I recently went on a pilgrimage in southwestern France. Not to Lourdes, home of the cave where the Virgin Mary put in a famous personal appearance in 1858 (she looked great, by the way), but to Cabrerets, a small town in the Lot region and the site of Pech Merle, a cave whose walls were extensively decorated by Cro-Magnon artists in about 23,000 BC.
I call it a pilgrimage because I have been to Pech Merle six times now, and every time it just astounds me that it’s actually possible to stand two meters away from a painting, drawing or engraving that happens to be 25,000 years old. I also went, for the third time, to Font de Gaume, a veritable paleo-Guggenheim in the town of Les Eyzies, which is not far from Lascaux, the world’s most famous painted cave, now closed to the public.
Lascaux was discovered in 1940 and its incredible, and incredibly dense, two-color (black and red) representations of bulls, bison, horses and stags were on public display for two decades before it was determined that human presence in the small, low-ceilinged space was raising the temperature and carbon-dioxide level, causing algae and crystals to grow on the walls and posing a threat to the paintings.
Lascaux was closed and a replica of its two main chambers, called Lascaux II, was built nearby. For many years, access to the original was restricted to experts and researchers for 15 minutes a day. (In case you’re wondering, when I took the Lascaux II tour several years ago, my guide explained that “experts and researchers” is a category that includes “experts and researchers not only in the sciences, but also in finance, politics and entertainment.”)
Then last year it was closed completely, because even that level of limited exposure to microbe-infested, panting, sweating, coughing, sneezing, flatulent humans was proving harmful. Nonetheless, the replica is quite well done and worth a visit. But not a six-visit pilgrimage, because it’s not the real thing.
Pech Merle, on the other hand, is the real thing. The cave is large enough, with high ceilings and several kilometers of corridors, that several hundred people can troop through it per day (in groups with a guide) with a minimal risk of damage to the art.
In addition to images of mammoths, bears and aurochs (the ancestor of domestic cattle) and a famous four-meter-long frieze of two spotted horses, Pech Merle also has numerous stencil outlines of cave people’s hands, adding a direct human touch that moves me nearly to incontinence. And, even more amazingly, it has petrified footprints — imprints of bare feet in what was clay 25 millennia ago and is now rock.
The first five times I visited the cave, the guides said that they were the footprints of a child. This year, the lowdown was that they were made by a 14-year-old boy. I don’t know how they came up with such an accurate figure, let alone a gender ID, from a handful of footprints, but apparently, there have been breakthroughs in the field of analyzing petrified dirt. Next time I go, maybe they’ll say he was 14 and a half, left-handed, played drums in a heavy flint band and had a dog named Wheelo.
Before I had visited Pech Merle for the first time, I labored under two common misconceptions about ancient cave art. First, I had expected artworks made by primitive tribespeople to be, well, primitive. But they aren’t at all: most of the paintings, even the oldest ones in the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region (closed to the public but featured in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams), which were made some 32,000 years ago, show remarkable skill in the lines, composition and shading.
To cite one especially impressive example, in Lascaux there’s a horse painted around a rock, so that the artist could never see the entire image at once, but when it is “flattened out” using modern photographic techniques, the proportions are perfect. Conclusion: this ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch stuff, folks.
Secondly, I had thought that the cave paintings, whatever their artistic merits, were probably more or less meaningless, a kind of early graffiti, something that Cro-Magnons did to pass the time when they weren’t bashing rocks together or making fun of Neanderthals.
This is dead wrong: more than 300 caves have been found in Europe with paintings and/or engravings on the walls. Almost none of them have yielded any sign of habitation (fire pits, crushed animal bones from cooking, etc.) and few contained any human remains.
This means that the caves were not used as living quarters, but only for art and whatever rituals went with it. Puberty rites, religious worship, shamanistic healing, speed dating – we don’t know what went on in there, but these particular holes in the rock wall were obviously important, and the art obviously meant something.
But what? Many researchers have tried to answer this question, despite the fact that proving any given hypothesis is essentially impossible. One important clue is that of the thousands of cave images created by prehistoric artists over a period of 20,000 years (ca. 32,000 to 10,000 BC), the overwhelming majority are of large mammals, including now-extinct species like saber-toothed tigers, wooly mammoths and wooly rhinoceroses. (Hey, it was the Ice Age – they probably had wooly mosquitoes.)
There are a few dozen birds, a smattering of fish, some recurrent abstract symbols (the first “writing,” if you will), a score of human figures (paradoxically, always very crudely rendered, unlike the animals) and, get this: zero plants. None. Not one single tree, leaf, petal, pistil, stem or stamen appears on a cave wall. And it wasn’t because of Agent Orange.
Since this was a society of hunter-gatherers, the easiest explanation is that the paintings were made to conjure up good luck for a successful hunt. Which would imply that when they needed to conjure up good luck for a successful gather they did it in the open air.
