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Published: August 10th 2006
And suddenly, it was 18000 years ago.
I found myself standing in a large open cavern with the most vivid and amazing cave paintings I have ever seen. When I had heard and read about Lascaux I imagined that it would be much like the other prehistoric paintings I had seen - I could not have been more wrong.
The Lascaux caves are located in South-central France, not far from Toulouse. They hold a collection of paintings that date back to around 18000 years ago (sorry to those of you who still think the planet is only 7000 years old.)
Lascaux is unique for a number of reasons - 2 of which are directly related to the quality of the paintings after so many years:
1) The cave was sealed over by receding ice sheets at the end of the last glaciation
(and then only revealed when a storm blew over a tree and exposed an entrance that was found by four boys and their dog.)
2) There is a layer of clay above the caves that prevented rainwater from running down the limestone walls.
These two features made sure that the artwork contained in the caves were incredibly well preserved. And thank god they were because they are stunning. In 1940 Picasso remarked, as he walked out of the caves that, “we have invented nothing.”
Inside the caves there is a collection of artwork that is, well, unsurpassed by anything painted since. Unlike the small paintings I have seen before, some of the paintings in Lascaux literally loom above you, some in damn near life-size proportions. Imagine, for instance, a bull 12-feet in length. And perhaps, to capture the magnitude and impact of walking into the caves, I should quote Jean Clottes, one of the world’s foremost experts on cave paintings, “It’s so spectacular that it boggles the mind. When I first saw it, I cried.”
I may not have cried, but I was emotional and had several different tsunami-sized waves of goose bumps as I looked around the cave. (Sorry, no photos as cameras are not allowed inside the caves.)
And, strangely, I was not even in the cave. Let me explain.
After the caves were discovered they were very popular - popular to the tune of 1600 visitors a day. And these caves are not very big at all. To accommodate the visitors they early managers of the caves widened the opening, put in stairs and air circulation. To cut a long story short, these changes threatened to destroy in a few short years (moisture, algae and limestone issues) what has been preserved for almost 20,000 years. So now almost noone gets to go into the real caves and when they do it is done in bio suites with carefully controlled airlocks at the entrance of the cave.
So where was I? I was in Lascaux II, a man-made replica of the original caves. A replica that took some of the world’s best sculptors 11 years to complete centimetre by centimetre. They have done such good job that frankly, I suspect, that the only way you would know - once inside - which cave you were in would be wether or not you were wearing a bio-suit.
I really suggest, if you have even the vaguest interest in human history or art, that you visit Lascaux.
There is rather a lot of speculation - and perhaps that is all it will ever be - about what the caves were for. I believe we can rule out simple graphity or painting “for fun.” These paintings are just to perfect and stunning. Limestone is really unforgiving - any mistakes could not be earased (and there are none.)
I wonder about the sole and well-hidden painting of a Rhino - so odd to think of these ‘African’ animals roaming around Bordeaux. But then, I was equally shocked to hear about a rhino skeleton being discovered in Weston-super-Mare, a town I lived in in England until a few months ago. Was there only one rhino (most of the animals prepresented in the caves are well represented) because rhinos were nearly extinct Europe at this time? In other words, are they rare in the cave because they were rare in the wild?
I was also particularly struck by both the scale of the paintings and by one collection in particular. A series of horses painted along a horizontal fault in the wall. At first it appears to be a collection of horses but with a closer look it becaomes clear that it is the same horse at different stages of gallop. I could not help but fantazises that perhaps it was the earliest ever example of animation - I could see one of those early artists in a totally dark cave telling a story about a running horse and then quickly moving the only candle in the cave along the wall at just the right speed to shoe an animated horse running along the wall. I could just about hear the gasps and shrieks from the children watching from the other side of the cave.
And were all the animals in the caves (except one very well hidden bear) prey animals because the caves were a large ‘menu’ or teaching aid for up and coming hunters?
Lascauz creates more questions than it answers for me, but I am so glad I made the trip. I hope you do to.
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If you are interested in this kind of stuff, check out these links:
www.TheHumanDiet.com - a book I am working on about returning to our orginal way of life.
www.Megafauna.com - a book my dad has written about human hunting, big animal extinction and
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