Lascaux Cave and Early Cave Art

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20120206-Lascaus Megaloceros.JPG
Megaloceros from Lascaux Cave
Paintings dated between 41,000 and 12,000 B.C. were made by ancient modern humans in caves in France and Spain. The 36,000-year-old art in Pech Merle in France is one the oldest in Europe. Other old paintings, dating back 27,000 years, are found in Cosquer caves near Marseilles, entered via and underwater route, and Chauvet Cave (See See Separate Article). The youngest are around 10,000 years old. [Source: Judith Thurman, The New Yorker, June 23, 2008]

The cave art in Europe falls into three general categories: 1) enigmatic abstract marks such as dots and squiggles; 2) “human” hands; 3) lifelike portrayals of mammoths, horses, bison, lions and other animals.

Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian: “A century ago, cave art was still barely accepted as being genuine. When Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola claimed in 1880 that paintings in Altamira cave in Spain were prehistoric, he was mocked and reviled as a faker. Gradually their antiquity was recognised but it was only when tremendous depictions of animals were found at Lascaux in France in 1940 that cave art exploded into modern culture. Today, it is at the heart of thinking about human evolution because it seems to illuminate the birth of the complex cathedral of the modern mind. [Source: Jonathan Jones, The Guardian February 23, 2018]

The caves where the paintings are found are very dark. Deep inside them the darkness is absolute. Without a light source you can't see your hand in front or face. Lighting in prehistoric times was provided by torches and animal fat lamps. Some of the caves are very wet: quiet and still except the sound of dripping water.

Jean Clottes, a French art historian and archaeologist, is regarded as the grand old man of cave art. He studied archaeology while teaching high school English in Foix, a Pyrenees city in an area with a lot of decorated caves, and didn't earn his doctorate until he was 41. In the early 1970s he was the director of prehistory in the mid Pyrenees and was the one who got a first good look when a new discovery is made. In 1992, he was promoted to the rank of inspector general by the French Ministry of Culture after he stood by his claim that an art cave (Cosquer) was for real when everyone else said it was bogus — and he turned out to be right.

Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Evolution of Modern Humans ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution;

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink . Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Books: “Cave Art” by Jean Clottes (Phaidon, 2008); “The Cave Painters” by Gregory Curtis (2006), with interesting insights offer by a non-specialist; “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” by R. Dale Guthrie (2005); “Images of the Past” by Douglas I. Price and Gary M. Feinman (McGraw-Hill, 2006); “The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies’ edited by Chris Scarre (Thames & Hudson, 2005); “The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting” by André Leroi-Gourhan (Cambridge University Press, 1982); “The Origin of Modern Humans” by Roger Lewin (Scientific American Library, 1993).

See Separate Article on Chauvet Cave

When and Where European Cave Paintings Were Made

Of the 200 or so caves, with about 15,000 paintings and engravings, about 90 percent are in France and Spain in three major clusters: 1) in the foothills of the central Pyrenees in France; 2) in the Cantabrian mountains along the Bay of Biscay coast in northern Spain (Altamira is here); and 3) within a 20 mile radius of the village Les Eyziers in southwestern France. Most of the caves with paintigs, including Lascaux, are in the Dordogne region in the French Pyrenees. There are around 60 caves in France and 30 Spain that have ancient wall paintings. The other 110 or so have engravings and markings.

The earliest cave painting discovered so far, found at 11 locations in northern Spain, including the UNESCO world heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo, were made by Neanderthals. One of the paintings was found to be more than 40,800 years old. [Source: Alok Jha, The Guardian, November 15, 2012 |=|]

The age of cave art more less coincided with the last Ice Age and came to an end at the end of the Ice Age when the steppes that covered Europe — which supported large numbers of grazing animals — were replaced by forests. Archaeologists argue that the painting stopped when the large herds of steppe grazing animals disappeared and early modern humans started looking for other food source and their culture changed.

Neanderthals – Not Modern Humans – Were the First Artists?

Neanderthals made cave painting in Spain 65,000 years ago — thousands of years before modern humans were even in Europe — scientists say. The finding debunks the widely-held belief that modern humans are the only species capable of producing art. Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “In caves separated by hundreds of miles, Neanderthals daubed, drew and spat paint on walls producing artworks, the researchers say, tens of thousands of years before modern humans reached the sites. The finding, described as a “major breakthrough in the field of human evolution” by an expert who was not involved in the research, makes the case for a radical retelling of the human story, in which the behaviour of modern humans differs from the Neanderthals by the narrowest of margins. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 22, 2018 |=| ]

“Until now, the evidence for Neanderthal art has been tenuous and hotly contested, often because the works were not old enough to rule out modern humans as the real artists. But the latest findings, based on new dates of symbols, hand stencils and geometric shapes found on cave walls across Spain, make the most convincing case yet. “I think we have the smoking gun,” said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton. “When we got the first date for the art, we were dumbfounded.” |=|

“In a study published in Science an international team led by researchers in the UK and Germany dated calcite crusts that had grown on top of ancient art works in three caves in Spain. Because the crusts formed after the paintings were made, the material gives a minimum age for the underlying art. Measurements from all three caves revealed that paintings on the walls predated the arrival of modern humans by at least 20,000 years.

