Can we pinpoint the beginning of art? Are its origins in the cave paintings of Africa, Spain or France? Are they still to be discovered or have they been lost forever? We may never know. What we do know is that the earliest people had two occupations; hunting and art.
Hunters of the Paleolithic era lived in the hill country of what is now Western Europe. They hunted for bison, bear,deer, reindeer,mammoth and other wild creatures. Artists drew, painted and even carved images of these animals with startling realism and vigour.
In 1940, near Montignac, France, a collection of prehistoric cave paintings were discovered by four teenagers who stumbled upon the ancient artwork after following their dog down a narrow entrance into a cavern. The 15,000- to 17,000-year-old paintings, consisting mostly of animal representations, are among the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period. The Lascaux Caves contain some of the greatest examples of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, from the Solutrean-Magdalenian era.
In total, Lascaux’s galleries and passageways – extending about 240 metres in length – contain some 2,000 images, about 900 of which are animals, and the remainder geometric pictures of varying shapes. The sheer number of images, their size and exceptional realism, plus the spectacular Prehistoric color scheme, is why Lascaux is sometimes referred to as “The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”.
The pictures depict in excellent detail numerous types of animals, including horses, red deer, stags, bovines, felines, and what appear to be mythical creatures. There is only one human figure depicted in the cave: a bird-headed man with an erect phallus.
Archaeologists believe that the cave was used over a long period of time as a center for hunting and religious rites.
The Lascaux grotto was opened to the public in 1948. By 1955, much of the cave’s parietal art was beginning to deteriorate due to the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled by the 1200 daily visitors, and other environmental problems. Lichens and crystals began to appear on the walls. As a result, in 1963 the site was closed to the public. In 1983, an exact replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery – created under Monique Peytral and known as “Lascaux II” – was opened a few hundred metres from the original cave, and it is this replica that visitors see today. In addition, a full range of Lascaux’s parietal art can be viewed at the Centre of Prehistoric Art, located close-by at Le Thot.
Curiously, what is now France’s oldest known prehistoric cave art – the Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35, 000 BCE) – was discovered recently at a site less than 7 miles from Lascaux. In 1979, Lascaux was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The color pigments used to decorate Lascaux, and other French caves, were all obtained from locally available minerals. This explains why the prehistoric color palette used by Palaeolithic painters is relatively limited. It includes black, all shades of red, plus a range of warm colors, from dark brown to straw yellow.
Only exceptionally were other colors created, such as the mauve color that appears on the ‘blazon’ below the image of the Great Black Cow in the Nave. Nearly all pigments were obtained from minerals, earth or charcoal. Research shows that all the painted and drawn figures were painted with colors obtained from powdered metallic oxides of iron and manganese. Iron oxides ( iron-rich clay ochre, haematite, goethite), used for red and other warm colors, were widely available in the Dordogne, while manganese was also common. At Lascaux, curiously, the various black shades used in paintings were obtained almost exclusively from manganese: carbon-based sources (such as wood, bone charcoal) have rarely been identified.
Investigations at Lascaux show that in all probability, the broad black outlines of the figures were created with mats, pads or swabs of moss or hair, or even with blobs of raw color. Judging by the number of hollow, color-stained bones discovered at Lascaux and elsewhere, the larger painted areas were created using a form of prehistoric “spray-painting”, with paint being blown through a tube (made from bone, wood or reeds) onto the rock surface.
The three graphic techniques used by artists at Lascaux were painting, drawing and engraving. They were used independently or in combination. For example, two methods were necessary to complete the Great Black Bull, in Axial Gallery. The head and most of the body were sprayed, while an implement (mat, pad, swab) acting like a brush was used to paint the upper part and the tail.
Drawing was done with the same implements, but also with edged chunks of manganese or iron oxide.
Engraving, probably the most common artistic technique used at Lascaux, involved scratching away the outer layer of rock, which generates a difference in color. The resulting ‘engraved line’ looks just like a drawing. In addition, thicker engraved lines were sometimes used to give added volume and relief to the outlines of animal figures.
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.
One 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.
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.
One thing that remains unexplained by any of these theories is why Lascaux (and most other Paleolithic caves) contains no sculpture. It is worth remembering that by 17,000 BCE, Venus figurines and other forms of prehistoric sculpture were being made throughout Europe. Why not in caves?
The author is a member of the Academic Staff
Colombo School of Arts (Colombo 5)