The Lascaux Cave Paintings: A guest post by Jean Ryan

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

The Lascaux Cave Paintings

The hands. That’s what I keep thinking about. Not the exquisite horses and oxen and stags, but the hands, offered singly or in groups, some with truncated fingers—frostbite, scientists say.

Photo credit: Matt Northam,

Were they signatures, the manner in which cave artists took credit for their work? It does not appear so. The prints were made by everyone—men, women, children, even babies. Some are positive, meaning the hand had been covered with paint and pressed onto the wall, and some are negative, the hand laid on the wall and paint blown around it. Perhaps the prints functioned as a sort of calling card, a way for humble ancients to introduce themselves to their deity. Self-portraits and full body renderings are nonexistent. The only human image in the Lascaux caves is a bizarre stick figure—a presumably dead hunter beside a speared bison, its intestines spilling out, and just beneath them a bird on the end of a pole. The hunter has an avian head and an erect phallus. I’ve tried to interpret this painting, to fathom the significance of the beaked head, the tiny bird, but the show-stealing phallus throws me off.


The Stone Age. I see people clothed in pungent, matted pelts, hunched inside cold caves, their lanterns sputtering with animal fat, their wide foreheads glistening with effort. I see shaggy black hair, large brown teeth, bruised arms bunched with muscle, dirty feet with toughened soles and horned toenails. Some of the tribe, balanced on crude scaffolds, are painting the upper walls; others are crouched on the floor, mixing pigments, hollowing out bones. They have a language of sorts and their strange words echo through the caverns. They did not live in the caves; they used them only for artistic and, possibly, ceremonial purposes. Maybe they considered the caves too hallowed, too potent, for basic use. Maybe they preferred the changing skies to constant clammy darkness.


The caves were discovered twelve months after the start of World War II, the year Germany invaded Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. Bombs fell, tanks rolled, grenades exploded, and below this mayhem, a prehistoric silence, beauty on hold for 17,000 years.


On September 12, 1940, four teenage boys were walking in the woods near Dordogne, France. One of them carried an oil lantern, having heard legends of a secret tunnel that ran under the Vezere River. They had a dog with them, Robot, who darted ahead toward a depression in the ground caused by an uprooted tree. The boys cleared away the overgrowth and discovered a hole into which they tossed rocks to determine the depth before deciding to explore it. One by one they slid through the hole and down a long shaft that led them into a dark cavern. They raised their lantern and shone it on the walls and white ceiling, discovering a panoply of animals, larger than life, which appeared to be in motion. Stunned, the boys ventured to the end of the cave, peering at more and more creatures: lines of horses and aurochs, stags, bulls, a headless stallion, a unicorn, a bear. The colors—mauve, reds, yellows, browns, black—were vibrant, as if they’d been painted the day before.


The boys swore themselves to secrecy, but their thrilling news did not stay bottled long. They invited a few of their friends to see the splendors, charging them a small admission price, and soon the whole village was lining up at the cave’s entrance, which the boys widened for easier access. Aware that this was a rare find indeed, the boys finally asked their schoolmaster, Leon Laval, to have a look. Initially dubious, as soon as he saw the paintings, Laval knew they were thousands of years old, created long before the written word. No one, he advised, should touch the artwork, and the cave should be guarded at all times from vandals. From then on, Jacques Marsal, one of the four discoverers, set up a tent at the cave’s entrance and committed himself to protecting it, work that would last his lifetime.


The Lascaux caves contain over 2,000 images comprised of two main categories: animals (equines predominate) and symbols. The entrance leads directly to The Hall of the Bulls, which is 62 feet long and varies in width from 18 to 25 feet. The first image encountered is a horse’s head with a fuzzy mane; the second is the “mysterious Unicorn,” followed by many other pictures and friezes. The next cavern, the Axial Gallery, is even longer than the first, and contains a magnificent swirl of animals, along with the largest work in the cave: the 17-foot long Great Black Bull. Many of the paintings in this gallery have been created using the contours of the wall to boost depth and perspective. The Passageway is a narrower portion of the cave and includes hundreds of figures—animals, indeterminate images, and signs. The Apse, a semi-spherical cavern, is considered to be the most sacred part of the cave, owing to the ceremonial artifacts found there and the abundance of petroglyphs. Nearly every square inch of its limestone walls and ceiling are covered with overlapping designs, some 500 animals and 600 abstract markings. In the floor of the Apse is a hole that leads to The Shaft of the Dead Man, a small area in an underlying cavern. This room contains the aforementioned painting of the dead hunter and bison along with just a handful of other images. It is the deepest and most cramped part of the cave. The two other illustrated caverns are The Nave, which is filled with engravings as opposed to paintings on account of the soft rock walls, and The Chamber of the Felines, which is long and narrow with a steep gradient. Viewers, who must crouch to see the artwork in this chamber, are reminded of the difficulty involved in creating it.