“Historically, works of art and symbolic thinking have been held up as proof of the cognitive superiority of modern humans – examples of the exceptional skills that define our species. “To my mind this closes the debate on Neanderthals,” said João Zilhão, a researcher on the team at the University of Barcelona. “They are part of our family, they are ancestors, they were not cognitively distinct, or less endowed in terms of smarts. They are just a variant of humankind that as such exists no more.” |=|

Maltravieso handprints

Neanderthal Art Works

The four caves in Spain with Neanderthal art are: 1) La Pasiega: with a red ladder shape, at least 64,800 years old; 2) Ardales: with painted rock ‘curtains’, at least 65,500 years old; 3) Maltravieso: with hand stencils, at least 66,700 years old; 4) Aviones: with painted seashells dated to 115,000 years ago. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 22, 2018 |=| ]

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “At La Pasiega cave near Bilbao in the north, a striking ladder-like painting has been dated to more than 64,800 years old. Faint paintings of animals sit between the “rungs”, but these may have been added when Homo sapiens found the caves millennia later.

“In Maltravieso cave in western Spain, a hand shape – thought to have been created by spraying paint from the mouth over a hand pressed to the cave wall – was found to be at least 66,700 years old. At the Ardales cave near Malaga, stalagmites and stalactites that form curtain-like patterns on the walls appear to have been painted red, and have been dated to 65,500 years ago. What the creators sought to express with their efforts is anyone’s guess. “We have no idea what any of it means,” said Dirk Hoffmann at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. |=|

“It is not the only question left unanswered. “It’s fascinating to demonstrate that the Neanderthals were the world’s first artists, and not our own species,” said Paul Pettit, professor of palaeolithic archaeology at Durham University. “The most important question still remains, however. What were Neanderthals doing in the depths of dark and dangerous caves if it wasn’t ritual, and what does that imply?” |=|

“In a second paper, published in Science Advances, Hoffman and others show that dyed and decorated seashells found in the Aviones sea cave in southeast Spain were made by Neanderthals 115,000 years ago, pointing to a long artistic tradition. |=|

La Pasiega

Why Was Cave Art Produced

No one is sure why these caving paintings were made. Many of the them were — and still are — extremely difficult to get to and they were not lit with electricity as they are today. For these reason many archaeologist speculate they fulfilled some kind of ritualistic, ceremonial or religious function. They may have even been built to honor gods but it difficult to say for sure.

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “But most of the cave paintings in southern France and Spain were created after the Neanderthals disappeared. Why there? Why then? One clue is the caves themselves—deeper and more extensive than the ones in the Ach and Lone River Valleys of Germany or the rock shelters of Africa. Tito Bustillo in northern Spain is a half mile from one end to the other. El Castillo and other caves on Monte Castillo dive, twist, and turn into the ground like enormous corkscrews. France’s Lascaux, Grotte du Renne, and Chauvet run football fields deep into the rock, with multiple branches and cathedral-like chambers. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015]

“Perhaps the explosion of creativity we see on the walls of these caverns was inspired in part by their sheer depth and darkness—or rather, the interplay of light and dark. Illuminated by the flickering light from fires or stone lamps burning animal grease, such as the lamps found in Lascaux, the bumps and crevices in the rock walls might suggest natural shapes, the way passing clouds can to an imaginative child. In Altamira, in northern Spain, the painters responsible for the famous bison incorporated the humps and bulges of the rock to give their images more life and dimension. Chauvet features a panel of four horse heads drawn over subtle curves and folds in a wall of receding rock, accentuating the animals’ snouts and foreheads. Their appearance changes according to your perspective: One view presents perfect profiles, but from another angle the horses’ noses and necks seem to strain, as if they are running away from you. In a different chamber a rendering of cave lions seems to emerge from a cut in the wall, accentuating the hunch in one animal’s back and shoulders as it stalks its unseen prey. As our guide put it, it is almost as if some animals were already in the rock, waiting to be revealed by the artist’s charcoal and paint.

