Lascaux Cave Paintings

by jptanabe

Prehistoric cave paintings are an incredible gift from our distant ancestors. The Lascaux Cave was discovered by chance and has some beautiful artworks.

The Lascaux caves are located in France, near the village of Montignac in the Vezere Valley. They became famous when numerous Paleolithic cave paintings were discovered adorning their walls. These works of art, realistic portrayals of a variety of large animals, are estimated to be as much as 20,000 years old. The site, together with a number of other caves, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known as Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vezere Valley.

The paintings had been preserved for all this time, protected from the outside by the natural sealing of the caves. Once discovered in 1940, though, they began to deteriorate as a result of the moisture, carbon dioxide, and other environmental changes resulting from air circulation and numerous visitors to the caves. So, a replica has been constructed for visitors, and only qualified researchers are given limited access to the actual site.

Seems like a good plan, since it allows the public the chance to view replicas with lots of historically accurate context, not just pictures on the wall of a museum or some "artist's impression" of what the original site looked like. And hopefully they will succeed in preserving the originals, which offer a tangible link to the very early history of humankind.

A painting of the Giant Deer from Lascaux.
A painting of the Giant Deer from Lascaux.

So What are these Paintings All About?

The caves at Lascaux and their amazing artworks were discovered in 1940 by some teenagers. To their surprise, the cave paintings they discovered there are prehistoric! Since that time scientists have been amazed by what is contained there - a most astonishing view of the shadowy, powerful animal world of the Old Stone Age. The paintings cover the walls of several caverns, known today by such names as the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Chamber of Felines, the Shaft of the Dead Man, and the Painted Gallery.

On the walls are found depictions of bison, aurochs (an extinct type of wild ox), horses, deer, and felines, all animals known to have existed in Paleolithic times, as well as one single man. The one image of a man is of a dead man together with a bison and what appears to be a rhinoceros. It seems that the man has lost a fight with the bison, and is lying on the ground with a broken spear beside him.

Great Book on the Caves

Norbert Aujoulat's book on the Lascaux cave paintings is the next best thing to going there yourself, which you can't do except to the replica. Aujoulat is one of the few scientists who has actually been allowed into the caves in recent times, and so this incredible book is a wonderful and complete account of the artworks to be found there. As well as Aujoulat's insights into the nature of the beasts depicted and how these artists of long ago achieved their work, the reader is rewarded with 262 color illustrations of the most important images from the caves.

The Paintings

The cave paintings at Lascaux are the product of prehistoric human beings who were able to capture the essence of the animals that inhabited their world. They have obvious artistic merit, with the use of color, the contours of the cave walls included in the scenes to add three dimensional realism, and the remarkable compositions that portray vividly the experience of these large animals in motion. Beyond that, though, they are the relics of a culture long gone, one that we never imagined we could know intimately. Such amazing artworks bring these beings, barely human, into our own life experience in a way that evokes a deep emotional and spiritual response, at least in me!

20,000 Year Old Lascaux Cave Painting Done by Cro-Magnon Man in the Dordogne Region, France by Ralph Morse
20,000 Year Old Lascaux Cave Painting Done by Cro-Magnon Man in the Dordogne Region, France by Ralph Morse

While some of the animals appear at first glance distorted, it has been recognized that horses in their winter coats take on the short-legged proportions of those found here.

Many of the images show an understanding of perspective. In one painting a bison overlaps another, and the three dimensional effect is heightened by the location of the painting in a place where the wall curves outward on either side. There is also a "unicorn," actually a bull drawn in profile so that the two horns appear almost as one, like the horn of the mythical unicorn.

Interpretation of the pictures has varied, especially since there are so many paintings. Some appear no more than the fun of adolescent boys putting their handprints on the wall, perhaps in an effort to make themselves part of the hunt for the animals depicted there. Many have suggested a religious purpose, possibly a form of shamanism (especially since the dead man has a bird-like head and has a stick with a bird head on it beside him), or some kind of animism in which the spirits of the animals killed in the hunt were given a resting place through the drawings. Or, our ancestors may have drawn pictures of animals hoping for a successful hunt.

Whatever their purpose though, the magnificence of the artwork is undeniable and a wonderful display of human creativity from such primitive times.

Fascinating group of animals

Ancient Artwork on the Walls of the Cave at Lascaux
Ancient Artwork on the Walls of the Cave at Lascaux

A Bison

Bison in the Salon Noir of Niaux Cave
Bison in the Salon Noir of Niaux Cave

See the size of these paintings!

B. & G. Delluc in Lascaux cave
B. & G. Delluc in Lascaux cave

Virtual Tour of Lascaux Caves

Another great book!

Mario Ruspoli was hired by the French Ministry of Culture to photograph and film the Lascaux cave paintings and engravings as a historical record of the site. But this book is more than just a visual anthology, it is a journey into the lives of those primitive human beings who created these magnificent works of art.

More about these Paintings

Updated: 04/03/2023, jptanabe
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frankbeswick on 08/02/2018

Yes. You can tell the difference between a woman's handprint and a man's because of the size of the finger next to the little one, though this is not an absolute rule. In men this finger is longer than the index finger, but in women they are the same size.

jptanabe on 08/01/2018

Thanks for the comment. I like that idea connecting Pointillism with dotted cave art. I haven't read that article, but that is interesting. So many women as cave artists?

DerdriuMarriner on 08/01/2018

jptanabe, Thank you for the backstories to the content in your lovely product line. The dotted animals always convinces me that pointillism is retro cave art ;-D.
Have you read the article, back in October 2013, by Dean Snow, "Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art," in American Antiquity (published by Cambridge University) 78(4): 746-761? He suggests that hand-prints may be the left-handed signatures (spray-painted by the right) of 18 women, 5 adolescent male and 3 adult male artists in 32 instances from caves in France and the Iberian Peninsula.

jptanabe on 01/19/2018

Good point, there are a lot of handprints. Since they probably couldn't write their name, that would be better than just marking an X!

frankbeswick on 01/19/2018

Many left their handprints, which might be their signature.

jptanabe on 01/19/2018

Oh, artist signatures, what a cool idea! It would be lovely to get to know the artists better.

cmoneyspinner on 01/19/2018

So pleased with your writing about this art. I have always been fascinated by it. Truly wish the artists would have signed their names. LOL.

jptanabe on 01/19/2018

Yes, 3-D effects using the natural structure of the rock - wonderful!

jptanabe on 01/19/2018

Glad to be of service. I'm sure the children will be fascinated, adults too!

frankbeswick on 01/19/2018

In my retirement I have tried to improve my drawing,my weakest subject, and have been inspired by the cave paintings, but I still cannot come anywhere near their standard! The visuo-spatial intelligence that they indicate is great.

The book, The Mind in the Cave, reveals that the artists interacted with the rock surface,using cracks and bumps in the rock as part of the work. Sometimes the paintings seem to leap out at the viewer, great art indeed!

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