Lascaux Cave Paintings

The cave paintings at Lascaux are among the earliest known works of art. They were discovered in 1940 near the village of Montignac in central France when four boys stumbled into a cave. Inside they found a series of rooms with nearly 1,500 paintings of animals that were between 15,000 and 17,000 years old.

There are several theories regarding the function of the paintings. A natural feature of the cave may have suggested the shape of an animal to a prehistoric observer who then added highlights to relay his vision to others. Since many of the paintings are located in inaccessible parts of the cave, they may have been used for magical practices. Possibly, prehistoric people believed that the act of drawing animals, especially with a high degree of accuracy, would bring the beasts under their control or increase their numbers in times of scarcity.

The animals are outlined or portrayed in silhouette. They are often shown in what is called twisted perspective, that is, with their heads in profile but their horns facing front. Many of the images include dots, linear patterns, and other designs that may carry symbolic meaning. The most magnificent chamber of the cave, known as the Great Hall of the Bulls, contains a painted narrative. From left to right, the pictures depict the chase and capture of a bison herd.

As soon as the paintings had been examined and identified as Paleolithic, the caves were opened to the public in 1948. By 1955, however, it became increasingly evident that exposure to as many as 1,200 visitors per day was taking its toll on the works inside. Although protective measures were taken, the site closed in 1963. In order to satisfy public demand, a life-sized replica of the cave was completed in 1983, only 200 meters from the original.

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