Lascaux Cave Paintings Are Discovered Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Discovery of the cave paintings at Lascaux enabled archaeologists to elaborate on the historical evolution of prehistoric art techniques and to determine that such techniques originated further back in the chronological record of human cultures than had previously been believed.

Summary of Event

For several generations after its discovery in 1868, the cavern at Altamira in Spain, along with a few discoveries made in the Levantine (southeastern) regions of Spain and in southwestern France, represented the richest archaeological remains of paintings by prehistoric man in Europe. Then, quite by accident, a new, exceptionally rich find in the region of Dordogne in France occurred shortly after the outbreak of World War II. [kw]Lascaux Cave Paintings Are Discovered (Sept. 12, 1940) [kw]Cave Paintings Are Discovered, Lascaux (Sept. 12, 1940) [kw]Paintings Are Discovered, Lascaux Cave (Sept. 12, 1940) Art;prehistoric Cave art Archaeology;cave art Lascaux Cave [g]France;Sept. 12, 1940: Lascaux Cave Paintings Are Discovered[10310] [c]Archaeology;Sept. 12, 1940: Lascaux Cave Paintings Are Discovered[10310] [c]Arts;Sept. 12, 1940: Lascaux Cave Paintings Are Discovered[10310] [c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;Sept. 12, 1940: Lascaux Cave Paintings Are Discovered[10310] Breuil, Henri-Édouard-Prosper Ravidat, Marcel

On September 12, 1940, five boys—three local youths named Ravidat, Marsal, and Queroy, accompanied by two refugees, Coencas and Estréguil, who had fled the German occupied northwestern zone of France—were roaming through fields belonging to the ruins of a dwelling referred to locally as the Chateau Lascaux. The muffled yelping of their lost dog, who had fallen into a narrow opening at the base of an upturned tree, drew their attention to what appeared to be the mouth of a large cavern or grotto. Seventeen-year-old Marcel Ravidat entered the hole and slid down 7.6 meters (about 25 feet) to a sandy floor in a vaulted oval subterranean hall 18 meters by 9 meters (approximately 59 feet by 29.5 feet) in size. When he lit matches to illuminate his surroundings, he became the first person in fifteen thousand years to gaze upon the wondrous prehistoric polychromatic cave paintings of Lascaux.

Although they had no way of realizing it, what they had discovered resembled the famous Altamira paintings in northern Spain. The latter had been discovered seventy years before. The Lascaux cavern walls were covered with paintings of wild beasts: horses and stags, oxenlike creatures with strangely elongated bodies, and especially prominent and dominating, bulls with strange spotted patterns covering portions of their bodies. Scattered among the animals in this prehistoric scene were a series of symbols or emblems: checkers and marks resembling sprigs of grass or leaves. The first graphic impressions of what the cave contained were drawn by Estréguil.

The second, more technically perfected, set of sketches came a few days later, when the youths had informed the local schoolmaster of their discovery. Qualified archaeologists were brought to view the site. Abbé Amédée Bouyssonie Bouyssonie, Amédée was one of the archaeologists who was notified; he had discovered the famous Neanderthal man skeleton in 1908. Bouyssonie was aware that Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil of the College of France, a well-known archaeologist who had been involved in a number of excavations connected with Neanderthal remains and Mousterian-period prehistoric cultures, had come to Dordogne in June, 1940. Together with M. Peyrony, director of the famous local museum of prehistoric cultures at Les Eyzies, the two archaeologists undertook a more systematic exploration of the Lascaux cavern. For Breuil, the opportunity was particularly important because, as a specialist interested in establishing a general theory covering the chronological evolution of prehistoric art, he knew that Lascaux held a great potential for a new archaeological breakthrough.

The first survey revealed more than eighty pictures, both in the main hall and in a side gallery attached to it. Most of these were found on blocks of stone that had fallen from the cavern roof above. It would take some time before more complex theories concerning the age and content of the paintings would emerge. Almost immediately, however, Breuil wrote a preliminary report on the findings and submitted it to the prestigious English scientific journal Nature.

The sizes of the primitive paintings varied from small proportions (about 30 centimeters, or roughly 12 inches) to very large drawings (some 5 meters, or about 16 feet, long). It was evident immediately that a number of different techniques had been used to create artistic effects, and that many paintings had been retouched or restored. Breuil noticed something that would play an important role in attempts to re-create the cultural conditions of human existence in prehistoric times: the presence of a drawing of what Breuil called a “half-conventionalized man” lying beside what were obviously his hunting tools (a javelin and a throwing stick). This human figure, presumed to be fatally wounded, faces the prominently outlined figure of a bison. The latter, his entrails disemboweled by the hunter’s spear, appears to be gazing at its stalker.

