Cave Paintings – Lascaux, France

Oral communication was a huge evolutionary leap forward for humanity and one that enables us to connect with each other with far greater understanding than if we were silent. However, this does not mean that before we had mastered speech that we did not attempt to communicate in other ways. Our ancestors’ inability to speak encouraged imagination and visual representation. Miraculously, examples of this earliest artwork has survived until today in cave paintings found in various sites including France’s Chauvet Cave and the Lascaux Cave, the latter housing paintings that date back 17,300 years.

The Hall of the Bulls within Lascaux is a great example of cave paintings, with iconography that extends uninterrupted for 30m along both sides of the 20m long hall. It depicts an impressive 130 figures, including representations of animals alongside geometric signs, the latter of which are difficult to interpret due to their abstract nature. That we were already combining representation with abstraction at such an early stage is impressive and implies that a deeper meaning lies behind the markings. There is an extensive frieze featuring three key animal themes, themes that recur consistently throughout other chambers and halls in the cave, including cattle, horses and deer. There are 17 figures recognisable as horses. Drawn from memory, the anatomy can be shockingly accurate, at least to the point that it is unquestionably a horse and not, for example, a cow. Sometimes there is a systematic nature to the composition of the horse figures, like a sequence or pattern, perhaps in an attempt to depict the creatures moving together in a group.

The horse figures are systematically lined up, overlapping each other, yet they demonstrate variation, indicating a more sophisticated observation of the animals in nature.

The horse figures are systematically lined up, overlapping each other, yet they demonstrate variation, indicating a more sophisticated observation of the animals in nature.

Interestingly, one of the horse figures in the Hall of Bulls has a hornlike protrusion from its head. Could this be the earliest example of a unicorn? Or is there some symbolism attached to it, for example, the horn could indicate that this horse is a stallion, while the others are mares. Perhaps it is merely an early example of using imagination to create, or enhance, a drawing.

A single figure of a black bear has been identified amongst a herd of cattle. The bear is of great interest as it is superimposed within the belly of a bull. Not only is the layering of pictures rare in the Lascaux Caves, but it could hold some symbolism. Could it imply that a bull fought off a bear? That it is within the bull’s belly suggests that it has been consumed. Had it been the other way around, with a bull within a bear’s belly, it may have been slightly more believable that one has been eaten by the other, but as it stands I have never heard of a bull eating a bear.

The section of wall the depicts the Bulls and the dark shape that has been identified as a bear.

The section of wall the depicts the Bulls and the dark shape that has been identified as a bear.

The bear is also unusual as it only appears in this one instance in the Lascaux Cave, whereas the other animals recur consistently in various parts of the cave. This suggests that the creators of these cave paintings were perhaps unused to seeing bears.

There is a distinct lack of human figures in early cave paintings and this is rather odd, given that the creators of the paintings seemed determined to represent as many aspects of their world as they could on the cave walls. Was there a reason for not depicting human figures? Perhaps there was some sort of superstition about depicting humans on the walls, like a taboo in their primitive society. Did they perhaps hold humans in higher regard than animals and thus, should not be depicted? As with all prehistoric things, our knowledge is extremely limited and can only be described in assumptions and theories. There is always the chance that they didn’t see the relevance of representing human figures on the walls of the cave; they knew what each other looked like. Could it be as simple as this?

The area within the caves known as the Shaft portrays a limited number of figures; only 8, a very low number in comparison to the other chambers and halls. Within the composition, many of the markings are abstract geometric shapes, such as dots and hooks. In the centre of the composition known as The Shaft Scene is the only example of a human figure within the cave, a rarity in cave paintings from this time period (the Chauvet cave is devoid of any human representation). The arrangement of figures in this scene suggests a narrative potential, singling it out as a specific episode in which subjects and themes are linked in a clear attempt to convey a message. Unfortunately the passing of time has left us unable to translate the meaning of the scene. The human figure can be described best as a stick figure, yet small details are included such as it having four fingers on each hand, splayed out in fan shapes. The body of this human figure is tilted at a 45° angle, likely a reaction to the nearby bison’s abrupt about-face.

The solitary human figure in the Lascaux cave. Easily identifiable as human, yet possessing a bird-like head, suggesting a level of symbolism.

The solitary human figure in the Lascaux cave. Easily identifiable as human, yet possessing a bird-like head, suggesting a level of symbolism.

Below the figure is a bird perched on a stick. The bird contrasts with the large hulking shapes of the bison and bulls throughout the caves with its small size and lack of colour, yet it is the simplicity of line art that draws the eye to both the bird and human figure. Strangely, the human and bird share certain physical characteristics, as seen in their heads, drawn in a similar manner. This hybridisation could be a form of symbolism and may relate to the figure’s connection with nature. In certain primitive societies, birds are often assigned the role of psychopomp, or conductor of souls.

Could the human figure represented be a type of shaman? Is he performing a ritual of sorts within the drawing? A shaman could have had a higher standing within the community, thus explaining why he is the only human figure to appear on the cave walls. Could there be symbolic or ritualistic purposes to the paintings? What if the placement of the human figure at the centre of the composition implies the view of man at the time; as the centre of the world? Did early man view himself as more important than animals or the other way around? The large size of some of the animals could suggest a level of deification. Were some animals more important than others (different scales, frequency of appearance throughout caves) or did they just represent what they observed most often in their everyday lives?

