In France’s Dordogne region, guides call the Lascaux Caves the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world. I thought, “Promotional hyperbole.” But yesterday I climbed into Lascaux II. It’s a painstakingly created, perfect copy of the actual cave, which the public is no longer allowed to visit. After a few minutes, you forget it’s a copy. And I was swept away by its grandeur.
The vast cave looked amazingly like my (very healthy) colonoscopy photograph. Main difference: It was covered with paintings made 17,000 years ago, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth. These are not just crude doodles. The painting was a huge and sophisticated project executed by artists supported by an impressive culture — the Magdalenians.
Our guide said, “This was a sacred room. You don’t sleep in a church. They didn’t sleep in their cave. It’s not a random thing, but a careful composition of two herds of bison coming together. They met here, and in symmetry, you see the three main animals: horses, deer and bison. It’s the art of a hunter society, but not of hunters — you don’t see figures of people or the animals they hunted (such as reindeer). The artists must be good, because you cannot change the fresco once you lay it. There are no mistakes evident. There are many, many caves in Southern France and in Northern Spain. And each cave is different…speaking a different language. The symbolism is a different vocabulary. Seventeen thousand years seems very old in our perspective. But remember, humans roamed the earth for 3 million years. Biologically, the Magdalenians were exactly like us. In anthropological time, it was like yesterday.”
It’s strange to find yourself “getting into” Magdalenians. In the museum, filled with original Magdalenian artifacts, I began to feel a connection with these people. Skeletons draped in fine jewelry. Teeth of stag and tiny shells delicately drilled to be strung into necklaces. Barbed spears and fish hooks that would work well today. Finely carved weapons used to sling spears.
Looking at the oil lamps, I could imagine the wonder of wandering under flickering flames that lit the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world.