The Meaning and Mystery of Lascaux, 77 Years After Its Discovery

In a moment of wonder and elation 77 years ago today, four French teenagers discovered more than just their missing dog.

Lost in the woods outside the small medieval town of Montignac in Aquitaine, the pup had fallen into a small cavern in the ground. The dog was rescued and a few days later the boys returned to the cave. As the cavalier beret-ed tough-guy of the group Marcel Ravidat lowered himself in to explore a bit further, his eyes feasted on one of the most spectacular cultural artifacts remaining from deeply prehistoric times. Dozens of colorful images of animals careened along the walls and overhead. Over the next several days the teenagers explored further, and reported back to their teacher. The teacher contacted legendary local cave art specialist the abbe Henri Breuil, who made extensive documentation of the images, and soon visitors from near and far were flocking to see these ancient pictures.

Evidence of man-made holes in the walls indicates the ancient artists used scaffolding to reach some panels in Lascaux. (National Geographic illustration by Jack Unruh)

A Prehistoric Masterpiece

Lascaux was not the first decorated cave to be discovered in France, nor is it the largest, oldest, or most decorated. But still, it has a character all its own which has continued to draw attention for the past 77 years.

Almost all known decorated caves feature a combination of painting, drawing, and engraving. They contain images of animals, enigmatic designs and patterns, the rare portrayal of a human being, and often handprints of those who visited there just after the most recent ice age (certainly not “the last ice age,” as geologically speaking, we’re soon due for another). What Lascaux does offer uniquely in France is a colorfulness and apparent cohesion which implies the kind of coordinated vision and activity that many tend to associate only with “modern” human. Large aurochs, stags, and horses appear in similar styles and scale, superimposed over countless smaller images. Recent analysis has shown that the animals throughout the cave were painted in a consistent order: horses first, then aurochs, then stags. In “Lascaux: Movement, Space, and Time,” veteran cave explorer and innovative photographer Norbert Aujoulat points out that this is also the order in which those animals have their breeding seasons, in spring, summer, and fall respectively. We are currently unable to say however, whether the images were painted successively in a matter of hours, days, months, or years.

The “Big Bull” and a red cow appear amidst various signs whose meanings may never fully be deciphered, in this image from Lascaux II. (Photo Credit: APPI / SEMITOUR)

Life in Color

The fabulous colors of the paintings are taken directly from the Earth itself: yellow and red ochre are in the soil of much of the region, and deep black manganese dioxide is plentiful inside and outside the caves. It was prepared by mixing it with liquid and applied by brush, pad, or spraying from the mouth or through a thin tube. Masking the edges with an unknown implement (possibly just a hand) allowed even the sprayed pigment to have sharply defined edges when desired. Several in-between shades were achieved through mixing, and they are all used to make animals stand out or tie together in various ways throughout the cave.

The “Falling Cow” and “Frieze of Small Horses” beneath the outline of the head of an aurochs demonstrate the diversity of color and technique utilized in the cave, in this image from Lascaux II. (Photo Credit: APPI / SEMITOUR)

Space and Time

Perhaps the most interesting use in Lascaux of the spraying technique is not where it is given an edge though, but where the edge is allowed to fade out. While westerners often think that the illusion of depth in illustration was first developed in the Renaissance, a quick look at frescoes from Roman Pompeii destroys that notion. Images with a strong resemblance to the subject’s physical appearance have appeared at many times and in many places. Even in the world of rock art, engravings and paintings from Africa show that late-Pleistocene Europeans weren’t the only culture to develop this style. Still, it is fairly rare. More schematic representations are the norm throughout the world.

The perspective in Lascaux was not achieved through use of converging lines and focal points, but by variation in clarity and size. Almost all of the animals are shown in profile position. This means either their left or right limbs are then further from the viewer. Instead of drawing four limbs straight down as a modern child might, the Lascaux artists left a faded-out gap between the strong, clear line o the body and the shape of the more distant limbs. The most elaborate use of this comes with the two crossed bison where hind limbs all overlap, but in a fairly clear way, thanks to this gap technique. (See the “Crossed Bison” on the official Lascaux site.)

