Discovery Of The Lascaux Cave Painting Cultural Studies Essay

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1st Jan 1970 Cultural Studies Reference this


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It is hard to understand how the early people could paint on the cave ceiling, and the meaning of the cave painting. The emergence of the cave painting has existed from the Old Stone Age until the early century A.D.; furthermore, there are thousands of caves found by archaeologists in different places around the world in different chronicles. Most of the cave painting has the similar type of painting that is mostly about the hunting and animals. It was in the late 20th century that the first decorated cave which is known as the most beautiful cave in Europe was found in France, and this cave art, called Lascaux cave painting, has contributed significant studies about the early human civilization.

As we will discuss and analyze about the cave painting in our writing, we have chosen the Lascaux cave for further explanations including the methods, characteristics, and meanings of this cave painting. On top of that, one of the most momentous information that we will mainly discuss is the expression of the image related to the prehistoric star maps which was revealed in the recent study of the archaeologist in France.

This research could provide some important information about the Lascaux cave painting as we included some studies and analyses of the archaeologists. As a matter of fact, most part of this writing are derived from the internet sources while some are based on general knowledge and books.

The Discovery of the Lascaux cave painting

Locating in the Dordogne Valley of south central France, the Lascaux cave is a rock shelter with excellent cave paintings which were painted by Paleolithic artists between 15,000 and 17,000 years ago in the Paleolithic age, the time which we know that people were nomad living in the simple social structure. The Lascaux cave was discovered by four French teenagers – Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas along with their dog- Robot. In September 1940, setting out an adventure in Dordogne, the boys and their dog started their adventure with the purpose of treasure hunting which they had heard people talking about for years that there is a secret underground passage hidden treasure in the countryside around their French village. As four teenagers walked through the woods of Montignac, their dog, Robot, led them to see a deep depression in the ground which was covered with the plants that were growing thickly, and the dog started to sniff the hole. Surprisingly, after seeing the hole, teenagers thought that it might the way that would lead them to reach the hidden treasure; as the result, shortly after measuring the depth of the hole by tossing rocks from the opening and listening for the contact the bottom, they decided to explore it. Then, when reaching the dark underground of chamber, the four teenagers used their oil lantern to search around chamber by shining it on the walls and ceiling. At that time, what that made the four teenagers amazing was that many paintings of animal appeared on the wall and ceiling. More amazingly, the ceiling was filled with the cavalcade of animals seeming to be moving as in the reality; in addition, the ceiling was pure white covered with calcite, and the paintings were brilliantly multicolored in red, black, brown and ochre (International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux, 2007). When the lamp was fading, the teenagers decided to get out of the cave and went back home, but they promised to keep this as secret. Not for long, after their third day of discovery, they decided to invite their friend in the charge of forty cent per person for admission fee. Later on, they told their professors and experts about this cave. His professor, Leon Laval, gave them two rules: Do not let anyone touch the paintings, and, more importantly, guard the cave from possible vandals. After going back and studying about cave at their school, they realized that this cave painting had sealed at prehistoric time at least 17,000 years. Publicly, the cave complex was opened for people to visit in 1948, but what the serious effect from this allowance is that the carbon dioxide which was produced by 1,200 visitors per day had obviously damaged the paintings by 1955. As the consequence, in 1963, with the purpose of preserving these fabulous paintings, the cave was closed to public, and then in 1979, Lascaux was considered as the world heritage and added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site lists.

Characters of the Lascaux cave painting

Every cave in the world differs from each other even in the same location. However, caves which were built in the same period may be similar or the same. Each cave has its own specials feature such as characters. For Lascaux cave, Cornwell (2007) found that it may be the most beautiful Paleolithic painted cave in the world. It contain more than 1500 pictures of animals, all of them are 17,000 year old. In addition, another one study found that:

There are only 605 identifiable animals including one humanoid in Lascaux cave. Moreover, it also shows the statistic of the all kind of animal pictures in the cave. There are 364 horses, 87 aurochses, 90 red deer stags, 3 red deer hinds, 20 bisons, 35 ibexes, 7 felines, 1 bear, 1reindeer, 1 rhinoceros, and possibly 1 musk ox. Besides pictures of animal, there are also over 400 identifiable signs, which include straight, parallel lines, star-shaped signs, branching shapes, nested convergent lines, tectiforms, claviforms, quadrangles, and composites. There are also over 100 dots, often arranged in undulating rows (Eshleman, 2009, p.225).

He then goes on that Lascaux also has its own style for painting of fauna, especially the ways that ancient people depict the horses. We can notice that all house pictures in Lascaux have swollen or large bellies, small heads, short in length, animated legs, with coats often indicated. He also adds that the most recognized are referred to the Chinese horses. The reason is because it really similar to horse in ancient Chinese Paintings (Eshleman, 2009, P.225).

