Lascaux Cave: Discovery, Facts & Paintings

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Let's explore Lascaux Cave, one of the gems of prehistoric art. Learn about the history of the cave, and its re-discovery in 1940 after 17,000 years of silence. We will also learn about the culture and practices of Paleolithic artists.

The Depths of Discovery

It's easy to believe that the whole world has been mapped and there's nothing new to be discovered on earth. However, this assumption has been proven wrong many times. Just when you think you know everything there is to know, some new discovery pops up and changes the way you look at everything. It's true in the case of the deep ocean and the expanding universe. It may also be true about life on other planets. It's definitely true for history. Historians and archaeologists continue to discover new facts about human origins and life. After all, isn't it a matter of perspective?

Lascaux cave has significance for art, history, and anthropology as well. On the walls of this cave are painted murals in a remarkable state of preservation. Lascaux is a region in southwestern France, and the cave is located near the town of Montignac. Granted, there are many prehistoric caves and cave paintings in Western Europe, particularly in France and Spain, but Lascaux Cave is unique for its variety of 600 color paintings and 1500 engravings. There are a combination of paintings of animals, outlines of hands, and engravings of geometric symbols.

History of the Cave

Lascaux Cave was discovered in September 1940 by four teenage boys who were walking in the woods. Accounts vary, but what is certain is that 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat was the first to enter the cave, the first human in 17,000 years. When the boys returned with lanterns, what they found was more than an important geographical discovery.

Abbe Breuil in Lascaux Cave
Lascaux Cave

The boys kept it a secret for a week before telling their schoolmaster. The teacher then contacted Abbe Henri Breuil, a local archaeologist with experience in prehistoric art and cave painting, to document the site. The cave was opened to the public in 1948. But then, due to years of visitors breathing the air and altering the environment inside, officials worried about the degradation of the cave. It was closed to the public in 1963. Today, you can still visit the cave and see reproductions of the paintings in Lascaux II, a replica that was built just down the road from the caves. Despite efforts to preserve the cave, its condition continued to deteriorate due to the intrusion of fungus and mold. The problem is ongoing, and the site remains closed to researchers, scientists, and the public.

Ancient Art

Reproduction of Lascaux paintings in Lascaux II

The paintings and engravings in Lascaux Cave date back to the Paleolithic Age, or early Stone Age. Human culture advanced significantly during the Paleolithic Age. We transformed from Neanderthal into Homo Sapien and hunting and gathering societies formed. We learned to control and manipulate fire and forge of tools. The period ended around 10,000 years ago.

Paleontologists and archeologists say that our ancestors would have used the caves for ceremonial purposes only; they did not live in caves. We're not talking about cavemen, here. These ancient artists would have had to bring in artificial light sources, such as torches or oil lanterns, in order to see what they were painting.

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