“In his book La Préhistoire du Cinéma, filmmaker and archaeologist Marc Azéma argues that some of these ancient artists were the world’s first animators, and that the artists’ superimposed images combined with flickering firelight in the pitch-black caves to create the illusion that the paintings were moving. “They wanted to make these images lifelike,” says Azéma. He has re-created digital versions of some cave images that illustrate the effect. The Lion Panel in Chauvet’s deepest chamber is a good example. It features the heads of ten lions, all seemingly intent on their prey. But in the light of a strategically positioned torch or stone lamp, these ten lions might be successive characterizations of just one lion, or perhaps two or three, moving through a story, much like the frames of a flip-book or animated film. Beyond the lions stands a cluster of rhinoceroses. The head and horn of the top one are repeated staccato-like six times, one image above the other, as if thrusting upward, its whole body shuddering with multiple outlines.

“Azéma’s interpretation fits with that of eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes—the first scientist to enter Chauvet, only days after its discovery. Clottes believes the images in the cave were intended to be experienced much the way we view movies, theater, or even religious ceremonies today—a departure from the real world that transfixed its audience and bound it in a powerful shared experience. “It was a show!” says Clottes.

“Thousands of years later you can still feel the power of that show as you walk the chambers of the cave, the sound of your own breath heavy in your ear, the constant drip, drip of the water falling from the walls and ceilings. In its rhythm you can almost make out the thrum of ancient music, the beat of the dance, as a storyteller casts the light of a torch upon a floating image, and enthralls the audience with a tale.”

Cave Art Images

La Pasiega images

The cave art in Europe falls into three general categories: 1) enigmatic abstract marks such as dots and squiggles; 2) “human” hands; 3) lifelike portrayals of mammoths, horses, bison, lions and other animals.

The images found in cave art are mainly of animals that early man hunted, some of them have lines marked on their flanks that perhaps are spears use to kill them. In Lascaux there is a famous depiction of a partially-disemboweled bison. There are not many images of reindeer even though they were a primary food source. Bears also don't show up much. Some art historians and archaeologists suggest this is because maybe they were ritual, totemic species and rendering them in a cave was inauspicious.

Some of the more interesting images and caves include a frieze of pregnant fat women holding a bison horn found in a subterranean tunnel near Beune, France; a 20 foot-long painting in a the Niaux cave near Toulous that could only reached by swimming over a mile in an underground cave; a painting a figure with a bearded human face, antlers, the eyes of an owl, the tail of a horse and the claws of lion, believed to be a representation of a prehistoric shaman, found near Les Trois Fréres, a French town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

The 36,000-year-old art in Pech Merle, a cave open to the public, is one of the oldest in Europe. Describing it Christopher Shaw wrote in the New York Times, there “are charcoal drawings of horses, reindeer, mammoths and a rare “wounded man” that many interpret as a trancing shaman...Most riveting were the “twin horses," two life-size horses painted in black and dull rust with heavy outlines and facing in opposite directions, one behind the other, their transparent hindquarters arranged in convincing perspective and their equine forms wedded to the natural shapes on a freestanding boulder...Large spots made by artists who painted the palms of their hands and then slapped them onto the rock, and negative hand prints made by blowing pigment over the hand and top the rock, made the horses shimmer with life. A spectral fish, probably a pike, was superimposed over the horses like a Chagall angel, fusing the ephemeral with the substantial."

When pre-historic cave artists drew spots and lines on animals it often isn’t clear whether they were meant to be symbolic or accurate depictions. Some renderings of horses contains spots like those found on modern Appaloosa horses. It was long thought that the spots on these horses were probably symbolic. According to National Geographic: “Though dappled coats were thought to exist only on a few modern horses, the genotype showed up frequently in DNA analysis of horse bones from western Europe’s Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago).

Cave Art in France

There are 120 prehistoric caves in France. Only 23 are open to the public. Seventy of these caves are in the Niaux cave complex (55 miles south of Toulouse) in the Pyrenees. Two thirds of the of all the know prehistoric artworks was produced in Perigord. The Dordogne region and the Dordogne River are in Perigord, a rural area famous for foie gras and truffles and medieval villages. Many of the caves are operated by the French Ministry of Culture. Those that are open to the public are carefully regulated. The visits are kept brief and are strictly controlled to protect the art.

Les Trois Frères (30 miles northwest of Niaux) contains spectacular drawings, including the famous "sorcerer," a man with owl eyes, wizard beard, horse's tail, handlike paws, antlers headgear and a reindeer skin. In 1912, three boys exploring an area where the Volp River went underground between Enterre and le Tuc d'Audooubert in the Pyrenean foothills discovered Les Trois Frères caves. In addition to the paintings the boys found fantastic sculptures of bison.