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Those who first entered Lascaux Cave were astounded to find a number of other unique forms of artistic expression. Perhaps the most impressive was an outline of a child’s hand and forearm. Although such primitive techniques of representing the“artists” themselves were not uncommon in prehistoric cave sites, archaeologists were impressed particularly by this tiny reminder of the community of painters who executed the frescos at Lascaux, simply because it was the only such hand to be found among such a large number and variety of representations of animals.

Indeed, the number and variety of animals found depicted at Lascaux were not the only things that impressed those who found them; the uniqueness of (apparent) symbolism was equally striking. Some paintings contain simple symbols to tell a “practical” story. This is the case of what later came to be called the “falling horses,” which are depicted in chaotic disorder, often upside down, to represent primitive man’s common method of hunting such prey by driving them off the edges of precipices. Other scenes contain elements that were much too complex for the first observers of the paintings to comprehend beyond the mere state of wonder they engendered. This is the case with the so-called Apocalyptic Beast, which appears prominently in the main hall of the cavern. This animal figure may have represented an ox or a prehistoric rhinoceros. The body is massive and sagging, as if in a late state of pregnancy, and spotted with curious oval-shaped rings. Other features appear to be grossly distorted, such as the tiny head and neck on the otherwise massive beast. Most perplexing for the first observers, who could not even begin to interpret the meaning of what they had found, were the “horns” of the unidentifiable Apocalyptic Beast. These appear as straight, rigid sticks capped by peculiar “tufts” that bear no resemblance even to now-extinct animals known to have existed in this prehistoric period.

In addition to these visually impressive features of the Lascaux paintings, an announcement came from Breuil immediately after his first viewing of the site that would alter the theoretical bases for scientific observation of prehistoric cave paintings. Drawing on his previous experience nearby at Font de Gaume (Les Eyzies), where he had identified partial remains of paintings that had been painted over in the Magdalenian archaeological period (c. 15,000 b.c.e. to 10,000 b.c.e.), Breuil hypothesized that the Lascaux paintings were considerably older than the Magdalenian period. Although the archaeologists who found the Lascaux paintings retained full respect for the previously unequaled paintings at Altamira, Spain, which many called the “Sistine Chapel of Magdalenian art,” specialists looking at this new discovery in 1940 were nearly certain that they would be able to push the origins of prehistoric art back to a much earlier age, christened by Breuil with the name “Perigordian.”

Significance

Painting in the Great Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux Cave.

Although from the early nineteenth century archaeologists had studied a fairly wide range of artifacts left behind in Paleolithic human settlements in various areas of Western Europe, it was the discovery, in 1868, of the now famous Cantabrian site at Altamira that provided the first evidence that prehistoric Aurignacian and Magdalenian human cultures (dating from about 25,000 to 15,000, and 15,000 to 10,000 years ago, respectively) practiced painting on the interior walls of subterranean caverns. On the ceilings of the caverns at Altamira was an extraordinary panorama of polychrome paintings of animals, mainly gigantic bisons, together with pictographs that some thought represented huts and roofs, or, possibly symbolic figures. Some were made up of checkers, squares, and dots. There were also some engraved (not painted) “semihuman” forms. Later, specialists studying the Altamira site suggested that such pictographs held a key to ritual practices carried out by late Paleolithic human communities.

The main disappointments associated with the Altamira site, somewhat in contrast to several other important, if less spectacular, discoveries made a few years later in the Gironde and Dordogne departments of France (specifically at Pair-non-Pair and at La Mouthe, respectively), involved chronological dating. If archaeologists were in general agreement that the first forms of human art as archaeologists understand it appeared in the Aurignacian period (c. 25,000 b.c.e. to 15,000 b.c.e.), they seemed to be at a loss for making any finer distinctions concerning stages of artistic development leading to a “crossover” into the relatively sophisticated Magdalenian period (15,000 b.c.e. to 10,000 b.c.e.).

Both the Pair-non-Pair and La Mouthe sites, partially because of the more primitive techniques used to paint much less finished figures, but also because of archaeological artifacts found in them, were considered to be of Aurignacian origin. For some time, however, no one knew how to tie these earliest known paintings to the very considerable number of more “advanced” works associated with the Magdalenian period.

