Art lessons from our cave-dwelling ancestors

Barbara Ehrenreich in The Baffler:

IN 1940, FOUR TEENAGE BOYS stumbled, almost literally, from German-occupied France into the Paleolithic Age. As the story goes, and there are many versions of it, they had been taking a walk in the woods near the town of Montignac when the dog accompanying them suddenly disappeared. A quick search revealed that their animal companion had fallen into a hole in the ground, so—in the spirit of Tintin, with whom they were probably familiar—the boys made the perilous fifty-foot descent down to find it. They found the dog and much more, especially on return visits illuminated with paraffin lamps. The hole led to a cave, the walls and ceilings of which were covered with brightly colored paintings of animals unknown to the twentieth-century Dordogne—bison, aurochs, and lions. One of the boys, an apprentice mechanic, later reported that, stunned and elated, they began to dart around the cave like “a band of savages doing a war dance.” Another recalled that the painted animals in the flickering light of the boys’ lamps also seemed to be moving. “We were completely crazy,” yet another said, although the build-up of carbon dioxide in a poorly ventilated cave may have had something to do with that.

This was the famous and touristically magnetic Lascaux cave, which eventually had to be closed to visitors lest their exhalations spoil the artwork. Today, almost a century later, we know that Lascaux is part of a global phenomenon, originally referred to as “decorated caves.” They have been found on every continent except Antarctica—at least 350 of them in Europe alone, thanks to the cave-rich Pyrenees—with the most recent discoveries in Borneo (2018) and the Balkans (April 2019). Uncannily, given the distances that separate them, all these caves are adorned with similar “decorations”: handprints or stencils of human hands, abstract designs containing dots and crosshatched lines, and large animals, both carnivores and herbivores, most of them now extinct.

More here.