Other caves of note include La Magdalaine Cave, with images made between 15,000 B.C. and 10,000 B.C., including a nude woman; and Cougnac Cave, with an impressive red ibex. Peche Merle features a line of lines of red dots lead to a decorated chamber with huge red fish (a pike) in the body of one horse, horses with human hand prints, Another chamber has eight abstract female and mammoth images. Font-de-Gaume Cave (near Eyzies-de-tayac) contain 15,000-year-old paintings and engravings, including one of a little horse.

On a visit to one cave in the Dordogne region, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “ Grotte des Combarelles, is a long, very narrow cave that zigzags through a limestone cliff. Hundreds of feet in, the walls of the cave are covered with engravings—a mammoth curling its trunk, a wild horse lifting its head, a reindeer leaning forward, apparently to drink. In very recent times, the floor of the Grotte des Combarelles has been dug out, so that a person can walk in it, and the tunnel is dimly lit by electric lights. But when the etchings were originally created, some twelve or thirteen thousand years ago, the only way to gain access to the site would have been to crawl, and the only way to see in the absolute dark would have been to carry fire. As I crept along through the gloom, past engravings of wisent and aurochs and woolly rhinos, it occurred to me that I really had no clue what would drive someone to wriggle through a pitch-black tunnel to cover the walls with images that only another, similarly driven soul would see. Yet it also struck me that so much of what is distinctively human was here on display—creativity, daring, “madness.” And then there were the animals pictured on the walls—the aurochs and mammoths and rhinos. These were the beasts that Paleolithic Europeans had hunted, and then, one by one, as with the Neanderthals, obliterated.: [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, August 15, 2011]

Abri Castanet

Michael Balter wrote in “Since 1994, the year of Chauvet's discovery, a team led by archaeologist Randall White of New York University in New York City has been working at the Abri Castanet, a rock shelter (a shallow cave usually at the base of a cliff) in southern France's Vezere valley. Originally excavated in the early 20th century, the Abri Castanet has long been considered one of the earliest modern human sites in Europe, with occupation layers dated back to nearly 40,000 years ago. White's excavations have uncovered considerable evidence of symbolic and artistic activity at the site, including hundreds of pierced snail shells apparently used as ornaments and three limestone blocks adorned with engravings, including one the team interprets as a vulva. But the blocks, which came from the shelter's collapsed roof, were impossible to date because they do not contain the kind of organic matter necessary for radiocarbon analysis. [Source: Michael Balter,, May. 14, 2012 ^=^]

“In 2007, however, the team began excavating another large block that had fallen from the roof and directly onto a segment of the cave floor once occupied by prehistoric humans. As White and his colleagues broke the stone slab into sections and lifted them out, they discovered that the underside had been engraved with another vulva-like image (see photo). When they sent the bones of reindeer and other animals from the cave floor to the University of Oxford's radiocarbon dating lab for analysis, the dates clustered tightly between 36,000 and 37,000 years ago. And because there was no accumulation of sediments or other deposits between the archaeological layer and the stone slab, the team argues that the painted cave ceiling must be at least as old as the bones. ^=^

“That would mean that the artworks at Abri Castanet are also at least as old as those at Chauvet, White and co-workers conclude in a paper published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because these images of vulvas are very different from the charcoal and ochre drawings at Chauvet, the team thinks that regional differences in artistic traditions were already established in Europe by that time, even at sites like Chauvet and Abri Castanet that are only a few hundred kilometers apart. ^=^

“One key difference, White says, is that whereas the paintings at Chauvet are hidden deep within that cave and away from living areas, the depictions at Abri Castanet were on the rock shelter ceiling right above the spaces where prehistoric humans slept and ate, making them a kind of everyday and public art. ^=^

Cave art sites in southern France and northern Spain

Niaux Cave

Niaux Cave Complex(55 miles south of Toulouse) is regarded as one of the three great prehistoric caves along with Lascaux and Chauvet Cave. Situated in the Pyrenees, it is a huge complex that spreads out over a kilometer into the Earth from the entrance gallery. It contains 70 prehistoric caves with art dating back to 14,000 years ago.

In a high-domed chamber are images of bison, horses, ibex, deer and fish. A bison is partly obscured by calcite deposits. Amidst the 90-year-old graffiti and dripping stalactites in the 15-meter-high, 40-meter-in-diameter Black Room are mysterious marking and prehistoric paintings of an ibex and two 2-foot-long and six-inch-high bison with sexual organs placed in human not animal positions. Guides believe that the figures were drawn by different artist. There are markers made of dots, slashes, arrows and lines at all the entrances and exits of the galleries that appear to point the way. Some are red. Some are black. Some look like bar codes or symbolic flames. There are also paintings of horses.

