Prehistoric cave paintings offer a window into a vanished world when mammoths and primitive bison roamed the earth. The various discoveries of these ancient arts have stunned the world. The first major discovery was the Lascaux cave paintings, important because they are said to be about 17,000 years old. For a long time these caves were considered to be the oldest known cave paintings, until the Cosquer cave paintings were discovered. These turned out to be over 28,000 years old! But even the Cosquer Caves fade in comparison to the paintings in Chauvet Cave – a sensational discovery in 1994 that forced archaeologists and prehistorians around the world to rethink the artistic genius of Stone Age man.
What started as simple exploration changed the way the world viewed the ancient caveman. It all started when three cave explorers – Jean-Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire and Eliette Brunel-Deschamps – made their way through a narrow path in a cave and entered a huge gallery. What they saw on the cave wall before them shocked them. One wall had 3 lines drawn in ocher along with a small mammoth in red and as they made their way to the end of this cave they were surrounded by numerous paintings of animals. Bison, mammoths, wild horses, bears, rhinoceroses, deer and wild cats, all of which seemed to roam the cave walls. Nothing close to this kind of vivid depiction and artistic finery was ever discovered in any of the previously discovered cave paintings.
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This stunning discovery was made in 1994 in southeastern France (Ardèche valley – a tributary of the Rhône river). Named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the Chauvet Cave contains works of art that offer new perspectives for studying the origins of art. It sparked new discussions about 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 the Dordogne, in central France, were the most important prehistoric site at one time. The paintings found here were over 17,000 years old, which were the oldest known paintings made by man at the time. The news of the discovery of such a cave spread like wildfire all over the world. People from all over the world came to see this prehistoric marvel. The cave was visited so often that historians and archaeologists began to worry about its destruction through careless touching, increased humidity, and possible vandalism. It was decided to close the caves to the public, but the researchers commissioned to make an exact copy of these caves for the public.
Opened in 1983, the Lascaux II attracted massive numbers of visitors (more than 2000 daily visitors). The reason why these paintings have attracted so much attention is because of the 3D quality of the paintings. The artists had creatively and intelligently used the crevices and rough surfaces of the cave walls. The very first glimpse of these cave drawings will blow your mind. A horse’s spine melts into a crevice, a bull’s neck follows the outline of the rocky ledge, the curves on the animal’s body follow the contour of the rock face. Each animal on the wall seems to emerge from the rock wall and emote a lifelike quality. By the candlelight, the flickering light seems to fill the cave with the animal’s presence.
The reconstruction process
To reconstruct the old paintings, it was necessary to understand the ways of the original artists. How did they paint? Where do the colors come from? What tools did they use? Authentic replication required archaeologists and modern artists to work side by side. Materials such as sienna earth, carbon, hematite, manganese, iron oxide and clay were sanded by the artists and primed in the same way the prehistoric artist must have done to produce his pigments. With many experiments, the style of the cave artists was imitated as closely as possible. For this, the modern artists had to work with their fingers, pieces of fur and brushes to apply the colors. Sometimes even blowguns made from bird bones and reeds were used. Also, like the artists of the time, the modern artists worked in flickering flames of fire.
More than 50 years passed before another amazing discovery related to ancient cave paintings. This time it was by a professional diver named Henri Cosquer, who found the cave about 35 m below sea level, somewhere between Cassis and Marseille in the south of France. By that time, the oldest known artwork depicting humans and animals was over 33,000 years old. But those paintings didn’t even come close to the artistic superiority of the paintings in Cosquer’s caves. Like Lascaux, Cosquer’s paintings contained similar depictions of ice age hunting scenes and animals—horses, penguins, jellyfish, and ghostly outlines of hands made with red ocher. And like Lascaux, these paintings were also artistic masterpieces.
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The Birth of Art
In 1995, exact dating of the Chauvet Caves through radiocarbon dating shook up the theories advanced by experts regarding the art’s beginnings. Based on these paintings, it was quite clear that the prehistoric artists began to scale the heights of artistic excellence about 33,000 years ago – much, much earlier than previously believed. The whole idea that it took man a millennium to gradually produce exceptional works of art is now obsolete. Experts and scientists had to acknowledge and applaud the fine execution of the paintings in the Chauvet Caves. The very natural and accurate depiction of the animals, deliberately sweeping the contours to create shadow effects, use of perspective – this painting was a far cry from rudimentary stick figure drawings that the cavemen were thought to be capable of. Not only were the paintings created keeping in mind the right proportions and dimensions, they were also able to convey an impression of movement, which is a testament to the exceptional skills of these ancient artists.
Some experts also compare these works with the works of the famous Dutch artist – Vincent Van Gogh. The difference is that 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 in the later Stone Age period, after a time of 1000 years!
Unfortunately, much is still unknown about these prehistoric artists. Questions like why did they paint what they painted? Was it just a natural expression of art or were they made for magical or ritualistic purposes? Perhaps the answer is buried somewhere in some of these ancient museums waiting to be found.