Story of the World Musts: Lascaux Cave Paintings

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We had spent several days just relaxing a little in Sarlat due to the rain putting a damper, and more like a necessary respite, on our sight seeing. We decided to make a short trip to Lascaux. We remembered the Lascaux Cave Paintings from our days in Story of the World (a commonly used homeschool history program), an exceptional example of prehistoric art from around 15,000-17,000 BC.

Lascaux is sometimes called the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory” with 240 meters of drawings containing 2000 images.

In 1940, the caves were discovered by by teenagers Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencasin. Soon it was opened to the public, but by 1963 environmental problems had started to cause the deterioration of the paintings and soon it was closed to the public. In 1983 Lascaux II was opened as an exact replica for visitors to view. Although the kids understood this necessity, they still struggled with it not being the REAL thing.

The visitors’ center is state of the art, but still has a few kinks. Unfortunately, it was one of those situations when simpler would have likely been better, but we still got a good feel for the drawings and what makes them so spectacular. Our handheld iPad like devices were hilariously ineffective and our English-speaking French guide was struggling. We must have looked like pretty confused tourists wondering around.

We had read before about the drawings but understood very little. Some of the drawings are done as paintings and others as engravings, which are more difficult to see. Still, we are talking cave men here, using scaffolding to make art with some amazing skill.

Our tour ended with a strangely, mysterious high tech movie presentation with 3D glasses, that only about half way through did we realize we could choose to listen to in English and not French. The ideas about possible interpretation of the drawings is well discussed below:

“Are the pictographs and petroglyphs at Lascaux simply “art for art’s sake”? It seems unlikely. The cave art at Lascaux has been carefully designed to convey some kind of story or message, rather than simply created because it looks beautiful. To begin with, why are only animals shown: why not trees and mountains? Why ignore certain very common animals, like reindeer? Why are certain areas of the cave more heavily decorated than others? The argument that Lascaux artists only painted things because they were beautiful, cannot answer these questions.

Another theory offered as an interpretation of the Stone Age art at Lascaux is the so-called “sympathetic magic theory”. Championed by Abbe Henri Breuil, one of the leading French scholars of prehistoric art, it claims that Lascaux artists created their drawings and paintings of animals in an attempt to put them under a spell and thus achieve dominance over them. In other words, artists painted pictures of wounded bison in the hope that this type of primitive “visualization” might make the imagined scene actually happen. Unfortunately, this interpretation of Lascaux’s cave art is not very convincing. First, there are many images that have no obvious link to hunting (the swimming horses, for instance, plus all the signs and symbols). Second, at Chauvet cave, in the Ardeche, very few if any of the animal pictures relate to animals that were hunted: most were predators, like lions.

Arguably the most convincing explanation for the cave paintings at Lascaux is that they were created as part of some spiritual ritual. According to analysis by the paleolithic scholar Leroi-Gourhan, Lascaux was a religious sanctuary used for initiation ceremonies. Its seclusion and isolation would make it an ideal place to conduct this type of ritualistic ceremony. Furthermore, this explanation is consistent with the fact that some chambers at Lascaux are more heavily decorated than others, implying that certain areas (like the Apse) were especially sacred. The theory is also supported by a number of footprint studies, showing that virtually all the footprints in the cave were left by adolescents: a typical category of initiates.”

We were glad we went for sure, but we were definitely laughing as we left at the difficulty of understanding a complicated topic in broken English or our pitiful French.

We alway respond to “I’m sorry for my terrible English” with, “I’m more sorry for our terrible … (French in this case)”


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