This idea is perhaps refuted by the fact that the people who painted Lascaux are known to have eaten mostly reindeer but no reindeer figure in the frescoes. Then again, it’s perhaps supported by the fact that reindeer are docile and domesticable so they don’t have to be hunted, so there was no need to paint them. Maybe the painters were sick of deerburgers and hoping to rustle up a nice rack of mammoth for the holidays.
Another theory posits that the images are not hunting-related but simply homages to the totemic, emblematic animals of the local tribes. Like a proto-Elks Club. And there are other, more imaginative explanations. One researcher claims that most of the decorated caves in France are oriented so that they are lit by the setting sun on the day of the winter solstice, then goes on to interpret the paintings in Lascaux as a huge stylized star map, with key points on the larger figures in the Great Hall of the Bulls delineating the main constellations as they would have appeared at the time.
The idea of Cro-Magnon tribespeople identifying multiple caves that happen to be aligned with the sunset on one winter day per year is in itself mind-blowing. It was, as I mentioned, the Ice Age, so presumably the sky was overcast on December 21 about seven years out of eight, plus it was the Paleolithic Era, so most people’s life expectancy didn’t extend much beyond the Senior prom. In other words, it must have taken maybe nine or 10 generations just to identify one cave as a propitious art gallery.
And yet, if you accept this theory, that’s exactly what they did. I bet every time they found one they held a little celebration, inviting the tribal elite to stand around at the mouth of the cave drinking white wine under track torches and discussing the semiotic connotations of the stalactite formations.
Yet another thesis is that the images are inspired by visions experienced during dance-induced trances. Which would make Lascaux one of the earliest Red Bull-powered rave sites. This idea arose from the observation that the nonfigurative dot and lattice patterns accompanying the mammal murals are similar to the hallucinations produced by sensory deprivation.
It makes sense: with the torches out, being in a silent, pitch black, temperature-stable cave would indeed qualify as sensory deprivation. At least until a bat flies into your face.
In fact, compared with today’s built-up, electronic-powered, media-saturated world, the entire surface of the glacier-riddled globe back then was more or less one big S.D. chamber. Just to keep from going mad, they pretty much had to invent either art or amphetamines.
But whatever their meaning, the paintings undeniably have an intriguing sociological implication: the sophisticated techniques and skills that went into producing this art had to have been practiced and honed and passed down from generation to generation, which raises the very plausible likelihood that the artists were supported by the rest of their tribes. Excused from KP. An early NEA grant, so to speak, that would allow the painters to concentrate on perfecting their chiaroscuro and inventing the beret.
One theorist even goes so far as to opine that agriculture was developed specifically to boost food production so that more artists could be fed more easily. And of course agriculture is what made civilization possible, allowing large numbers of people to live together in ever-expanding communities, where they could join forces and exchange ideas and engage in commerce and make progress in every field of human endeavor century after century, ultimately culminating in Grand Theft Auto IV and the Olsen Twins.
In other words, we owe all of humankind’s advances, everything that makes our lives comfortable and interesting today, to the Ice Age cave painters. I really like this idea. I have always imagined that the social system of a Cro-Magnon clan in 25,000 B.C. must have been about half biker gang and half maniacal religious cult, so I find it comforting to think that art and art education were high priorities, even before the development of metal, money and monarchies.
I wonder if they also had Paleolithic humorists on the public payroll. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a shaman, a hunter and a 14-year-old boy go into a cave…
If you live in France or come to France often, it’s not that difficult or time-consuming to go see these marvels. It is my considered opinion that all intelligent people (i.e., “C’est Ironique readers”) owe it to themselves to see Font de Gaume and/or Pech Merle before they die.
So if you’re not feeling well, or just want information on visiting the caves, see the websites for Font de Gaume, Pech Merle and Lascaux II. You can get into Lascaux II and Pech Merle with no reservation, but it’s best to reserve tickets for Font de Gaume, which I think is the most interesting of the three. Note that the ticket office does not accept reservations for less than one month in advance, so you have to plan ahead. But it’s well worth it.
For actual reliable information about cave art, the book Cave Art by the cave art specialist Paul G. Bahn, published by the Cave Art Department of Frances Lincoln Limited, gives an excellent overview of the subject (cave art).
Reader Elaine Breakstone writes: I thoroughly enjoyed the article on the caves, including the more recent finds, and would kill to get to see them. Appreciate the creative pulse that beats fast and humorously in your manuscripts.”
Reader Bruce McAleer writes: “Great article about Peche Merle and something that interests me as I’m an amateur archaeologist. I’ve been to Lascaux II, but I’m dying to get to Peche Merle. It recently came to my attention that there is a lot of prehistoric rock art not far from Paris. Although it in no way compares to Peche Merle, it is no less mysterious. I’ve just started exploring the area near Fontainebleau and found a few of these sites myself and plan on making several more trips out there in upcoming weeks to look for more. I’ll let you know if I discover Peche Merle II.”
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.