In the Caves of Art

On this day in 1940, while exploring the hills around their Dordogne village, four teenagers and a dog discovered the cave paintings of Lascaux, one of the most important and storied sites of prehistoric art. Scholars continue to debate why Paleolithic artists adorned the cave walls with some 2,000 animal, human, and abstract figures—perhaps they were shamanistic, or inspired by ritualistic trance dancing, or star maps, or the trophy art of some real or idealized hunt…

In The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists (2006), Gregory Curtis provides a layman-friendly account of many of the major theories. He also conveys the power and wonder of the art that, he acknowledges, books such as his can only approximate. Viewing onsite, we see how this section of rock has been used to create bulging bison muscle, how looking from this vantage point creates the feeling of a stampeding herd, how the cave itself is an essential part of the gallery experience:

The atmosphere is damp and chilly and the floor is slick when the base is rock, or muddy when the base is clay.… And it’s easy to trip over nubs in the floor that are stalagmites in the making. Caves contain nooks, crevices, and passageways that lead…where? There is a sense of danger and adventure. Absolute darkness surrounds the light you carry…. And caves are not mute. You hear sounds echoing up from the far depths…

These details resonate even in the story of the boys’ discovery of the Lascaux cave, from the first scratching of their dog to their summons of the local abbé, who cushioned his beret with crumpled newspapers before chancing an inspection. The following passage is Curtis’s description of the first boy, Marcel Ravidat, dropping by rope some sixteen feet for his first discovery:

He called up to his companions that he was all right and began to explore. The passage gave out after a few yards. Disappointed, Ravidat turned back and found himself directly in front of a painting that startled him. A human figure, the only one in the cave, seemed to be falling over backwards. It was a man with the head of a bird and hands with only four fingers. He had apparently been knocked over by a bison that was standing beside him.… Ravidat had just discovered what is now known as the Shaft Scene, one of the most powerful and mysterious paintings in all of prehistoric art.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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