Seated in the village of Mostignac, Dordogne in southwestern France is Lascaux. It is the setting of 600 cave paintings that cover both the interior and ceilings of Lascaux’ series of caves. The painting portrayed flora and fauna in the locale that researchers and scientists have found to correspond to fossils found during the Paleolithic period. The hundreds of cave artwork found in Lascaux is said to have been a product of many generations of ancient, prehistorical man and is debated to be around 17,000 years old. The cave was included in UNESCO’s world heritage sites in 1979 as part of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.
The Finding of the Cave
The caves of Lascaux were found by accident on September 12, 1940, by 18-year old Marcel Ravidat. While he was out walking in the area, his dog suddenly disappeared but returned emerging from a hole after calling out to him several times. Hoping to discover the lost treasure of sorts, Marcel came back with some of his friends to find out what was inside. Marcel and his friends did find a treasure in the discovery of the prehistorical paintings of Lascaux. After its finding, the caves were examined first by archaeological expert Abbé Henri Breuil on September 21, 1940. Witnessing the astounding collection of priceless prehistorical artwork, Breuil dubbed the caves as the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory.”
Historical and Scientific Significance
Lascaux is an addition to numerous other significant cave findings in the Vezere Valley which were also found decorated with prehistoric artwork. Because of the extent of the areas and painting collection of Lascaux caves, it was given immediate historic monument protection by December 1940. Some of the areas of the caverns that portrayed continuity or relationship in the wall and ceiling artworks were given their own names. Examples are the Hall of the Bulls and the Chamber of Felines. Other areas were names for researchers to quickly identify them: the Shaft of the Dead Man, the Lateral Passage, the Nave, and the Apse.The subjects of the cave paintings in Lascaux has given scientists an insight into the flora and fauna that existed in that region of France during the Paleolithic period. Horses and stags predominate in the artwork along with humans, cattle, birds, cats, bison, rhinoceros, and bears. However, the crowning jewel of the Lascaux caves is the drawing of aurochs or four, huge black bulls that star in the Hall of the Bulls – the largest of which is 5.2 meters long.
Scientists who have studied the paintings theorize that the ancient people who made them may have believed in the ceremonial power of the drawings in improving their hunting prowess. Others have said that like other cave paintings, they demonstrate the creativity and ingenuity of ancient man to imagine and create stories.
The Lascaux caves were officially opened to the public on July 14, 1948. This was followed by a series of investigations and archaeological study by experts. Unfortunately, heat, humidity and carbon dioxide due to exposure to thousands of tourists led to the paintings’ deterioration. Lichen and fungi visibly damaged the paintings. Scientists have clamored for the paintings’ protection and preservation. The authorities closed the caves in 1963 for restoration and installed daily monitoring system for the Lascaux caves.