Early Europeans Create Lascaux Cave Paintings Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Upper Paleolithic peoples, the first anatomically modern people in Europe, created paintings in the Lascaux cave, providing evidence of Magdalenian culture and demonstrating their behavioral sophistication.

Summary of Event

The first cultural remains of anatomically and behaviorally modern people in Europe are described by archaeologists as the Upper Paleolithic and are dated to the later part of the last glaciation of the very Late Pleistocene (40,000-35,000 to 12,000-10,000 years ago). These Upper Paleolithic peoples created cave paintings, which were unknown in Europe before the appearance of anatomically modern peoples. Some of the most dramatic examples of these paintings are in Lascaux cave, discovered on September 12, 1940, by four teenage Montignac boys: Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Simon Coencas, and Georges Agnel. At least six hundred paintings and nearly fifteen hundred engravings are in this cave system. Charcoal discovered on the floor of the cave was dated to c. 15,000 b.c.e. indicating that the paintings are at least that old.

It was Ravidat’s idea to explore the cave. An elderly woman had buried a dead mule there and claimed that the hole extended to a medieval passage underground. She believed that it ended at a chateau at the base of a hill near Lascaux. The boys decided to test her assertion and had brought a lamp to light their way. They noticed the paintings and were quite excited. Soon many knew of their find, and their schoolteacher notified the priest, Abbé Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil, who arrived on September 21, 1940, and was the first to describe and analyze the paintings.

The first Upper Paleolithic cave paintings were discovered by a landowner, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, in Altamira Cave in northern Spain in 1879, but many doubted their authenticity. Further examples were discovered in southwestern France by the early 1900’s, and this additional evidence reassured most doubters. The controversy resurfaced in 1952, when French literary Surrealist André Breton visited Pech-Merle and touched one of the apparently wet paintings. He was convinced it was a forgery. Breuil pointed out that the dampness of the caves prevented the paint from drying and that in many cases the pigments were overlain by whitish calcite deposits, supporting their antiquity.

The Upper Paleolithic peoples were culturally very different from the peoples they followed. The tools and artifacts left by the preceding Neanderthals were remarkably uniform and differed only in the relative proportions of the same artifact types. Tools changed very slowly over thousands of years. That pace was altered dramatically with the appearance of Upper Paleolithic peoples, who from 34,000 to 11,000 years ago left a series of tool industries known to archaeologists from older to younger as the Aurignacian, Gravettian (Perigordian), Solutrean, and Magdalenian. Each industry was distinguished by specific artifact types either rare or absent in other traditions. The Magdalenian culture, with which Lascaux cave is identified, is dated between 16,500 and 11,000 years ago and is found in France, northern Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and southern Britain. Its most characteristic implements are composed of bone and antler, which were fashioned into points, harpoons, and other tools.

Upper Paleolithic peoples lived by hunting and gathering wild animal and plant resources. Game was abundant at this time, including woolly mammoth, reindeer, bison, horse, and saiga antelope. They were apparently more successful than the Neanderthals, because Upper Paleolithic sites are more numerous and populated more densely. Bird and fish bones in particular are more common than for older sites. There was also more contact and exchange among groups because archaeologists have found amber, finer flint, and seashells sometimes hundreds of miles from their source.

The social organization of these groups probably varied tremendously, with small family groups in the harsher environments and most likely complex, stratified societies, perhaps hereditary chiefdoms, in the richer environments. One of these resource-rich areas was the Franco-Cantabrian region (southwestern France and northern Spain), inhabited 15,000-11,000 years ago by Magdalenian peoples. More than 150 caves with late Pleistocene paintings and engravings have been located in this area. Most of them cannot be dated precisely, but representations of extinct animals such as mammoth and bison suggest Pleistocene age, and most are stylistically the same as the carved bone and antler animal figurines dated to the Magdalenian period.

