The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis

When Pablo Picasso was given a private tour of the cave paintings at Lascaux, France shortly after World War II, his impression was this: “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.” Even so, he seems to have overestimated our learning curve. Later dating techniques showed that much of the Lascaux art was nearer 18,600 years old.

The idea that brilliantly colored paintings from the Stone Age should have survived on the walls and ceilings of certain caves in the Pyrenees Mountains of Southern France and Northern Spain has been a part of Western culture for a little more than a century. And yet, for all the details we have accumulated, vast areas of uncertainty about these paintings and their creators remain. For example, why did they paint quadrupeds but not fish or birds? Why no context, such as trees, scrubs, plants, rivers or mountains. Why did they do all their artwork at frighteningly (to us) deep levels in the netherworld? And so on.

In his The Cave Painters, art historian Gregory Curtis brings us somewhat up to date on the scope of materials discovered and gives some tentative conclusions that reflect a consensus. He leaves no doubt, however, that this is merely an interim report on an area of inquiry, which may never be concluded. Curtis reminds us it was not so long ago that these creations of our most ancient human predecessors consisted of a few paintings in a few caves. So far some 350 caves had been discovered of which a few contain thousands of painting and etchings. Throughout the 20th century, an average of about three new caves a year have been discovered and some of the largest and most extraordinary of these discoveries occurred as recently as 1995.

It all began in November of 1879 when an amateur paleontologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola discovered the 60-foot wide painting of buffalos on the ceiling of a cave near Altamira, Spain. Somehow, he intuited that these works were very ancient. But during his lifetime, he got little but derision for his brilliant guess. The experts insisted that the paintings were a hoax until evolving dating processes used at the turn of the century showed that Marcelino was right.

In a short commentary, it is not possible to say much about individual paintings. But it can be said that, as a group, they showed a mastery of artistic technique not seen in the Western world until about 300-400 years ago. These people may not yet have invented the wheel but Alley Oops they were not. Physically, Curtis writes of the cave painters, they were so sufficiently like us that, in contemporary attire, they would attract no attention on a New York or Paris subway. The paintings too appear quite modern. They are definitely not still-life portrayals. For the most part, the animals shown here seem to be frolicking about. Only a few human male paintings have been found and two of them resemble murder scenes (spears appear lodged in bodies). There are unmistakably human female paintings, but none are whole.

One painting displays two deer facing each other. The author reacts:

The one on the right, a female, was on her knees. The male on the left … had gently lowered his head toward her and had just begun licking the top of her brow. The grandeur of the male and the delicacy of the female in this quiet moment, so intimate and tender, made the painting touching and irresistible.

This exquisiteness of form, choice of subject, and attention to detail only intensifies the cave painters’ mystery. Some of the paintings in a cave discovered in 1994 in France (Chauvet) were later found to be 32,000 years old. What we have here is an artistic tradition of the highest order stretching over a period of more than 20,000 years. That’s a thousand generations or 10 times the length of the Christian era. And then, about 12,000 years ago, it suddenly stopped. As to why, there is little agreement.

Above all, we have the question of what it all meant. Did this art, mostly of animals but including many species not seen in Europe for a long time, have to do with hunting? With religion or mating? People with this level of artistic skill must, the author notes, have had rituals, dance. Whether any of it will be recovered remains to be seen.