Mysterious Lands The Lascaux Cave Paintings in France

About the mysterious land The Lascaux Cave Paintings in France home of some prehistoric cave paintings.

The Place: THE LASCAUX CAVE PAINTINGS

Location: Montignac, the Dordogne, France

The Enigma: Called the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory, the caves at Lascaux contain paintings which were made 15,000-20,000 years ago. The ancient people who made them were far more sophisticated than one might suppose. Unlike civilizations which came later, they had a feeling for perspective (which was not rediscovered until almost the 15th century) and used shadows and highlights expertly. Their painting materials were yellow ocher and lipstick-shaped sticks of manganese and ferric oxide. To make these, they had to extract materials from the ground, purify them, pound them to powder, and mix them with grease-a complex procedure for primitive human beings. They built scaffolds to reach high up on the cave walls. Why did they make these paintings? Why did their sophistication show nowhere else in their lives?

Some Explanations: Jacques Boucher de Perthes, who 1st recognized the importance of the cave paintings, worked from 1828-1859 to get people to appreciate them. However, it was difficult to date the paintings, and without knowing for sure how old they were, it was hard to realize their full worth. Henri Breuil, who studied the caves at the turn of the century, often crawling on his stomach or swimming in icy water to do so, made invaluable sketches of the paintings.

Most experts thought the cave paintings represented "hunting magic" or records of kills Andrew Leroi-Gourhan, an ethnologist working in the late 1940s, disputed this. He statistically studied 72 groups of cave pictures in 66 European caves, and found that certain animals nearly always appeared in the center roof compositions; that male and female figures also appeared in certain places nearly all the time. The paintings represent a great symbolic idea of some kind, he felt.

Today: The cave is closed to the public.

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