Describing the Black Room Judith Thurman wrote in The New Yorker, “Scores of animals were painted in sheltered spots on the floor, or sketched in charcoal on the soaring walls: bison, stags, ibex, aurochs, and, what is rarer, fish (salmon) and Niaux's famous “beared horses” — a shaggy, short-legged species...All the creatures are drawn in profile with a fine point, and some of their silhouettes have been filled in with a brush or stumping cloth. I looked for a little ibex, twenty-one-inches long...described to me as the work of a perfectionist, and one of the most beautiful animals in the cave. When I found him he was so perky that I couldn't help laughing."

The entrance to Niaux is on the slopes of the Pyrenees. Footprints of ancient children still exist. Magdalenian man, the inhabitants of the caves, are believed to have lived at the entrance and used torches to venture to the roomier caves where the paintings were located, for "religious and mystical experience." The entrance was used as shelter in the Bronze Age.

Niaux Cave Complex is one of the few prehistoric caves in Europe open to the public. Three chambers with paintings and markings are accessible. In the 1960s, a narrow tunnel was drilled into rock to give easier access to the caves. Only 35,000 people are allowed to enter the caves each year. Groups are limited to 20 people. There is 45 minute break between each group to allow painting-damaging carbon dioxide to circulate out. Once in the chamber with the paintings the guide instructs the visitors to turn off their flashlights and a single beam of light is shown on the caves 11,000-year-old images of bison and deer.

Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley

Lascaux auroch

The Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “The Vézère valley contains 147 prehistoric sites dating from the Palaeolithic and 25 decorated caves. It is particularly interesting from an ethnological and anthropological, as well as an aesthetic point of view because of its cave paintings, especially those of the Lascaux Cave, whose discovery in 1940 was of great importance for the history of prehistoric art. The hunting scenes show some 100 animal figures, which are remarkable for their detail, rich colours and lifelike quality. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website =]

“Located in a limestone plateau of the Ardèche River in southern France, the property contains the earliest-known and best-preserved figurative drawings in the world, dating back as early as the Aurignacian period (30,000–32,000 BP), making it an exceptional testimony of prehistoric art. The cave was closed off by a rock fall approximately 20,000 years BP and remained sealed until its discovery in 1994, which helped to keep it in pristine condition. Over 1,000 images have so far been inventoried on its walls, combining a variety of anthropomorphic and animal motifs. =

“Of exceptional aesthetic quality, they demonstrate a range of techniques including the skilful use of shading, combinations of paint and engraving, anatomical precision, three-dimensionality and movement. They include several dangerous animal species difficult to observe at that time, such as mammoth, bear, cave lion, rhino, bison and auroch, as well as 4,000 inventoried remains of prehistoric fauna and a variety of human footprints.” =

Lascaux Cave

Lascaux felines

Lascaux Caves is one of the world's most famous prehistoric caves. Consisting of one great chamber and two passageways, it is located near Sarlat on a hillside in Montignac, in the Dordogne region of southwest France. The 17,000-year-old painting are rendered with great skill, incorporating the contours of the caves and displaying some of the first known use of perspective, a technique that was not rediscovered until the Golden Age of Greece, as well as shadowing, highlighting, stenciling, and Pointillism. The artists used powdered colors, brushes and stumping clothes and spit pigment out of their mouth. Based on the hand prints left in the caves, the artists including males and females of all ages and even babies. After Picasso visited the cave in the 1950s was he reportedly emerged and exclaimed: "We have invented nothing." Miró once said, "Painting has been in a state of decadence since the age of caves."

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne region of southwestern France was...discovered by serendipity: In September 1940, four teenage boys and their dog stumbled across it while searching for rumored buried treasure in the forest. The 650-foot-long subterranean complex contains 900 of the finest examples of prehistoric paintings and engravings ever seen, all dating back around 17,000 years. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015]

The cave was discovered during the Nazi occupation of France. The four boys were given flashlights by their schoolmaster who was told that caves in the areas might contain prehistoric paintings. After finding the paintings by climbing through a hole revealed by a fallen tree, with their dog Robot, the boys swore one another to secrecy. Later they informed their schoolmaster, who had to squeeze into a narrow passage to see the cave. Later still a 24 hour guard was placed at the entrance. One of the four boys worked for many years as a guide to the caves.

Art in Lascaux Cave

Art from the replica of Lascaux

On its website the International Committee for Preservation of Lascaux notes: “The art of Lascaux is a legacy belonging to all mankind." The cave “redefined what was previously known about our creative development of human beings and our ability to construct image from abstract thought." There are and additional 25 caves and a 150 rock shelters in the Lauscaux region that contain prehistoric paintings and engravings.

