Cave Paintings of Lascaux

Updated on May 30, 2018
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Niina is a folklorist and a storyteller who loves to research and explore myths from all around the world.

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Artists of the Palaeolithic Era

Lascaux cave is Palaeolithic cave located in south-western France in the region of Dordogne. Lascaux is located in the Vézere Valley and is famous for its cave paintings because of their exceptional quality, size, sophistication, and antiquity. The paintings consist primarily or large animals, once native to the region like deer´s, aurochs, ibex´s, bison´s and some felines. Close to 2000 images, divided into two categories: animals and symbols. The art is dated to c. 17 000- 15 000 bc and falls within the Upper Paleolithic period.

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Discovery

12th of October 1940 four young men Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, Simon Coencas and Ravidat´s dog Robot found the cave. Lascaux cave was open to the public in 1948 but already in 1955, the carbon dioxide brought by the 1200 visitors had damaged the paintings. Cave was closed in 1963 and a replica called Lascaux II was built next to it. In 1998 mold was found from the original cave and it was believed to have spread through the air conditioning. In 2008 cave was closed from everyone for three months. Nowadays small group of scientists is given access to the cave few times in a month.

What makes caves of Lascaux important from archeological, cultural and art historical point of view is that these images give us insights to the life of Paleolithic people and makes us understand how long humans have had the desire to create art for different purposes. They make us appreciate the skilled hands of humans living that time. The cave itself shows only temporary occupation and it is possible that the main caves were only meant for art creating purposes. However, the entrance vestibule of the cave, where daylight reaches, might have been inhabited.

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Painting Methods

At Lascaux the dominant cave art is painting. The main technique used by Lascaux´s artists was spraying of pulverized color pigments down a tue made of wood, bone or plant materials, a technique which appears to have order successfully on all surfaces throughout the subterranean complex. Lascaux´s artists managed to capture the vitality of the animals depicted. They did this by using broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft coloring. Animals are depicted in a slightly twisted perspective. Images are very narrative. Working almost like early comic books or animators, telling stories about the hunting season, swimming horses and shamans falling into trance.

Theories

There are lots of different theories created to explain what is the meaning of the Lascaux´s paintings. Did the artists of the Palaeolithic era create all these images just for the sake of art? I personally believe that creating these images was part of some sort of shamanic ritual. One of the theories suggests that Lascaux paintings may incorporate pre-historic star charts. Confirmation that the art might have been a representation of astronomy comes from the knowledge that the cave opening was orientated towards the sunset on Summer Solstice and that parts of the caves might have been temporarily illuminated by the sun at certain times of the year.

Marcel Ravidat showing people through the Lascaux cave in 1940.
Marcel Ravidat showing people through the Lascaux cave in 1940.

Legacy

Another theory suggests that Lascaux´s caves have been the spiritual place to conduct shamanistic rituals. People living in the Paleolithic era were hunter-collectors. Their lifestyle revolved around hunting and was dependable on the changing of the seasons. Images of different animals can have connection to fertility myths, totemic beliefs and human´s connection to the earth and its other beings. This theory is supported by the countless footprints found from the caves which suggest to initiation rituals. We may not ever find out what was the purpose of these outstanding cave paintings. Lascaux´s artists spent countless hours painting these images with very primitive tools. They worked in very poor light, only using stone lamps filled with animal fat and flaming torches while working in awkward positions. The art that these people made such long time ago brings them closer and helps us to understand how the power of visual thinking has always existed in the minds of humans.

Sources:

The oldest enigma of humanity, the key to the mystery of Paleolithic cave paintings by Bertrand David and Jean-Jacques Lefrere, Arcade 2014

Pre-historic painting, Lasaux or the birth of art by Georges Bataille, Pan MacMillan, 1980

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