It happened today - September 12, 2015
Was a dog caveman’s best friend? Very possibly. It was certainly a dog that led four French teenagers into a narrow cavern on September 12, 1940, where they discovered the fabled Lascaux Cave and its hauntingly evocative paintings.
There is some dispute, as there will be in such matters, over the precise age of this astounding Paleolithic… well, what shall I call it? Site is a safe word. But bland. Is it a church? A town hall? A temple? Something we cannot name because it combined functions we keep separate?
Anyway, it’s perhaps 17,000 years old and full of stunning paintings, artistically mature, powerful, creative. As Chesterton said (yes, him again) the naïve progressive view of human beings and their thought expects primitive art to be, well, primitive: Clumsy, stupid, off-putting. But the 600 or so paintings and nearly 1,500 engravings at Lascaux, like other such sites including the Chauvet art as much as 30,000 years old showcased in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, are not that way at all. (And reconstructions of at least one ancient flute, from Germany, show that persons of cave had the same fundamental notes and notions of melody as we do; absolute truth rears its disquieting head even in music 400 centuries old.)
Of course the Lascaux art is technologically primitive. There are no digital files to download, no petroleum-based pigments, no printing presses. But it’s all the more remarkable that, nevertheless, the art is so evocative, so vivid, so visually sophisticated, so… alive. Especially to imagine it lit by swaying torchlight, accompanied by chants, rituals, tales and dances, is to feel a wild appeal from that vanished world.
What exactly they are trying to say we cannot tell. The hands that made them, and the tongues that told their tales, are long crumbled to dust. But they are trying to say something, and if we could decipher it we feel that we would understand and sympathize. Possibly animal-based cults that reflect man’s eternal yearning for something beyond this world and eternal conviction that something greater exists. Possibly a celebration of a community, its achievements and its members. Possibly the stories that bind the community together.
It is hard to tell. We don’t know when the paintings were done, whether they were added to slowly and carefully in a more or less continuous process or in sporadic bursts, whether they all reflect the same basic beliefs and habits or wildly different ones.
What we do know, as we stare in amazement and awe, is that people like ourselves did something there we should have been proud to do if we could have managed it.
P.S. Human intrusion into the caves has jeopardized the art, including fungus possibly caused by conservation efforts. We may not be that much wiser than our ancestors after all. But at least we still love our dogs.