Above all, there are many interesting part among those pictures inside the Lascaux cave. One you walk inside the cave, you will be in a location which was called “the Great Hall of the Bulls” and you will notice the fourth aurochs (5.5 meters long), which is the largest bull in the cave and was considered as one of the largest representation of prehistoric animals (Mauriac, 2011, P.9). Furthermore, in “the Great Hall of the Bulls,” we can see the image of the Unicorn which has two horns. Although, the two horns were drawn closely, so we sometime see it as one large horn like a mythical Unicorn [5]. Another interesting part of the cave is “The Chamber of Felines.” Unlike the other part or chamber of the cave, the chamber of felines does not have aurochs images, but horses, bison and felines. There is a group of three sets of two red dots at the end of the chamber, which was considered as way of marking the end of the shelter[5]. Last but not least, the one of most famous part is “The Shaft of the Dead Man.” That was the picture which includes only human figure in the whole Lascaux. The figure show about a man was struck by a bison with his arms flung wide and his four-fingered hands open. The figure also shows clearly that the person who was struck by a bison was a man because we can easily see his erect penis (Richard White, P. 327). Besides these, there still have many interest parts such as “Falling Cow,” “Frieze of the Black Houses,” and “Crossed Bison.”

Unfortunately, Lascaux cave was close in 1963 because researchers found that the cave has been in trouble. The reasons are because installation of the new air conditioning system in the cave, using high-powered lights, and presence of many visitors. Thus, only researchers can go inside the cave. Later, in 2001, there were some fungus grow in the cave. Then, in 2006, the fungus created some black spot on the picture and it destroyed some part of the pictures especially the black cow horn and the antlers of the deer. After this worse situation happened, the Scientific Committee, in 2007, provided the biocide treatment on the areas where have black spot. Moreover, they let the cave rest 3 month to recover. As a result, according to Adenosine Tri Phosphate Monitoring proved that among eleven selected areas, nine selected areas showed the positive result, but the other three was not (Mauriac, 2011, P.20)

The Lascaux cave painting’s methods

As we already mentioned about Lascaux, Lascaux cave painting was one of the communication method that the prehistoric people used. The painting which is used different color was interpreted variously. Therefore there were many elements employed encompass pigment, manganese, charcoal…that kept Lascaux vividly until today.

The main element used was pigment. Pigment means that coloring-matter used as paint or dye (Oxford dictionary). The colors were typically red, yellow, black, brown and violet. In the Paleolithic Lascaux, there were no any chemical substance to make the color, yet the colors were made by the natural substances like clay ochre making yellow, red and brown, charcoal or manganese dioxide producing black color. Consequently, all the colorants were produced from animal bone and vegetable sources.

Moreover, the colors that already made were ground up into powder. Then the color powders were mixed up in a palette which made from sea shell. In the palette, there were many components that will be mixed up available like color powder, cave water which consists of high calcium carbonate, animal fat, vegetable juice and blood to help it adhere to the cave wall. Furthermore, the Paleolithic people used the hair of animal (horse, cow…) as the brushes to paint on the cave wall.

To conclude, the Lascaux cave painting was creatively formed by many various elements that were available surrounding the Paleolithic living.

The Lascaux cave painting’s interpretation

In general, most of the cave painting was painted in the similar theme although it was in the different places. On top of that, there are three main categories of paintings that are commonly seen in the Paleolithic cave, and those three categories are animals, humans, and signs (Bradshaw Foundation, 2012). What we could see in the cave are the image of humans, animals, and weapons. The majority of the paintings are animals which favor to be painted larger while the other categories are rarely seen in the cave. Moreover, some paintings are the image of the daily life, social structure, and the outcome of the early people invented things. The cave painting has contributed significant information about the early human civilization as its meaning has shown about the life during the prehistoric time. There are many ideas about the purpose of the painting. Some ideas believe that the prehistoric people painted those images in the aim of religious beliefs as it could bring them luck and success in hunting, and the other idea thought that the paintings were painted to decorate and notice some information about their success (Marcus, 1968).

If we lean on the Lascaux cave, we could describe that the cave has the similarity with the other cave in Europe in term of meanings and purposes of the painting. There are about 600 paintings in the Lascaux cave of 1500 various type sof animals, and most of them are the image of horses and bisons (Mazzaroth, 2007). In the first study of Max Raphaël, he has revealed the fact that the painting mainly focuses on the religious beliefs, and this idea was also adopted by later study of archeologists. Based on the recent study of Norbert Aujoulat between 1988 and 1999, the picture of animals in the Lascaux cave indicates the changes in climate represented differently by the animals and stage of the cave; for instance, the cave has divided into several stages such as Great Hall of the Bulls, Lateral passage, Shaft of the Dead Man, Chamber of Engravings, Painted Gallery, and Chamber of Felines, and at the beginning of the stages show the image of horse that symbolize as the spring while the image of aurochs represents the summer, and stages represents the autumn (Aujoulat, 2012).

