Prehistoric cave paintings

It does something to you…. to stand in front of multi-colored paintings of  bison, horses, and reindeer,  revealed by a flashlight 70 meters into a chilly cave…and to notice real artistry …shading …movement …emotion …and to realize they were painted by another human being who lived around 20,000 years ago.

When you arrive at the small town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the  southwestern France, there are several signs that shout out  that you are now in an area with a high concentration of prehistoric sites…one is the Cro-Magnon Hotel….another is the rond point (traffic circle) on the east side of town with signs that indicate if you go take a right there are about 10 major prehistoric sites, and further around the circle will take you to about 12 more. It is a special place, to say the least. I doubt that any place in the world has such high concentration of prehistory.

In just two days we had the fortune to visit several grottes (caves), two of which are quite difficult to see with out advanced reservations.

If you don’t mind, I’ll let you in on some of what I learned and experienced.

  1. No one ever lived in these caves, so they were not simply over-the-fireplace drawings. Archeologist never find remains of campfires, bones from eaten animals, etc
  2. They do think there could have been religious significance to these cave, perhaps like their places of worship. And/or they could have served as rites of passage for young boys.
  3. The paintings were very intentional. They often used the shape of the rock as the basis for the design…a ridge of a rock became the back of a bull, for example. Other signs of intentionality are large areas where someone clearly thought through what they wanted to appear…two bison coming from left and two opposing from the right.
  4. Although there were several Neanderthal skeletons found in the same region, the people who made these paintings were Cro-Magnon – early Homo Sapiens. BTW, I also learned the term Cro-Magnon is not actually French, but from Occitane, a language spoken in that region of France before the crusade against the Cathares wiped the language and its culture off the face of the map, but that deserves a separate post or two.

However, the most intriguing thing I learned, came from our guide through Lascaux 2…He tried to put in perspective for us the time period in which these cave paintings were created….saying that if the first man ever was born on January 1st and we are presently in December 31st….these paintings were done around December 25th….and Neanderthal man, who we think is really old, came around December 1st. I don’t know about you but that really messes with my sense of what “old” means. A few day after visiting the caves, I went to the Cluny Museum of Medieval Art…I really couldn’t “get into” it…it just wasn’t interesting to see art from only 500 years ago.

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