In 1900, Breuil began to build a chronological scheme at La Mouthe to evaluate cave art that would establish a major reputation for him. Breuil’s theory for dating cave art was based on comparative techniques more than on styles (which seemed to change very little over several millennia). Between his first publication on the subject in 1902 and 1934, when he published L’Evolution de l’art pariétal dans les cavernes et abris ornées de France (the evolution of rock art in the caves of France), Breuil worked out a scheme that would be retained in its major essentials in his capstone monograph Quatre cents siècles d’art pariétal (1952; Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, 1952), Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art (Breuil) published some twelve years after the Lascaux discoveries. This scheme held that the passage from the primitive technique of the earliest human artists (handprints and finger meanders, sometimes referred to as “macaroni style”) to the “classical” style of the “high” Magdalenian was marked by a “two-cycle” or “repeat-development” system. The crux of this view was that Aurignacian artists, the work of some of whom Breuil was able to identify at Lascaux, had already mastered a series of technical methods of painting that would be “remastered” and altered during the period of passage from Aurignacian to Magdalenian times.

The complete first cycle, which Breuil claimed could be detected in different Aurignacian sites, included use of the following techniques: introduction of color pigments, first yellow, then red; use of fine lines of color, then bolder lines, with flat shading, usually in red; and finally, black linear drawings. These characteristic methods could be expected in cave paintings predating 15,000 b.c.e. For later, classical Magdalenian-period painting, Breuil posited the following cycle of techniques: use of simple black line drawings, some hatched and then stumped; plain, flat brown paintings followed by polychromes, partially and then entirely outlined in black; and finally, red linear drawings.

Although professional archaeologists continued to debate the “final” accuracy of Breuil’s method of dating primitive cave art according to evolutionary stages in techniques employed, the fact that many Lascaux paintings were composed of superimposed “layers” (reflecting the application of later techniques to existing “base” paintings) lent considerable weight to Breuil’s thesis that they were much older than Altamira’s classical Magdalenian compositions. His “proof” of this thesis was important not only for establishing the relative ages of different examples of primitive cave art but also for “unscrambling” the symbols mixed together in complex scenes in prehistoric cultural landmarks, particularly at Lascaux. Art;prehistoric Cave art Archaeology;cave art Lascaux Cave

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breuil, Henri. Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art. Translated by Mary E. Boyle. 1952. Reprint. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1979. General work includes discussion of the place of the Lascaux paintings in the overall framework of prehistoric art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “A Remarkable Painted Cave on the Estate of Lescaux (Montignac, Dordogne).” Nature 147 (1941): 12-13. The earliest written description of the Lascaux paintings prepared by a well-known professor at the College of France who was among the first people to enter the caverns in 1940.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conkey, Margaret W. “On the Origins of Paleolithic Art: A Review and Some Critical Thoughts.” In The Mousterian Legacy: Human Biocultural Change in the Upper Pleistocene, edited by Erik Trinkhaus. Oxford, England: British Archaeological Reports, 1983. Scholarly work focuses on prehistoric artistic products recovered by archaeologists in the southwestern regions of Europe. Reviews theories that have been put forth by a number of prominent commentators and compares early interpretations with more recent approaches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Gregory. The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Focuses on what archaeologists have been able to understand about the lives of the creators of prehistoric cave art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fagan, Brian. From Black Land to Fifth Sun: The Science of Sacred Sites. New York: Perseus Books, 1998. Approaches the scientific examination of various ancient sites and artifacts, including prehistoric cave art, from the perspective of their possible sacred or spiritual meanings. Discusses how archaeologists’ interpretations of such sites and artifacts have changed over time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laming-Emperaire, Annette. Lascaux: Paintings and Engravings. Translated by Eleanore Frances Armstrong. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1959. Comprehensive work by a well-known French archaeologist draws on the wide variety of literature on the Dordogne cave paintings that accumulated over the first two decades after their discovery. Discusses methods used to date the paintings and especially to interpret the possible meanings behind the prehistoric artists’ work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sieveking, Ann. The Cave Artists. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979. Beautifully illustrated volume covers cave art in the southwestern region of Europe, concentrating on the area spanning southwestern France and northeastern Spain. Objectively reviews Breuil’s theory on the prehistoric cultural stages reflected in cave paintings, pointing out both its strengths and apparent weaknesses.

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