Secrets of the Cave Painters



Prehistoric cave paintings provide a window into a vanished world when mammoths and primitive bisons roamed the earth. The various discoveries of these ancient arts have stunned the world. The first significant discovery were the Lascaux cave paintings, significant because these were reported to be around 17,000 years old. For a long time, these caves were thought to be the oldest known cave paintings, till the Cosquer cave paintings were discovered. These were found to be more than 28,000 years old! However, even the Cosquer caves fade in comparison to the paintings found in the Chauvet cave – a sensational discovery in 1994 that forced archaeologists and prehistorians all over the globe to rethink the artistic genius of the Stone Age Man.



Chauvet cave


What started as a simple exploration changed the way the world looked at the ancient cave man. It all began when three cave explorers – Jean-Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire and Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, made their way through a narrow path within a cave and entered into a huge gallery. What they saw before them on the cave wall shocked them. One wall had 3 lines drawn in ochre along with a small mammoth in red and as they made their way to the end of this cavern, they found themselves surrounded by numerous paintings of animals. Bisons, mammoths, wild horses, bears, rhinoceros, deers and wild cats, all of which seemed to run across the cave walls. Nothing close to this kind of vivid display and artistic finery was ever detected in any of the previously discovered cave paintings.


Paintings from Chauvet caves (by HTO)


This stunning discovery was made in 1994 in South-East France (Valley of Ardeche – a tributary of the Rhone River). The Chauvet cave named after Jean-Marie Chauvet contains works of art that opened up new perspectives for studying the origins of art. It led to new discussions to old but important questions like who were the first ancient cave painters? When and where did they start painting?



Lascaux II – An exact copy


Discovered in 1940, the Lascaux caves located in Dordogne region of central France, were the most important prehistoric site at one time. The paintings found here were more than 17,000 years old which was the oldest known paintings made by man in those times. The news of discovery of such a cave spread like wildfire throughout the world. People from across the globe started coming to see this prehistoric marvel. The cave was frequented so much that the historians and archaeologists began to worry about its destruction due to careless touching, increased humidity and possible vandalism. A decision was made to close off the caves to the public, but the researchers commissioned an exact copy of these caves to be made for the public.


Aurochs, bulls and deers on the cave walls of Lascaux (by Prof saxx)


Opened in 1983, the Lascaux II attracted a massive amount of visitors (more than 2000 daily visitors). The reason why these paintings gathered such huge attention is because of the 3-D quality of the paintings. The artists had creatively and intelligently used the crevices and the rugged surfaces of the cave walls. The very first glimpse of these cave paintings get stamped on your mind. The spine of a horse melts into a crevice, the neck of a bull follows the outline of the rocky ledge, the curves on the animal’s bodies follow the contours of the rock face. Each animal on the wall seems to come out of the rock face and emote a life-like quality. When viewed by the candlelight, the flickering light seems to fill the cave with the animal’s presence.



The reconstruction process


Reproduction of some works at Lascaux II (by Jack Versloot)


In order to reconstruct the ancient paintings, it was necessary to understand the ways of the original artists. How did they paint? Where did the colours come from? What tools did they use? For authentic replication, it was imperative that the archaeologists and the modern artists work side by side. Materials like sienna earth, carbon, haematite, manganese, iron oxide and clay were scoured by the artists and grounded in the same way the prehistoric artist must have done to produce his pigments. With lots of experimentation, the style of the cave artists were imitated as closely as possible. For this, the modern artists had to work with their fingers, pieces of fur and brushes to apply the colours. Sometimes even blowpipes made from bird bones and reeds were also used. Also, just like the artists of those time, the modern artists worked in flickering firelights.



Cosquer Caves


Outline of a hand that dates back to 28,000 years. Experts think these might have been the signatures of the artists (by SiefkinDR)


More than 50 years passed before another stunning discovery related to ancient cave paintings took place. This time it was by a professional diver by the name of Henri Cosquer, who found the cave about 35 m below sea level, located somewhere between Cassis and Marseille in Southern France. By this time, the oldest known artwork depicting humans and animals was more than 33,000 years old. But, those paintings didn’t come even close to the artistic superiority of the paintings found in the Cosquer caves. Like Lascaux, the paintings at Cosquer also contained similar images of hunting scenes during ice ages and animals – horses, penguins, jellyfishes and ghostly outlines of hands made with red ochre. And like Lascaux, these paintings were artistic masterpieces as well.



The Birth of Art


In 1995, the exact dating of the Chauvet caves by radiocarbon dating shook the theories put forward by experts regarding the beginnings of art. On the basis of these paintings, it was pretty much evident that the prehistoric artists began to scale the heights of artistic excellence around 33.000 years ago – much, much earlier than was assumed earlier. The whole idea that it took man a millenium to gradually produce exceptional works of art is now obsolete. Experts and scientists had to acknowledge and applaud the fine execution of the paintings found in the Chauvet caves. The very natural and accurate representation of the animals, intentionally smudging the contours to create shadow effects, usage of perspective – these painting were a far cry from rudimentary stick figure drawings that the cave men were thought to be capable of. Not only the paintings were created keeping in mind the right proportions and sizes, they also were able to convey an impression of movement, which is a testament to the exceptional skills of these ancient artists.


Lion profiles in Chauvet caves. On the basis of these paintings, it was pretty much evident that the prehistoric artists began to scale the heights of artistic excellence around 33.000 years ago (by HTO)


Some experts also compare these works with the works of the well known Dutch artist – Vincent Van Gogh. The difference being, these paintings were some of the oldest known works of art and must have been painted for very different reasons. Interestingly, research shows that some paintings were completed during the later Stone Age period, after a gap of serveral 1000 years!



Unanswered Questions


Unfortunately much about these prehistoric artists is still unknown. Questions like why did they paint what they painted? Was it just a natural expression of art or were they created for magic or ritualistic purposes? Perhaps the answer lies buried somewhere in some of these ancient museums waiting to be found.




By Debangana Sen


Debangana’s love for travel goes beyond her usual poring over the wallpapers of Ireland. When not doing that, she’s busy planning her next trip.