Laura Anne Tedesco wrote for The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The painted walls of the interconnected series of caves in Lascaux in southwestern France are among the most impressive and well-known artistic creations of Paleolithic humans. Although there is one human image (painted representations of humans are very rare in Paleolithic art; sculpted human forms are more common), most of the paintings depict animals found in the surrounding landscape, such as horses, bison, mammoths, ibex, aurochs, deer, lions, bears, and wolves. The depicted animals comprise both species that would have been hunted and eaten (such as deer and bison) as well as those that were feared predators (such as lions, bears, and wolves). [Source: Laura Anne Tedesco, Independent Scholar. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,, October 2000 \^/]

“No vegetation or illustration of the environment is portrayed around the animals, who are represented in profile and often standing in an alert and energetic stance. Their vitality is achieved by the broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft color. The animals are typically shown in a twisted perspective, with the heads depicted in profile but the pair of horns or antlers rendered frontally visible. (In contrast, a strictly optical profile would show only one horn or antler.) The intended result may have been to imbue the images with more visual power and magical properties. The combination of profile and frontal perspectives is an artistic idiom also observed in ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art.” \^/

Images in Lascaux Cave

20120206-Lascaux horse.JPG
Lascaux horse
Lascaux caves contains over 600 paintings, 1,500 engravings and numerous geometric figures and strange dots placed mostly on cave's ceiling. Animal figures include red deer stags swimming across a lake, shaggy horses running in a line, four huge bulls — three time life size — as well as wild goats, enormous hunch-backed cattle and two-horned woolly rhinoceroses.

There are 60 horses. One is 10 feet long and has a mysterious branched symbol near the front legs. In the Rotunda there is a procession of animals with two long-horned wild cattle. Some figures are 17 feet long. Two bisons dancing butt to butt are each four feet long. Molly Moore wrote in the Washington Post, “the creatures seem to move over the walls’ uneven surfaces...horses galloping amid cattle, ibex leaping through space."

The strangest creature is a mythical beast with the hind quarters of a buffalo, the midsection of a pregnant horse, the front legs of cat and a strange head with two long straight horns. The only image of a human is a man with a bird mask with a large beak and a long, skinny erect penis. Thought to be a shaman of some sort, he is being charged by a bison with a spear in its stomach and its intestines hanging out. One can only speculate as to the meaning of recurring geometric symbols.

Laura Anne Tedesco wrote for The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “At Lascaux and Chauvet, another magnificently painted cave in France, images of animals are superimposed on top of earlier depictions, which suggests that the motivation for the paintings may have been in the act of portraying the animals rather than in the artistic effect of the final composition. However, their purpose remains obscure. Most of the paintings are located at a distance from the cave's entrance, and many of the chambers are not easily accessible. This placement, together with the enormous size and compelling grandeur of the paintings, suggests that the remote chambers may have served as sacred or ceremonial meeting places. [Source: Laura Anne Tedesco, Independent Scholar. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,, October 2000 \^/]

“In addition to the painted images, Lascaux is rich with engravings of animals as well as abstract designs. In the absence of natural light, these works could only have been created with the aid of torches and stone lamps filled with animal fat. \^/

Painters at Lascaux Cave

The Lascaux paintings were made early modern humans, using animal fat lamps — made with a plant wick placed in hollow stone — to light the cave and scaffolding to reach the cave ceiling. The "paints" came from brown, reddish-brown, yellow, black and white minerals; and it appears they were mixed and heated to get the best shading. The painting themselves were made by rubbing these minerals along the rock. Red and black are the primary colors with red being made with crushed hematite (ocher) and the black made with charcoal made from the embers of Scotch pine.

Laura Anne Tedesco wrote for The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The pigments used to paint Lascaux and other caves were derived from readily available minerals and include red, yellow, black, brown, and violet. No brushes have been found, so in all probability the broad black outlines were applied using mats of moss or hair, or even with chunks of raw color. The surfaces appear to have been covered by paint blown directly from the mouth or through a tube; color-stained, hollowed-out bones have been found in the caves. [Source: Laura Anne Tedesco, Independent Scholar. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,, October 2000]

The Aurignacian people is the name given to the early modern humans that created Europe's first art works. On their skill the German film director Werner Herzog said, We should never forget the dexterity of these people. They were capable of creating a flute. It is a high-tech procedure to carve a piece of mammoth ivory and split it in half without breaking it, hollow it out, and realign the halves. We have one indicator of how well their clothing was made. In a cave in the Pyrenees, there is a handprint of a child maybe four or five years old. The hand was apparently held by his mother or father, and ocher was spit against it to get the contours and you see part of the wrist and the contours of a sleeve. The sleeve is as precise as the cuffs of your shirt. The precision of the sleeve is stunning.

