Stone Age Rembrandt’s

I was reading an article about the amazing cave drawings at Lascaux, France recently…These paintings date back to the stone age, the cave man days, the Upper Paleolithic era, which was approximately 15,000 BC….Now I know that is a long time ago, it was around the time Cro Magnon man was replacing the Neanderthal man as the dominant homo sapient species, but it is astonishing to me to think that even way back then, way back when, human beings had the inclination, capacity and ability to express themselves in ways that distinguished them from the animals they hunted for existence…This urge actually manifested itself as far back as 40,000 BC!

These early cave man Rembrandt’s were expressing the creativity and ability and desire to add grace, beauty, and religious sensibility to their otherwise drab daily hunter gatherer existence, and it literally blew my mind to realize that human beings had this need and capacity to express themselves, so long ago and far away….To witness these paintings is like a window into the past, and the capacity of the artists with their crude tools is truly astonishing to modern eyes….The Lascaux cave paintings are regarded as some of the finest cave man paintings extant…

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According to my Google Sources: “A virtual revolution occurred in the creation of art during the period of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. Beginning around 40,000 B.C., the archaeological record shows that anatomically modern humans effectively replaced Neanderthals and remained the sole hominid inhabitants across continental Europe. At about the same time, and directly linked to this development, the earliest art was created.

These initial creative achievements fall into one of two broad categories. Paintings and engravings found in caves along walls and ceilings are referred to as “parietal” art. The caves where paintings have been found are not likely to have served as shelter, but rather were visited for ceremonial purposes. The second category, “mobiliary” art, includes small portable sculpted objects which are typically found buried at habitation sites.

In the painted caves of western Europe, namely in France and Spain, we witness the earliest unequivocal evidence of the human capacity to interpret and give meaning to our surroundings. Through these early achievements in representation and abstraction, we see a new found mastery of the environment and a revolutionary accomplishment in the intellectual development of humankind.

The painted walls of the interconnected series of caves in Lascaux in southwestern France are among the most impressive and well-known artistic creations of Paleolithic humans. Although there is one human image (painted representations of humans are very rare in Paleolithic art; sculpted human forms are more common), most of the paintings depict animals found in the surrounding landscape, such as horses, bison, mammoths, ibex, aurochs, deer, lions, bears, and wolves. The depicted animals comprise both species that would have been hunted and eaten (such as deer and bison) as well as those that were feared predators (such as lions, bears, and wolves).

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In addition to the painted images, Lascaux is rich with engravings of animals as well as abstract designs. In the absence of natural light, these works could only have been created with the aid of torches and stone lamps filled with animal fat. The pigments used to paint Lascaux and other caves such as the Chauvet cave were derived from readily available minerals and include red, yellow, black, brown, and violet. No brushes have been found, so in all probability the broad black outlines were applied using mats of moss or hair, or even with chunks of raw color. The surfaces appear to have been covered by paint blown directly from the mouth or through a tube; color-stained, hollowed-out bones have been found in the caves.

Their vitality is achieved by the broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft color. The animals are typically shown in a twisted perspective, with the heads depicted in profile but the pair of horns or antlers rendered frontally visible. The intended result may have been to imbue the images with more visual power and magical properties. The combination of profile and frontal perspectives is an artistic idiom also observed in ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art.

The sheer number of images, their size and exceptional realism, as well as their spectacular colors, is why Lascaux is sometimes referred to as “The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”. Lascaux’s cave art was protected by a landslide which sealed off access to the cave around 13,000 BC. Not long after its opening in 1948, Pablo Picasso paid a visit and was amazed at the quality of the cave’s rock art saying that man had learned nothing new since then. Other caves have been discovered as well, but Lascaux is the most famous of them all…

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The opening of Lascaux Cave after World War II changed the cave environment. The exhalations of 1,200 visitors per day, presence of light, and changes in air circulation have created a number of problems. In the late 1950s the appearance of lichens and crystals on the walls led to closure of the caves in 1963. This led to restriction of access to the real caves to a few visitors every week, and the creation of a replica cave for visitors to Lascaux.

The problem is ongoing, as are efforts to control the microbial and fungal growths in the cave. The fungal infection crises have led to the establishment of an International Scientific Committee for Lascaux and to rethinking how, and how much, human access should be permitted in caves containing prehistoric paintings…The paintings are so well preserved, they look as if they were drawn yesterday. But while there has been some debate over their age, the most recent radiocarbon dating suggests this work is more than 35,000 years old.

But the amazing thing to me is that these paintings were conceived of and rendered so long ago…It boggles my mind to see them, almost as fresh as they were the day one of our primitive cave man ancestors first felt the inspiration to draw them….There is controversy over the motivation of the significance of the paintings, some saying they are actually star maps, some saying they are religious in nature and painted by by shamans, and some may just be done in wonder and tribute to the world around them…

Whatever the reason, these paintings still exist in mute testimony of the imagination, grandeur and faithful reproduction of a world now vanished but depicted by our long gone ancestors that still exists and inspires us down through the ages to this day….

For more articles by John Whye, click on johnwhye@wordpress.com

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