Aside from a small area near the entrance, there is no light in the caves. Artists used stone lanterns or flaming torches to illuminate the walls as they worked. They needed to determine what preparatory work was required—cleaning, scraping, preliminary sketching—how best to apply their colors to the various surfaces, and what combination of pigments were needed. The pigments were obtained from local minerals—powdered metallic oxides of iron and manganese. Drawings were done with edged chunks of minerals, while swabs of hair or moss were used as brushes. Hollowed bones functioned as paint sprayers through which artists blew their colors onto the walls. Engravings, the most common technique used in the Lascaux caves, entailed scratching the surface rock to reveal a different color beneath; the gouged lines mimic drawings.


The signs and symbols include straight lines, parallel lines, branching lines, convergent lines, four-sided images, club shapes, V-shapes and dots. Some of these signs occur in repeated groupings and thus may indicate communication between the artists, though we have no idea what any of the symbols mean.


The animal images are equally inscrutable. It does not seem likely that the paintings were created strictly for art’s sake. There are no trees or mountains or rivers, no suns or moons, no shrubs or flowers. Some suggest that the paintings were used as “hunting magic,” a means of either invoking more prey or dominating the animals by putting a spell over them. Paintings of wounded animals might have been a form of visualization, the artists hoping that the imaginary scenes would actually take place. If this theory is true, then why did the artists depict dangerous animals—wolves, lions, bears—as well as herd animals? Bone piles indicate that the mainstay of the Upper Paleolithic diet was reindeer: why is there just one image of a reindeer in the entire collection? Another argument to the explanation that the paintings were employed for hunting purposes is the presence of animals that have no link to hunting, like the swimming horses. And how do all the signs fit in?


A more plausible theory centers on the spiritual element. Studies reveal that most of the footprints found in the caves were left by adolescents. As this is the typical age for initiates, some scientists believe that the caves were used for initiation ceremonies and religious rituals. What function the signs and paintings played in these rituals is anyone’s guess.


A distinguishing feature of the Lascaux cave animals is the sense of movement they convey. Artists achieved this using various methods: sketching bold lines around the figure; superimposing one image on another to add depth and intrigue; and painting the animal in successive images, as in early comic strips. Stone Age humans would have walked through the caves carrying torches or primitive lanterns, the light from which would have traversed the walls in such a way that a stag with multiple heads would have resembled a single animated creature. As the light moved, a story developed.


These illusions were lost entirely when the caves were exploited by the family of the Count of LaRochefoucault, who owned the property. Artificial light was installed in the caverns, and by 1948 daily tours brought up to 1,000 people a day, an enterprise with disastrous results. Carbon dioxide, exhaled in copious amounts, built up in the caves, causing toxicity and condensation. A green growth attacked the paintings, followed by “The White Sickness,” a build-up of calcite that steadily spread over the cave walls. In 1963 the Lascaux caves were closed to the public. To appease would-be spectators, a precise replica of two of the caves was created in 1983; “Lascaux II” is situated not far from its namesake and it is this version that visitors see today. Other problems, like the appearance of black mold in 2006, continue to plague the original site.


In attempting to understand their drawings, I try to envision how the Stone Agers lived. The average lifespan was 30 years. Europe was exceptionally cold during the Upper Paleolithic Period, and food was becoming scarce. People lived a nomadic existence, following their prey and sheltering in temporary structures built of wood, thatch and stone. The first Homo Sapiens, they were stronger than us and had bigger heads, though their brains were not as specialized. They knew how to make fire and so were able to cook meat and keep warm. They fashioned a wide variety of stone tools and were adept at using them. They also made jewelry—necklaces, bracelets, amulets—out of shells, stone, bone and mammoth’s tusk. In addition to these personal items, people of this era carved what are known as “Venus figurines,” faceless statuettes of mature, full-figured women with exaggerated breasts and hips. Obesity and longevity would have been a rarity back then, so the statues may have been created not to depict beauty but to represent fertility, nourishment and survival.


There must have been chosen leaders, customs, certain rules of behavior and punishment if these rules were not adhered to. I can easily imagine fear, desperation, conflict and confrontation. But what did love look like? Not the love of a mother for her child, which is timeless, but romantic love. Stripped of convention and artifice, of deodorant and toothpaste, love between adults must have been, beyond all else, forgiving. Love in its most primal, urgent version.


In this time before roads and settlements, before agriculture and industry, before thunder and lightning could be explained, early man must have felt very small. There he somehow was, a naked biped in a vast frigid land ruled by beasts.


I think there are no self-portraits in the Lascaux caves because man did not consider himself worthy of them. The world belonged to the animals, who were perfectly equipped for the seasons and weather, who moved over their land with grace and purpose. The challenges faced by the cave artists were the measure of their respect. In painting these animals, man hoped to emulate them, to imbue himself with their power and beauty. To become, as he walked alongside the paintings with his stone lantern, as fine a creature.