The “Crossed Bison” are shown on the award-winning official Lascaux site from the French Ministry of Culture. (Screenshot From Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication)

A third technique utilized to striking effect at Lascaux, though present in many of the caves in the area, is the illusion of motion.

In modern still images, we have several ways of indicating motion: blurred regions, repeated lines either following the shape of something or perpendicular to the direction of motion. For prehistoric image-makers, the technique seems to have been repetition. In some caves this comes in the form of “too many” limbs on a body, but at Lascaux it is best shown through repetition of entire figures.

When you first enter the cave, on the upper part of the left wall and on to the ceiling is a series of horses. There are many horses in Lascaux, and all have distinct coloring and proportions.

The famous “Chinese Horses” in the Axial Gallery illustrate the amount of individual variety shown among animals of the same species, as shown in an image from Lascaux II. (Photo Credit: APPI / SEMITOUR)

In contrast, all of these entry-hall horses have the same coloring and the same unusually small head. There are eight of them of varying levels of detail, completion, and preservation, but what is most striking is that the legs of each are in different positions in the gait of a running horse. (See the “Frieze of the Black Horses” on the official Lascaux site.)

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The sense of motion created by the varying positions of the animals in the “Frieze of the Black Horses” is shown in an image from Lascaux II. (Photo Credit: APPI / SEMITOUR)

In the complete darkness of a cave, an animal-fat candle moved along the wall would show each of these in succession, providing a highly evocative sense of the motion of one animal running along the wall and receding into the distance. Even if seen as a series of separate individuals, the alternation of visibility, size, and leg position still manages to describe a range of motion and not just a single snapshot.

A Town’s Pride

The color, physical realism, and sense of motion all combine to make seeing Lascaux an unforgettable experience. As such, the cave has become the pride, joy, and bread basket for Montignac.

Yellow flower decorations garland the streets of Montignac on anniversary day in 2010. (Photo: Andrew Howley)

However, years of unbounded visiting and botched attempts at air conditioning have led to the growth of a pervasive fungus which threatens to cover and perhaps destroy these exceptional images. Since 1983, all other visitors have viewed an elaborate underground replica of key parts of the cave, called Lascaux II. In 2016 a new replica opened its doors, reproducing for the first time the entirety of the cave and duplicating certain panels in a gallery setting. Combining the ancient and the contemporary, this International Center for Cave Art aims to usher in a highly engaging and forward-thinking chapter in the history of the cave.

A fairly unassuming sign in the woods on the top of a hill directs you towards the entry to the original replica cave. (Photo: Andrew Howley)

Some purists contend that not being the real thing, replicas are hardly worth the visit. What that perspective misses out on through is the simple aesthetic value of the art. What the replicas do is allow you to see the images in their actual relationship to each other and just as importantly, to the walls. Something that is almost never discernable in photographs is how much the ancient art makers used the surface of the rocks themselves to help define shape and volume. The undulations form bulges and hollows that give mass and direction to shoulders, hips, and bellies. (This is particularly present again in the “Crossed Bison.”) The replicas do evoke the feel of being in an actual cave, but their greatest value is their celebration of the art itself. They help us to realize that these are amazing images in a well-chosen space, whether painted 18,000 years ago, or last year.

One thing that cannot be replicated though is a particular human connection that the first few lucky generations of visitors had. Their guide was Jacques Marsal, a local man who lead tours of the original Lascaux and the first replica into the 1980s, and who, with his three friends and lost dog helped first reveal them to the modern world one cool September day 77 years ago.

[This post is adapted from an earlier post marking the discovery’s 70th anniversary.]

More Blog Posts in This Series

Mysteries of Prehistoric Rock Art Probed

Finding Pictures and Meaning in Rock Art

Walking Into the Stone Age

Cracking the Code in the Rocks

Rock Spirits at the Portals to Afterlife