted at Lascaux, and it is the man in the Famous Scene. There are no known depictions of any females. This is a very common aspect of Upper Paleolithic art. The Lascaux Cave also has some graffiti of names, initials, and dates that were rendered before the cave became off-limits to the public (Ruspoli 78).

Now that we have discussed the people and the environment of the Reindeer Age, the layout of Lascaux Cave, and the images depicted, it is possible to discuss the many interpretations of the art. Many theories have been brought forth including the following: art for art’s sake theory, the death ritual theory, the sympathetic magic theory, the religious/spiritual ritual theory, and the system of writing theory. All of these can be supported by some of the art in the cave, although some of the theories are a little too creative.

The theory that the art in Lascaux Cave was created because it is beautiful is a leading argument in the interpretation of rock art in general. It is termed the “art for art’s sake” theory (Bataille 12). It is universally recognized that these pictographs and petroglyphs are truly amazing works of art. It is possible that they were created for the simple pleasure of being enjoyed by the viewer? Are they something that the Magdalenians did in their spare time as a way to amuse themselves? Did they just want to make something pretty? Can the art in this cave be explained simply as someone doodling? The art for art’s sake theory would say that the answer to these questions is yes. The hypothesis, although a good one, is probably more applicable to rock art outside of that found in Lascaux Cave. The rock art at Lascaux has patterns to it and in places appears to tell some kind of story. In addition, the images depicted are almost all of animals. If this theory was true, why aren’t all animals depicted? Why aren’t the trees and flowers of the age depicted? Why aren’t humans depicted? The specific pictures would probably be a lot more random and seemingly unintentional if they were created for their beauty alone. For these reasons, it seems as though this is not a very good explanation for the art at Lascaux Cave.

The theory that the rock art at Lascaux was done during some sort of death ritual is pretty shaky and not very well explained. Death was an important aspect of the Magdalenians life. It had a lot of value and a special place in society. Evidence for this came from excavations in which many ornaments and jewelry were found next to the bones of Magdalenians. In addition, it appears as though certain parts of the cave were used as burial sites. This theory is based on the idea that the mystery of death inspires man to create. This interest in death is what separates man from animal. In addition, an interest in death leads to an interest in the dead. Thus, during the death rituals, the spirits and souls of the dead led the living Magdalenians to paint and etch (Bataille 29-31). As you can see, this theory is a little wish-washy. It makes no attempt to explain why certain things are depicted and not others. It also does not explain what the images represent. Yes, death inspires man to create, but why did the Magdalenians create the images that they did? The theory does not explain what relation the images have to death. What is the connection? This theory is creative, but it is not a sound theory and does a poor job of explaining what the rock art at Lascaux means.

Another theory proposed as an explanation for the meaning of the rock art at Lascaux Cave is termed the sympathetic magic theory. This theory was proposed by one of the leading researchers of prehistoric art, Abbe Henri Breuil. Breuil hypothesized that the artist created their art in an attempt to put animals under a spell and put them at the mercy of the hunter. The fact that many of the animals at Lascaux are shown wounded and hurt supports this idea (Ruspoli 79). In addition, the Famous Scene supports the theory of sympathetic magic. The man with the bird-like head appears to be some sort of sorcerer hunting the bison. Perhaps this depiction was created to ensure a good hunt for the season (Ruspoli 89). Alongside the hunting rituals are the fertility rituals. Many times prehistoric art depicts images of fertile soil and is created in the hope of having a good harvest. Although this theory is better than the first two, it still has many flaws. First, Breuil’s theory has been criticized because it is not based on reliable dating techniques, which he used to suggest that the superimpositioning was part of a hunting ritual. Breuil’s theory is also overly simplistic; not all of the depictions at Lascaux support this idea (Clottes and Courtin 164). Although much of prehistoric rock art can be explained by Breuil’s sympathetic magic theory, Lascaux rock art can not be explained well by this theory.