Destruction of Lascaux Cave

Lascaux plan
Lascaux Cave is located on the private land of the La Rochefoucauld family. After World War II they decided to open the caves to the public as a way to make money. They enlarged the entrance, built steps and replaced the original sediment with concrete flooring. Hordes of tourists showed up. The wear and tear of breathing, heat producing human beings was too much for the 17,000-year-old paintings, which were assaulted by growths of mold, fungus, microbes, black spots, bacteria and algae.

Lascaux Caves was closed in 1963 to all but those with best academic and press credentials after green mold started to appear. A beautifully-created replica of the two most famous rooms, called Lascaux II, was built a few hundred meters away from the original. But now so many people have visited the reconstruction it too needs restoration work. In the late 1990s a white fungus, Fusarium solani. Emerged . The invader either infiltrated the cave through a new ventilation system or during work during heavy rain to install it. The outbreak was tackled aggressively, including the use of fungicides and antibiotic compresses applied to the walls. In 2007, black spots of a different fungus, of the Ochroconis group, sparked the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to threaten to place Lascaux on its "World Heritage in Danger" list. [Source: Laurent Banguet, AFP, June 26, 2011]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The cave’s undoing came after the French Ministry of Culture opened it to the public in 1948: Visitors by the thousands rushed in, destroying the fragile atmospheric equilibrium. A green slime of bacteria, fungi and algae formed on the walls; white-crystal deposits coated the frescoes. In 1963 alarmed officials sealed the cave and limited entry to scientists and other experts. But an irreversible cycle of decay had begun. Spreading fungus lesions—which cannot be removed without causing further damage—now cover many of the paintings. Moisture has washed away pigments and turned the white calcite walls a dull gray. In 2010, when then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, toured the site on the 70th anniversary of its discovery, Laurence Léauté-Beasley, president of a committee that campaigns for the cave’s preservation, called the visit a “funeral service for Lascaux.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015]

Jean Clottes told AFP Lascaux had been affected in ways no-one could have predicted 60 or so years ago. "The cave was completely disturbed. In 1947 alone, they dug out 600 cubic metres of sediment to make an entrance and concrete path and installed lighting for the public."Six hundred cubic metres (22,000 cubic feet) is the equivalent to about eight 12-metre (40 foot) shipping containers. "No prior study was done, and it completely changed the cave's micro-climate," sighed Clottes. "We altered its balance." In its untroubled state, the cave's microscopic flora had had thousands of years to reach a truce in the battle for habitat. But the introduction of new organisms may have upset the peace, enabling one species to dominate others, said Clottes. [Source: Laurent Banguet, AFP, June 26, 2011]

Efforts to Save Lascaux Cave

By the mid 2000s the situation had gotten so bad that an international team was brought in to try and save the paintings and only a few people were allowed in on only a few days a month. Marie-Anne Sire was named chief administrator of Lascaux Caves. A specialist in restoring medieval paintings in the exterior of churches, she presides over a 25-member team of biologists, conservationist, restorers, archaeologists and other specialists. She has a tough job of not only cleaning up the mess created by people entering the cave but also by efforts to fix the problem created by people entering the cave. [Source: Laurent Banguet, AFP, June 26, 2011]

For example a formaldehyde foot wash used for years to disinfect people entering the case filled the caves with fumes that ended up killing friendly organisms that might have prevented fungus from growing. A white fungus outbreak occurred after an air-conditioning system was installed that was designed to keep harmful microorganism from entering the cave. “It looked as though it had snowed," Sire told The New Yorker. Her team responded by pouring quick lime on the floor and putting antibiotic- and antifungal-soaked blankets on the wall. When the white microbes cleared, a team painstakingly photographed every painting under lights. When they finished black pots — perhaps generated with the help of the lights — appeared and began spreading fast. The spots have since been contained but there are lot of questions about what to do next.

Lascaux is protected by steel doors and security cameras.The state of the caves and the paintings has stirred a debate on whether Lascaux should be reserved only for scientists in the name of preservation or they should be opened to public with the risk of damage. In the mid-1990s Lascaux was openly briefly to tourist capable of plunking down $5,000 for the privilege of visiting the cave.