Upper Paleolithic imagery has been subdivided into two kinds: wall (or parietal) art, including paintings and the more numerous engravings on rock surfaces, and portable or home art (art mobilier), which consists of movable artifacts such as engraved bone or antler. The term Paleolithic art has been used to describe materials that span 25,000 years in time and are found from the Iberian Peninsula to Russia. The famous, mostly stylized, Venus figurines with exaggerated buttocks and breasts are dated to the Gravettian period. Preserved images, numerous during the Upper Paleolithic, are new to the archaeological record, but what they mean in terms of human existence is in dispute.


Over the years, experts have tried to determine the significance of the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings to their creators in order to understand what this art means in terms of human and cultural development. Archaeologist Margaret W. Conkey notes that the cave paintings have been interpreted in two main ways, as sympathetic hunting magic or as a sort of language or type of communication about the creators’ worldview. According to the former interpretation, originally promoted by Breuil and called the foundation interpretation by Conkey, the Upper Paleolithic peoples created the animals and signs in order to guarantee future hunting success. By the 1960’s, André Leroi-Gourhan and other archaeologists were criticizing this interpretation and providing alternative explanations. One difficulty with the hunting hypothesis was that the animals represented in the art were not necessarily the most common animals in these early peoples’ refuse.

Leroi-Gourhan’s work is described as the mythogram interpretation, because the images and their creation were seen as attempts to represent mythological structures and symbolic systems. Certain species of animals, particularly horse and bison, were more common than others and were thus assumed to have symbolic meaning. Conkey argues that this shift to describing the imagery as a sophisticated communication system is a profound statement about how Upper Paleolithic peoples were essentially mentally the same as contemporary peoples. In addition, this change to the production of wall and portable art has been observed all over the world. Thus, Conkey suggests that investigators should avoid the cultural preconceptions associated with the term “art” and try to understand the works in terms of local cultural adaptations. Unlike Western art, images are often superimposed and are usually not set off from each other or provided with a clear orienting context. Many images probably represent different times and peoples. For example, Lascaux cave exhibits a heterogeneity in style.

The discovery of other cave paintings, notably those discovered by Jean-Marie Chauvet and two friends in 1994 near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in southeast France, has added to the debate about what these paintings meant to their creators. The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave contains more than 400 paintings, including renderings of rhinoceros, lions, mammoths, horses, bison, bears, reindeer, aurochs, ibex, and stags. The inclusion of both predators and prey would seem to negate Breuil’s early theory. The complexity of these paintings, believed to be about 31,000 years old and created by the Aurignacians, calls into question some of Leroi-Gourhan’s theories, including his idea of a slow yet steady maturing of artistic talents during the Upper Paleolithic period that led to the Lascaux paintings created by the Magdalenians. Some experts believe that the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave may have had a religious function.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bahn, Paul G., and Jean Vertut. Journey Through the Ice Age. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997. In this revision of Bahn and Vertut’s Images of the Ice Age (1988), the authors describe where and when these images were found around the world and their many interpretations. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bataille, Georges. Lascaux: Or, The Birth of Art. The Great Centuries of Painting series. Translated by Austryn Wainhouse. Lausanne: Skira, 1955. The interpretation of the cave paintings is dated, but the paintings are vividly presented. Color plates, maps, and plans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conkey, Margaret W., et al., eds. Beyond Art: Pleistocene Image and Symbol. Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences, no. 23. San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences and University of California Press, 1997. A collection of papers presented at the second Wattis Symposium in March, 1995, on Pleistocene images and symbols. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conkey, Margaret W. “Humans as Materialists and Symbolists: Image Making in the Upper Paleolithic.” In The Origin and Evolution of Humans and Humanness. Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 1993. Conkey presents a critique of the interpretations and advances in the studies of Upper Paleolithic imagery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lauber, Patricia. Painters of the Caves. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1998. Focuses primarily on the 1994 discovery of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave but also examines the significance of cave art to prehistoric and modern peoples. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leroi-Gourhan, André. The Dawn of European Art. Translated by Sara Champion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Leroi-Gourhan’s interpretive framework is explained clearly, and there is much description including a map and pictures of Lascaux Cave.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruspoli, Mario. The Cave of Lascaux: A Final Photographic Record. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987. A photographic record of the paintings in the Lascaux cave. Illustrations, some in color, and maps.

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