September 12 – Anniversary of a Cave Discovery

Posted on September 12, 2015

This photo shows two of the four
teenaged cave discoverers, plus
two of the adults they consulted about
how to keep their discovery safe.
What do you suppose four French teenagers discovered, on this date in 1940, that became of enormous interest to scientists, historians, and tourists alike?

If your answer is “a cave,” you're half right.

They discovered some cave paintings!

Paintings that were created about 17,300 years ago!

The early humans who created the art in Lascaux Caves mostly painted animals, but they also painted abstract signs. They did not paint trees or other plants, and they didn't paint landscape.

There are almost 2,000 different figures and signs on the cave walls, and almost half of them are animals. We can guess that animals must have been very important to these hunter-gatherers!

Lions and horses and bears, oh my!

Here are some of the creatures painted on the cave walls:

364 horses (or equines)

90 deer (or stags)

around 25 cattle and 25 bison

7 big cats

1 bear

1 wooly rhinoceros

1 human and 1 bird

Human-hand stencils are far more
common than images of entire
human figures.
Many of the painted figures look like animals but cannot be positively identified as a particular kind of animal. Strangely enough, there are no pictures that look like reindeer, even though we know from archeological evidence that reindeer were these Stone Age people's main food!

One of the rooms has four images of black bulls, or aurochs – one of which is huge! At 17 feet (5.2 m) long, this is the largest animal ever found, before or since, in cave art.

Lichen and fungus and mold, oh my!

If you know anything about France in the 1940s, you know that Hitler and his Nazi army was making the nation a very unsafe place to be. But news of the the teenagers' discovery of cave paintings still spread like wildfire, and many people came immediately to see the paintings. The boys right away started charging 40 cents per person to see the cave. A trusted teacher told the boys that it was imperative that they not allow visitors to go alone into the cave, and that they not allow people to touch the paintings. As a matter of fact, he told them that they should guard the cave day and night.

Three of the boys returned to school after their summer vacation was over, but the youngest boy, Jacques Marsal, pitched a tent at the cave's entrance and really did guard it day and night! He became the main tour guide as well as the security detail - and he served in this way FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE!!!

It wasn't long after the World War II that the Lascaux Caves were opened to the public for professional, commercial tours. (Still utilizing Marsal as a guide!) At that point, the number of visitors jumped to more than a thousand people per day!

Unfortunately, as you might guess, more than a thousand people a day introduced a lot of contamination into those caves! The heat and humidity of all those people affected the cave environment, and even the carbon dioxide breathed out by all those people made a difference! Soon scientists could see that the pigments used in the paintings were breaking down – and, even worse, lichen was growing on the walls!

As Rick Steves says, the cave paintings deteriorated more in 15 years than it had in the 15 THOUSAND years before that!

The caves were closed to the public in 1963, but scientists and preservationists were still allowed to visit the caves. Since 1998, however, black mold (a kind of fungus) has been growing in the caves. In 2008 authorities closed the cave even to the experts – only one scientist could enter the cave for 20 minutes per week to monitor conditions in the cave.

Apparently the battle with the fungus is far from over, but at this point a few scientists are allowed to work inside the cave for just a few days out of every month.

Lascaux II...and III...

A careful copy of two of the most interesting rooms' worth of cave paintings have been painted onto the walls of a nearby cave. Visitors are allowed to view these paintings – with no additional harm for the originals!

I read that an even more careful replica is being made of yet another room, the Nave of Lascaux, using laser technology to project the Paleolithic images onto layers of polystyrene.

Why cave paintings?

Anthropologists still do not know (and may never know) why so many Paleolithic (early Stone Age) humans all over the world have painted the walls of caves. Many cave paintings are located deep in caverns, in rooms that are hard to get to, and there is no evidence that people actually lived in the rooms that are decorated with these paintings. That's why many scientists think that the paintings might have ceremonial and/or religious purposes.

The earliest known cave paintings are at least 35,000 years old; these are located on one of the islands of Indonesia. Cave paintings have been found in Africa, North and South America, Australia, Europe, and many parts of Asia. I hope you realize that that means all over the world, since humans never lived in Antarctica (at least not until scientists opened research stations there in the mid-1950s).

I read that Paleolithic people probably produced more rock art in the open air than they did in caves, but only six sites of open-air Paleolithic art have survived until the modern age. So cave art is probably not typical of Stone Age humans, but far more cave art has survived!

Also on this date:

Plan ahead:

Check out my Pinterest boards for:
And here are my Pinterest boards for:

No comments:

Post a Comment