Learning to Love Cro Magnon Art at Lascaux II



“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”  Plutarch.

If you’ve ever slogged through a boring lecture series, you know how much resistance the human mind can offer to being force-fed dry facts.  It’s downright painful, and gives you at least a glimpse of how a duck must feel when it’s being prepped for the foie gras shed.

Now and again, though,  some spark will kindle a flame that makes us hunger for more knowledge, more facts, and new insights.  It’s a flame that feeds itself.  And that’s exactly what happens to many visitors to the pre-history museum at Lascaux II in the Perigord region of southwestern France.

When I visited the museum on a cool spring day in May of this year, my expectations were fairly low, probably because my knowledge of the original Lascaux cave was pretty limited.  I knew that the cave had paintings in it, and that they were believed to be over 15,000 years old.   I couldn’t imagine that “cave man” paintings would warrant more than a cursory glance, maybe a side note in my travel journal.

But when the enthusiastic tour guide began to describe the events that lead to the discovery and exploration of the original cave in 1940, a small flame began to burn in my imagination.  He was young, a student of geopolitics, surprisingly, but his English was excellent, and so was his ability to weave a captivating tale.  His description began with the four adventurous young men and the dog that first stumbled upon the cave in 1940, thanks to a recently fallen tree that had broken through the ceiling.  His passion for the clever artistry, perseverance, and extraordinary talent of the strangely advanced Cro Magnon painters was contagious.   Through his well chosen words, our little tour group, crowded together in the cold, dimly lit replica of the original cave, could almost see the ancient masters at work.  It was impossible not to puzzle over their mysterious motives, and to marvel over the millennia that separates us from them.    With the word pictures that he created igniting my imagination,  I was literally awestruck when I was finally able to see the cave and the expertly replicated paintings.

The tour answered far fewer questions than it raised, which was at least part of the point of the tour guide’s narrative.  Was it religious zeal that lead these ancients to go to such great lengths  to create their colorful and elaborate depictions of bulls, horses, and deer deep inside a dark cavern?  Or was it just boredom during the long winter months  of an approaching ice age?    Did they hone their artistic skills in the light of day on animal skins, and then transfer them to the cave?  How did they grasp the artistic ability to depict three dimensional perspective, a talent that was lost to humanity for 15,000 years or so?

I can’t answer these questions with any more certainty than the thousands of experts that have studied Lascaux and related sites that were left in the region after Cro Magnon was swept into the distant past.  But now the fire is kindled, and I want to know more.

Not every imagination will be set alight by the mysteries of prehistory, but if you have opportunity, don’t miss the chance to introduce yourself to the artistry and intrigue of the ancients at Lascaux II in the Perigord district of Southwest France.  You might find a new avocation or even a career.