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What is Lascaux?

Lascaux is a stunning testament to prehistoric creativity, home to some of the world's most famous cave paintings. Over 17,000 years old, these artworks offer a window into the minds of our ancestors. Vivid depictions of animals and symbols reveal a sophisticated culture. Intrigued by what these ancient images might signify? Join us as we explore the secrets of Lascaux.
Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Lascaux is the name of a region in France, most famous for its cave paintings. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1979. The cave paintings are, without a doubt, the most famous in the world, and a visit to Lascaux is a must for anyone interested in Paleolithic art.

The paintings at Lascaux date back to the Upper Paleolithic period, and are all around 16,000 years old. They are some of the oldest remaining examples of art, and have captivated people since their discovery. Their images have become some of the most iconic artistic images in the world, and are easily spotted on everything from logos to pop art reproductions.

The caves at Lascaux are filled with paintings that were produced by early Homo sapiens.
The caves at Lascaux are filled with paintings that were produced by early Homo sapiens.

The Lascaux caves were first discovered 1940, by a group of French teenagers and their dog. Word quickly spread, and the Lascaux paintings made a huge splash in the academic world. Following World War II the site was opened to the general public, and it quickly became one of the most popular archeological attractions in the world.

Within only a few years, the art as Lascaux began to show signs of wear from the carbon dioxide produced by the constant stream of tourists. Lascaux was closed to the public, and the paintings were meticulously restored. The paintings as Lascaux are now under constant surveillance to make sure they don’t degrade any further, and in 2008 the cave was closed to everyone, including scientists, to further protect the images.

Lascaux is the name of a region in France, most famous for its cave paintings.
Lascaux is the name of a region in France, most famous for its cave paintings.

Many visitors are disappointed to learn that Lascaux is closed to the public, and in fact it has been since the 1960s. Recently, however, a perfect reproduction of two of the most important chambers of the cave has been created immediately adjacent to the actual Lascaux cave. This replica can be visited most of the year, and guided tours are available that last for just around an hour. The replica cave was created using what scientists believe were the original methods and materials, relying exclusively on natural pigments, such as charcoal, iron oxide, and ochre.

The two chambers reproduced as Lascaux are the two most famous: the Painted Gallery and the Great Hall of the Bulls. The Great Hall of the Bulls contains more than 35 different animals, of which four of them are large black bulls. One of these bulls is drawn 17 feet (5m) long, making it the largest animal found in a cave painting.

All told, there are more than 2000 distinct images represented at Lascaux. More than 900 of these are animals, and just over 600 of those have been precisely identified. Some non-figurative images at Lascaux seem to just be random dots, which some have speculated are representation of the stars in the night sky. Another intriguing figure is The Crossed Bison, an animal figure that makes striking use of perspective. The visual effect is one not reproduced widely again until sometime in the 15th century.

Although Lascaux may prove something of a disappointment for many, simply because the site isn’t fully open, the replica is a wonderful stand-in, and the information available at the site is fascinating. The area surrounding Lascaux is also rich in other Paleolithic sites, many of them caves that are less protected and sensitive than Lascaux, and so offer more opportunities for exploration.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Lascaux and why is it significant?

Lascaux is a complex of caves in southwestern France famous for its Paleolithic cave paintings. Discovered in 1940, these paintings are estimated to be over 17,000 years old and are considered one of the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period. The significance of Lascaux lies in its detailed, colorful, and well-preserved artwork, which provides invaluable insights into the lives, culture, and environment of early human societies.

What types of images are depicted in the Lascaux cave paintings?

The Lascaux cave paintings predominantly feature images of large animals that were known to the prehistoric inhabitants of the region. These include horses, deer, aurochs, ibexes, bison, and even some felines. The paintings are remarkable for their detail, including representations of animal fur and sophisticated use of color. Additionally, there are abstract symbols and a few human figures interspersed among the animal depictions.

How were the Lascaux cave paintings created?

The artists of Lascaux used mineral pigments like iron oxide (ochre) and manganese oxide to create the colors for their paintings. They applied these pigments with fingers, brushes made from animal hair, or even blowing through hollow reeds or bones. The painters also utilized the natural contours of the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their artwork, demonstrating advanced artistic techniques for their time.

Can visitors still see the original Lascaux cave paintings?

No, the original Lascaux cave was closed to the public in 1963 to preserve the artwork from damage caused by carbon dioxide, moisture, and other contaminants introduced by visitors. However, an exact replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery sections, known as Lascaux II, was opened in 1983, allowing visitors to experience the beauty of the paintings without endangering the originals.

What measures are being taken to preserve the Lascaux cave paintings?

To preserve the Lascaux cave paintings, strict environmental controls have been implemented to stabilize the temperature and humidity within the caves. Additionally, the presence of fungi and other microbial threats are closely monitored and managed. Access to the caves is highly restricted, with only a few scientists and conservators allowed entry for study and maintenance purposes.

Are there any theories about the purpose of the Lascaux cave paintings?

There are several theories regarding the purpose of the Lascaux cave paintings. Some scholars suggest they may have been part of religious or ceremonial activities, possibly relating to hunting magic or shamanistic rituals. Others believe the paintings could have served as a form of prehistoric storytelling or record-keeping. However, the exact purpose remains a subject of debate and speculation among archaeologists and anthropologists.

How does Lascaux contribute to our understanding of prehistoric life?

Lascaux provides a window into the world of our prehistoric ancestors, offering clues about their daily lives, spiritual beliefs, and the environment they inhabited. The variety of animals depicted suggests a rich biodiversity in the region during that period. The sophistication of the artwork indicates a developed sense of aesthetics and possibly a complex social structure capable of supporting such artistic endeavors. Lascaux stands as a testament to the cognitive and cultural capabilities of early humans.

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Discussion Comments

anon17543

What particular image in the Painted Gallery of Lascaux caves is different from those in the Great Hall of Bulls?

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    • The caves at Lascaux are filled with paintings that were produced by early Homo sapiens.
      By: Bayes Ahmed
      The caves at Lascaux are filled with paintings that were produced by early Homo sapiens.
    • Lascaux is the name of a region in France, most famous for its cave paintings.
      By: benkenogy
      Lascaux is the name of a region in France, most famous for its cave paintings.