The latest study has exposed that the Lascaux cave has incorporated with the amazing fact that related to the study of astronomy over the prehistoric sky-map. This study was indicated by some of the archaeologists such as Dr Michael Rappenglueck (2007) and Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewiez (Jègues-Wolkiewiez, 2012).

Below are consequences of the study over the field of ancient star maps:

Human beings and the Stars in later Upper Paleolithic

Lascaux cave paintings were created in late Upper Paleolithic (15-18000 B.C.) and known to possess Magdalenian culture. The paintings would have merely been interpreted as the elements for our ancestors to perform ritual if there were not any black dots in their artwork. These series of black dots lead to the discovery of the first sign of constellations (cited later). Even more amazing, some people had tried to compare the paintings to a real sky chart of that period. The result is quite astounding when they are matched. So is this explanation of the paintings only about the stars’ finding? What else can we tell about them from these stars?

Early records of constellations

The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sister, Hyades, Taurus, and Orion’s Belt were discovered in Hall of Bulls (figure no.). Moreover, Dr. Rappengluck found another constellation, Summer Triangle, on the walls of Lascaux cave.

The Pleiades

The six spots above the shoulder of Bull #18 is considered to be a constellation called the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. The Pleiades constellation is in the Northern hemisphere and represented in the star map; moreover, only six of them can be seen by naked eyes whereas the last one can only be seen with binoculars (cited later). However, the study by (cited later) found that this Pleiades should be an inset rather than a part of the map since the distance between the Pleiades and Aldebaran is not as close to one another as it is supposed to be.

The Hyades

Bull #18’s face, a group of spots around the eye, which is Aldebaran, is represented as the Hyades constellation. The Hyades is composed of five or six stars that are clear with naked eyes. It also joins with Taurus (cited later).

The Taurus

On the head of Bull #18, from its horn connects to Aldebaran and the Hyades is the chart of Taurus. The Taurus whose sign is a bull is one of the Zodiac constellations. In the mythology, the Taurus includes both the Hyades and the Pleiades.

Orion’s Belt

On the back of Bull #15, the dotted line is believed to be Orion’s Belt. In the ancient story, Orion was a famous hunter who with his dogs liked to go hunting celestial animals such as Lepus and Taurus. In Greek story, he fell in love with one lady but she did not love him and very unfortunately, he died from stepping on the scorpion. His life was so tragic that Gods decided to make him and his dogs as constellation close to his hunted animals. As a result, you can see that Orion constellation is close to the Taurus.

Summer Triangle

According to (cited later), Dr. Rappengluck has discovered the Summer Triangle on the painting called the Celestial Auroch and Shaman. He somehow believed that the eyes of the bull, shaman, and the bird stand for Vega, Deneb, and Altair.

The Sky Chart

Further research by (cited later) shows some interesting fact that both Bull #18 and #15 may have been drawn to represent the whole night sky; not just some constellations. That’s because most of the lines and dots in the painting are well matched with the actual sky chart that he overlaid them. See figure (no.)

How the Discovery of the Stars Illustrates Our Ancestors’ Lives

The stars greatly prove us that our ancestor is more sophisticated than what we used to know or believe because they are able to draw the stars with the perfect position and the distance between one another. Moreover, the paintings tell us how great and remarkable their skills were because they could convey what they saw in the sky on the three-dimensional surface. Compared to the past, people at this century would find it hard to paint on unsmooth surface without special tools. Also, the painter of these wonderful arts drew the night sky that can be looked from one viewing position; meaning you can just sit in one place and enjoy the entire sky view on the long horizontal cave walls (cited later).

Aside from their significant skills, the stars describe what they believe, how mythology was created, and how they used the stars in time measurement. (cited later) claimed that ancient people during the Upper Paleolithic had a different conception on planets, stars and moon from our today’s beliefs. They thought of them as their god and goddess staying in the Milky Way or heaven. Also, Dr. Michael Rappengluck said that they arranged the stars and that’s when the mythology was emerged since this stars’ arrangement created what we called constellations. According to (cited later), zodiac was founded when the constellations appear before the sunset and dawn.

It is believed that the stars painted in the Lascaux cave marked the seasons in the past. The Pleiades was used to set their annual calendar. They gazed at the Pleiades’ rising and falling in order to mark when it was time for autumn and spring. They set the winter by the auroch and summer by the Summer Triangle because it would be visible during summer (cited later).


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