Lascaux: the past comes alive!

I visited the Field Museum last weekend and was amazed by the exhibit “Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux.” It was more than an exhibit about some drawings on a wall from long ago – approximately 20,000 years. It was a story of chance discovery during the Second World War that gave us a glimpse into the life of our ancestors and evidence that they were very intelligent – nothing like the stereotypical cave man.

These prehistoric artisans were forward thinkers. They traced rough sketches on the limestone using stone tools before painting images of bulls, horses, and other animals. The level of detail was impressive when one considers the “crude” tools and dyes that were used. I was excited to learn that flickering torches could create the illusion of movement, in some cases. Clearly, these techniques were refined over generations and Cro Magnon people appreciated the same artistic subtleties of today’s critics and aficionados.

The exhibit used cutting-edge technology to re-create the images and give you a “feel” for walking through the passageways, which is a testimony to the ingenuity of modern humans. The exhibit also provided some hints as to the methods most likely used to create the art. Unfortunately, the public can no longer appreciate the real art. You see within a few years of people visiting the caves, the addition of sunlight, greater air circulation, and carbon dioxide degraded the drawings, so it had to be closed to the public. Currently, people can walk through a replica that was built near the original, but very few enter the actual cave.

To think a river carved the limestone cave, which includes a series of passageways. Ancient peoples found this cave and decided to adorn its walls with important images in their lives. The entrance was blocked by a landslide and hidden from us until a tree was uprooted by chance to expose it. The fact that the cave was sealed from the outside environment allowed the art to be preserved for the descendants of Cro Magnon to appreciate and discern a culture before records were kept. In all honesty, these paintings are their records.

At the end of this exhibit, I thought about the “Dark Ages” from our history books. Have you ever looked at paintings from this period? I do not claim to be an expert by any means, but they are unimpressive to me. To think of all the artisanship that was lost after the fall of Rome and reclaimed during the Renaissance. Could that have happened at Lascaux? It is something to ponder. I always wonder what archaeologists and historians will discern from the remnants of our civilization thousands of years from now. Will there be another Dark Age?

Dr. Jerry Kavouras

About Dr. Jerry Kavouras

Dr. Jerry Kavouras is Associate Professor and Chair of Biology at Lewis University. He can be found on LinkedIn as well.

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