Perhaps the best explanation for the art at Lascaux Cave comes from the theory that the art was created as part of some sort of religious or spiritual ritual. Leroi-Gourhan analyzed the layout of Lascaux and came up with the idea that the cave was really a place where religious and initiation ceremonies were performed. Lascaux is thus some sort of “decorated sanctuary” (Ruspoli 80). The fact that the cave was private and cut off from much of the world helps explain why Lascaux would be a perfect place to conduct religious and initiation ceremonies (Clottes and Courtin 175). Much evidence supports this theory. Evidence has already been found that ceremonial artifacts have been found more in some areas of the cave than in others. In addition, archeological evidence has shown that people were only there for short periods of time (Clottes and Courtin 175). The idea that they cave was used as an initiation center is supported by footprint studies. Almost all of the footprints in the cave are of adolescents, which was probably the age one was initiated. The fewer footprints and images at the rear of the cave suggests that they were for private initiations and thus, sacred (Ruspoli 83-4). The depiction of animals can also be used to support the idea that the cave was used for religious and initiation ceremonies. Animals were probably in intricate part of the myth system surrounding religion. “The repetition of similar schemes over several thousand years suggests the existence of an enduring, structured religious system bases on central myths that had been handed down from generation to generation” (Ruspoli 84). The fact that the Magdalenians only depicted certain species is explained by the idea that certain species had important meaning in these early humans lives. Unimportant animals were not depicted because they had no special meaning attached to them (Ruspoli 85). This theory also explains that the reason no bodies or faces are depicted is because the religion of the Magdalenians prohibited it (Ruspoli 92). This theory explains the Famous Scene man as some sort of priest or good spirit depicted to ward off the evil spirits (Clottes and Courtin 157). The superimpositioning in some areas of the caves also supports the idea that the cave was used for religious and ceremonial purposes (Clottes and Courtin 82). This theory is the most supported theory of all of the theories. It explains many aspects of the art and the cave. It also explains the archeology that goes along with the cave. In addition, it makes sense that these early humans would use a beautiful cave as a place of worship. Religion is an underlying theme for a lot of art, and much rock art has been explained using this theory.

A final theory to be examined is that the rock art at Lascaux Cave was some sort of communication tool for the people of the particular tribe. Much of the rock art of the Upper Paleolithic Era has depictions of hands. The hands are thought to represent some sort of sign language done by the early humans. Many are organized into specific patterns, supporting this idea (Ruspoli 96). Many of the hands show one or more fingers missing. It was thought that perhaps mutilation was done during the initiation process and the mutilated hands were created as a symbol of having been initiated. The newest theory is that the hands depicted with missing fingers are the result of the artists bending his fingers to produce a specific image (Clottes and Courtin 63). If this were the case, it would make sense that these hand pictographs were really an early form of communication. Other forms of communication, perhaps more relevant to our discussion of Lascaux, include series of symbols used to create some sort of map (Clottes and Courtin 150). Other lines and grids may represent some other sort of message than a map, although not much else has been hypothesized. This theory is a sound theory and has some very valid point. However, the symbols at Lascaux are not in any sort of specific and recurring pattern. It would seem that if the rock art at Lascaux was really a form of communication that there would a pattern to it. This theory can be applied quite nicely to other pieces of rock art.

There are many problems one encounters when trying to explain the rock art at Lascaux Cave. First of all, there is no ethnography information. There are no living relatives of these early men and women. We have no source from which we can draw information other than the remains of what was left behind. Of course there are no dates, no authors, no apparent subject, and no obvious intention, therefore one is left to infer these things. “We do not know all the myths, beliefs, and social and religious rules from which these representations rose” (Clottes and Courtin 173). Secondly, the dating techniques used to provide a timeline of when the art may have been created and the conditions surrounding its creation are not fool proof. There is room for much improvement in this area. As of now, most dating techniques used to date as far back as the Reindeer Age are accurate to within a hundred years (Bataille 12). Lastly, the art is decaying rapidly. Many of the pictographs and petroglyphs are fading. In addition, rocks are crumbling, and the exposure to air is hurting the art (Daniel 89).

Today Lascaux represents a fine example of the world’s oldest art. It is well-preserved and continues to be the source of amazement and wonder. The artists clearly knew what they were doing and had specific intentions behind their works. The Lascaux Cave provides modern man a glimpse into his past and an opportunity to understand humans in their earliest days of existence. Much time and energy has been put into understanding Lascaux, and researchers believe that they have found many meanings behind the art. Lascaux, however, will continue to hold the secrets to the past and live on as a beautiful artifact of milleniums gone by.

References:

Bataille, Georges. Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art. Switzerland: Skira Color Studio. 11-130.
Clottes, Jean and Jean Courtin. The Cave Beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 163-179.
Daniel, Glyn. The Hungry Archeologist in France. London: Faber and Faber. 81-92.
Rusploi, Mario. The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 6-203.

 

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