There have been numerous interpretations of the possible functions of the cave paintings and the reasons why they were created. Some have suggested that it is merely art for art’s sake. However, it is unlikely that anyone, even a primitive society, would create something so extensive as the cave paintings without purpose. Were they depicting the world around them? Trying to make sense of it, understand how all the components that make up the world work. The paintings and sketches remind me of animators who study animals in movement to further their understanding of how the creature works. They could perhaps be a record of the things they have seen, a catalogue of the animals they had encountered. This would be the earliest form of documentation and implies a desire for order and structure within the early society. Perhaps the drawings were used as tools of communication. It is unclear if the people who created the cave paintings were capable of oral communication, so they may have been used as a visual tool to interact with each other. This could have been the only way to convey how one viewed the world. Think of it as Person A drew a picture of a horse and showed it to Person B. Person B recognised the animal as what he knew a horse to be and proceeded to draw an aurochs to which Person A responded and so on so forth and thus they were able to share their experiences of the world without speech or written language. A visual language that outdates any spoken one. In this manner, the paintings could also have been used as a visual tool when developing language. Just as you would teach a child what, for example, a donkey is by showing it a picture and saying the word “donkey”, early humans may have developed language by pointing to these images on the cave walls and making the corresponding sound. Once better communication was established, they may have used the images as a tool for teaching younger generations about the world, such as what is dangerous, what is prey.

The intentional aspect of the combinations of animals suggest mythical and religious themes, or at least some level of symbolism. If the paintings have a symbolic or ritualistic purpose, rather than being purely representational and observed from life, then this indicates a more sophisticated nature to the early human beings who produced them. They were able to use imagination and creativity to produce something with a deeper meaning or even purpose than a mere representation of the world around them. Theories relating to a ritual purpose include promoting a successful hunt or fecundity.

Research has found that the animal figures were drawn in a specific order, with the horses drawn first, the aurochs second and stags third. It has been proposed that this relates to the different biological cycles of the different animals, for example mating rituals, which could then be interpreted as a means of representing the different times of the year as the animals would correspond to spring, summer and autumn respectively.

What was the purpose of the cave paintings? Just what was it they were trying to communicate? I wonder if there were certain people within the community who painted on the caves or if it was an activity that anyone could do. Were there individuals – artists – whose role it was to add to the images in the caves? Perhaps it was more of a rite of passage in which, when a child reached a certain age, or accomplished, say, their first hunt, would they then be invited to add to the wall, as a symbol of becoming part of the community.

The caves may not have been used as a place of residence for the community as some of the cave sites lack evidence of long habitation. There is the possibility that these were sacred places, reserved for rituals. Not necessarily a religious place of worship, but a spiritual place; somewhere that the people could connect with the world, with the spirits of their ancestors and the animals they shared their world with. (I realise this sounds a bit like Avatar but that is unintentional, I’m not suggesting they actually could “connect” with spirits, but that they believed they could, and performed rituals symbolic of this connection). It could have been a place of inspiration and creativity; if you feel inspired, paint it on the wall. There is also the theory of shamanism, that there was an individual within the tribe that would act as a spiritual leader and could “converse” with the spirits of ancestors and animals. This individual may have performed rituals in which he fell into a trance-like state to receive visions, which were then reproduced as paintings on the cave walls. There very well may have been plants that could induce a hallucinatory state when consumed.

Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) provides an intimate look at the dark caves using 3D filming equipment. This is the first time Lascaux has been extensively filmed and is thus not only an important documentation, but a rare look into past.

An article from SEED Magazine  discusses the meanings behind the cave paintings and the theory of archaeoastronomer Michael A. Rappenglück who has translated the figures and symbols as representations of constellations. He and others have theorised that the hunters of the Magdalenian period may have adopted lunar and stellar calendars, timing their hunts and rituals with purpose relating to the time of year. If true, this presents a far more sophisticated and cultured image of early man than the stereotype of “the caveman”. If the figures were indeed taken from viewed constellations, then this perhaps explains the unusual appearance of the bear in the Hall of Bulls, as it could be related to the star grouping we know as Ursa Major, or “The Great Bear”. This prehistoric star map demonstrates not only our ancestors intent in creating the pairings, but their scientific knowledge and the ways in which they tried to understand the world.

“The caves could be a prehistoric planetarium in which humanity first charted the stars.” – Dr David Whitehouse BBC News, Ice Age star map discovered, August 2000

Cave paintings are fascinating works to study, for the artistic skill demonstrated, the symbolism behind the images and the endless possibilities for interpretation. That they give us insight into how our ancestors viewed the world and the cosmos is remarkable, especially given the age of the paintings. I have only briefly discussed a small part of one cave, yet in this alone there is much to discover and think about. The caves present a completely different picture of early man than the one we grow up with, of grunting savages bashing rocks together. Yet Rappenglück’s identification of the star map immediately places them on a level of sophistication that is unexpected. Cave paintings may have been the earliest example of visual communication, but it is difficult to call them primitive when faced with the level of consideration taken in producing the extensive work within Lascaux.


About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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One Response to Cave Paintings – Lascaux, France

  1. Pingback: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) | timneath

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