The guide took us through a narrow passage into a dark cave. She lit her flashlight and there it was–a 16,000 year old frieze of bison. So elegant! So confidently painted!
We reached the Font-de-Gaume cave in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Southwestern France, by train from Périgueux, followed by a 3km hike. While waiting for our reserved tour time, we visited the nearby Musee National de Prehistoire, which had some lovely prehistoric artifacts and a few fascinating, if dubiously authentic, dioramas. A sassy cat joined us while were we picnicking and begged for bits of cheese we’d purchased earlier in the morning at the Périgueux market. The cat stayed at my side while we checked in, climbed a hill to the cave’s entrance, locked up our backpacks in a cage at the entryway, and sat on my lap until the guide took our group of ten or so inside.
My eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and I wanted to reach out to balance myself on the cave’s wall, but of course we were instructed not to touch anything. One couple had brought a baby, who was screaming and since I don’t know French I couldn’t understand the guide, and it was so disorienting until….there, with her flashlight, the bison! Their contours fit to the formations of the wall, animated by the movement of the light. A wooly rhinoceros! Elk! Horses! There were symbols scratched into the side of a painting, perhaps a signature or an early form of writing. And, no interpretation needed, the outline of a human hand. Some works overlapped each other. And the sweetest thing: a reindeer licking another reindeer’s face.
I am not an anthropologist, but I know how to look at art. Normally, I try to see as many examples of a type of art in situ as I can, and also study what influenced that art. For example, on a recent trip to Italy, HOB and studied the work of five Renaissance architects/urban planners, and also visited the classical architecture that influenced their careers. This approach would not work for the cave art, since we could only visit one cave (many of the most spectacular caves, including nearby Lascaux, are permanently closed to the public. Font-de-Gaume is the only site in France with polychrome cave paintings that is still open and our guide said it may soon close as well.) To work around this challenge, I read several books on cave art, and generally familiarized myself with the art and layout of other caves from around the same time period and area.
Based on my research and observation, I can say with absolute certainty that production of cave art was a sophisticated, well planned operation executed by the most talented artists available. The painters used lamps, scaffolding and mixed up batches of paint. The best artists made the works in the most remote part of the caves: in Font-de-Gaume the paintings improved the farther back into the cave we went, until at the most remote part we had to go one at a time and crane our heads to the most spectacular paintings of all. I am also convinced that the location of the paintings is quite significant. I think of the caves as designed like a cathedral: the aisles are here, the pews are there, there’s a baptismal font in the corner and a choir and chapels behind the alter. One chapel is dedicated to Mary, and maybe there’s a saint’s remains to visit in the crypt. While the significance of the layout of the cave’s art may be lost to us now, painted caves were surely decorated with as much intention as any house of worship today.
What did it mean? Some people think the cave paintings we created as a form of magic to assist in hunting. Others theorize that the caves and their art were used in Shamanistic practice, and the animals depicted were painted by Shaman in an altered state of consciousness. I disagree with both theories. I think of the painted cave as a pantheon, with the animals depicted as gods, or powerful cultural figures (think pre-historic Mount Rushmore or Christ Pantocrator). To support my theory I would point out that only certain animals are depicted–surely there were mice and birds and rabbits and fish that people saw and ate every day, but they didn’t paint those, just the large mammals (the high status animals). There are almost no depictions of humans and those that were made are crude and symbolic. Humans didn’t begin creating art about other humans until the advent of agriculture. Agriculture created property, property created wealth, wealth created status. Humans became high status animals worthy of being represented by art.
Another reason I disagree that with the theory that cave paintings were created by Shaman: most of these paintings are Art, they were obviously created by skilled, trained artists—perhaps for religious purposes, but also as works of beauty for their own sake. Some pieces are funny, some are sweet, most use artistic techniques like exaggeration and layering. I am a painter and when I looked at these paintings I could see how fun it must have been to exaggerate the bulge on the bison’s back, and paint the sinewy line of his rear leg, and apply a highlight on the rock behind him to make the painting more three dimensional. These were not put together by a tripped out shaman skilled in communicating with spirits but not in using paintbrush. But don’t take my word for it: go see these amazing paintings while you still have the chance. For a lover of art in situ, this is the ultimate destination. For a humanist like me, there is nothing more moving.
How we got to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac: train from Périgueux.
Where we slept: Hotel ibis budget Périgueux. Price: €44 for a double. Recommended: yes.
Ticket office for Font-de-Gaume
My kitty cave painting escort
Scenery near the cave