Lascaux Caves

Mankind’s oldest artwork and dullest lecture.

Full disclosure: I find the Lascaux Caves a bit drab. In every art history class, the first lecture includes images of the bulls and stick figures on dimly lit rock. Can we skip to the Degas’ ballerinas in tutus please? Its perfectly acceptable for one to find the Lascaux caves lacking in aesthetic appeal. It is not, however, acceptable, to consider them boring.

For starters, the story about the discovery of the caves provides some lively context. A bunch of teenage boys in France, right smack in the middle of World War II, were wandering about the countryside. They meandered into a cave where lo and behold, images of bulls, deer and stick figures with spears danced across the walls. Think about how creepy this would be if it happened to you.

Visually, the caves are fairly rudimentary, it’s all five line humans and abstracted bulls. The colors, given the limited variety of pigments available in 17,000 BC, are understandably staid. Lots of brown and red. One of the much vaulted artistic techniques involved handprints, which I once heard a professor describes as a high-five with our forefathers. Another, was the practice of cupping hands together and then blowing pigment across the wall, which I once heard a professor describe as spray paint for the neolithic age. These attempts to liven up lectures reveal to me that even some professors find the material a bit dull.

The coolest thing about the caves is that they exist at all. Between foraging for berries, hunting for dinner, avoiding things hunting humans for dinner, neolithic man somehow made time for art. Lackluster as some might find that art might be.

Theories abound as to why exactly our ancestors carved out valuable time to decorate the inside of hollowed out rock. Some say the caves were the location of a mystical hunting ritual. Don’t even get me started on the birdman image. Too many people have analyzed the birdman and its possible ritual symbolism. Others say it’s more likely a celebration to epic hunting exploits of days gone by. If this is the case, the famous cave section called The Hall of the Bulls provides evidence of mankind’s longstanding urge to broadcast its exploits on walls. From 17,000 BCE hunts to last weekend’s brunch pics on Facebook, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Regardless of the particulars, the caves illustrate that art has roots in humans’ most basic wiring. Paleolithic man took time out of his busy schedule of survival to make something beautiful, to put a mark on the world. Faced with the constant threat of starving, being eaten, or succumbing to disease, our ancestors said “Hold up — I have this really rad idea for a bull painting.” A radical concept that marks a significant step in man’s progress through the ages.

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