Laurent Banguet of AFP wrote: "Conservationists today focus on a multi-disciplinary approach, believing any single thrust has side effects in other fields.The cave is fitted with passive sensors to monitor air circulation, temperature and humidity but intervention is kept to a minimum. The fungus seems to be in retreat, for it is limited to a few greyish traces on the bare rock and on small areas of some paintings." "We are using compresses against it but not surgery," said Muriel Mauriac, an art historian appointed the cave's curator in April 2009.

Under scientific guidance, the human presence is limited to a total of 800 hours per year, including maintenance and academic research. Banguet of AFP wrote. Visitors to the cave don sterile white coveralls, a plastic hair cap, latex gloves and two pairs of slip-on shoe covers. Previously they had to dip footwear in a germ-killing bath, but this was deemed to be another source of destabilisation. Entrance is made through two airlocks, one of which is an "air curtain" designed to keep out external humidity yet not affect the natural draughts that circulate in the cave through fissures. The paintings themselves, viewed in the glimmer of an LED forehead lamp, are breath-taking. The strokes by unknown hands trigger a shock of how we humans today are linked to our distant forebears. After exactly 45 minutes, our visit is over. We are ushered out, the doors are sealed and the bison, horses and ibexes return once more to dark and silence.

Pettakere Cave in Sulawesi

40,000 Year Old Cave Art Found in Sulawesi, Indonesia

Remains at Niah Cave show that men have been living on Borneo for a long time. In the karst interior of Borneo are networks of caves with rock art and hand prints, some of them dated to 12,000 years ago. More significantly, rock art and hand prints found in caves in Sulawesi have been dated to nearly 40,000 years ago. Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Archaeologists working in Indonesia say prehistoric hand stencils and intricately rendered images of primitive animals were created nearly 40,000 years ago. These images, discovered in limestone caves on the island of Sulawesi just east of Borneo, are about the same age as the earliest known art found in the caves of northern Spain and southern France. The findings were published in the journal Nature. "We now have 40,000-year-old rock art in Spain and Sulawesi," said Adam Brumm, a research fellow at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and one of the lead authors of the study. "We anticipate future rock art dating will join these two widely separated dots with similarly aged, if not earlier, art." [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2014 ~\~]

“The ancient Indonesian art was first reported by Dutch archaeologists in the 1950s but had never been dated until now. For decades researchers thought that the cave art was made during the pre-Neolithic period, about 10,000 years ago. "I can say that it was a great — and very nice — surprise to read their findings," said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study. "'Wow!' was my initial reaction to the paper." ~\~

The researchers said they had no preconceived ideas of how old the rock art was when they started on this project about three years ago. They just wanted to know the date for sure. To do that, the team relied on a relatively new technique called U-series dating, which was also used to establish minimum dates of rock art in Western Europe. We have seen a lot of surprises in paleoanthropology over the last 10 years, but this one is among my favorites. - Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University archaeologist

First they scoured the caves for images that had small cauliflower-like growths covering them — eventually finding 14 suitable works, including 12 hand stencils and two figurative drawings. The small white growths they were looking for are known as cave popcorn, and they are made of mineral deposits that get left in the wake of thin streams of calcium-carbonate-saturated water that run down the walls of a cave. These deposits also have small traces of uranium in them, which decays over time to a daughter product called thorium at a known rate. "The ratio between the two elements acts as a kind of geological clock to date the formation of the calcium carbonate deposits," explained Maxime Aubert of the University of Wollongong in Australia's New South Wales state, the team's dating expert. ~\~

“Using a rotary tool with a diamond blade, Aubert cut into the cave popcorn and extracted small samples that included some of the pigment of the art. The pigment layer of the sample would be at least as old as the first layer of mineral deposit that grew on top of it. Using this method, the researchers determined that one of the hand stencils they sampled was made at least 39,900 years ago and that a painting of an animal known as a pig deer was at least 35,400 years old. In Europe, the oldest known cave painting was of a red disk found in a cave in El Castillo, Spain, that has a minimum age of 40,800 years. The earliest figurative painting, of a rhinoceros, was found in the Chauvet Cave in France; it goes back 38,827 years. ~\~

“The unexpected age of the Indonesian paintings suggests two potential narratives of how humans came to be making art at roughly the same time in these disparate parts of the world, the authors write. It is possible that the urge to make art arose simultaneously but independently among the people who colonized these two regions. Perhaps more intriguing, however, is the possibility that art was already part of an even earlier prehistoric human culture that these two groups brought with them as they migrated to new lands. One narrative the study clearly contradicts: That tens of thousands of years ago prehistoric humans were making art in Europe and nowhere else "The old 'Europe, the birthplace of art' story was a naive one, anyway," said Roebroeks. "We have seen a lot of surprises in paleoanthropology over the last 10 years, but this one is among my favorites." ~\~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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