The Paleolithic caves of the Dordogne, clustered around the town of Eyzies-de-Tayac, are still accessible to the general public, with the exception of Lascaux, which has been replaced with an exact reproduction, Lascaux II. In January, there are no lines. You simply make a reservation, pay for your ticket, and wait for the guide to finish his cigarette and lead you into the dark, damp, and disquieting spaces where some of the only remains of the first human art has survived the test of time. I recently visited two of these caves: Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume. The former is a long and winding claustrophobic labyrinth inscribed with hundreds of spidery carvings of horses, reindeer, bison, mammoths, human torsos and faces, a portrait of a lion, and a fat bear; the latter, Font-de-Gaume, is a cave painted with images of bison, horses, and reindeer. With Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2014) fresh in our minds, we might consider her dire and accurate predictions of environmental cataclysm caused by human neglect of the environment as a stark contrast to the message of these caves. Font-de-Gaume and Combarelles present a sobering vision of human beings morphologically identical to us who existed not just in harmony with, but literally as equals to their fellow beasts and environment. Right now, such a vision seems profoundly relevant.
The caves are especially striking because they are so normal. Everything is so rationally drawn, painted, and presented that the ambiguity of the underlying motivation for these art works feels frustratingly modern. They might have had some religious or spiritual import for the artist, but they also might just be drawings or decorations, like any artist would make in a sketchbook. According to the 2010 Werner Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, bears also marked the walls of these caves—perhaps early humans got the idea from their ursine brethren. Bears are abstract artists. The marks they make with their paws—repetitive four stroke claw marks are messages, writing even. This interest in line over image is shared by the human cave-artists, as most of the drawings at Combarelles are tangled networks—one must follow the course of the line to discern where it matches up with an intersecting shape or pattern—a gentle curve will suddenly double back on itself and there is the realization that one is seeing a tail or an ear. It’s a puzzle, because one animal form is overlaid over another, sometimes two creatures sharing a leg or rump.
Halfway through the cave there is a thicket of lines: an etching of a mammoth traces the immense arc of the animal’s trunk, and with choppy little strokes hints at a vast coat of fur, but there are the legs of a stag cris-crossing this diagram, a set of antlers and what might be an auroch’s hoof. The artist even utilizes a hole in the wall for the animal’s tiny eye: the already existing topography was often incorporated into both cave drawings and paintings. While this image of the mammoth is a monument to a creature that must have been quite a menace to the artist, it also seems rather critical of this unwieldy beast’s bizarre appearance. A study of a lion further down the wall is much more reverent; cat loving is clearly nothing new for humanity. The emendations and adjustments to the precise line defining the lion’s profile from the brow to the whiskers demonstrate that both care and enjoyment were taken crafting this drawing—possibly by many different artists over the course of millennia.
Font-de-Gaume is filled with black and ochre painted herds of bison and frolicking reindeer in a dark but airy chasm. My guide, Jean-Marie Pelletant (who has written an excellent book on the caves entitled Lettre Ouverte à Cro-Magnon (2013)), was at pains to illustrate the darkling nuance of paintings viewed in low light. He pointed out the coincidental natural recesses in the rock and the way the artist’s utilized cast shadows to create a three-dimensional rendering of the animals; to show the bulge of a hip or haunch. Possibly a filmic kind of movement was effected in the flickering darkness with these static textured paintings. A looming reindeer seems to pleasantly lick the muzzle of a mate as it lapped from a stream, their antlers nestled together in a grand romantic swirl. With all these cave images, the viewer needs to constantly move around in order to piece together various facets of a rendered subject—they rarely jump out and are often hardly perceptible. Both the uneven surface and degeneration over time have left only traces, but the end result is so familiar and sensitive as to induce goose bumps.
Theorizing about the paintings’ possible narratives is tempting but often results only in comforting platitudes about our ancestors—that they had a heightened spirituality or sense of responsibility to their environment. There are images of faces and female torsos and genitalia that are very detailed, and plenty of bucks and stags butting heads—introspection, sex, and violence are all checked off on the list of life’s concerns. The issue plaguing study of this art is its incredible antiquity: we have no idea if these artists also painted hides or carved wooden sculptures. The greatest flaw in the interpretation of these images is considering them as singular objects—really they are the vestiges of approximately 200,000 years of art history we will never know.