Folkdays: Cave Art


Some weeks, for these Folkdays posts, a topic will reveal itself to me and more-or-less demand to be written about.

That is precisely what happened this week. The phenomenon of prehistoric cave art has been on the peripheries of my mind for a while: a writing residency that I have been working on has led my trail of thought from foraging, to hunter-gatherer communities, to cave art.

At the beginning of this week, the subject came more to the fore, as my family and I watched an fascinating film about cave art. The following morning my partner sent me a link to another, very different but equally inspiring, video on the same subject! It practically asked to be written about, so here it is.

There is another reason for this post to be written and published now: the first film mentioned above, ‘The Final Passage’, is only available for free online viewing until 7th June. ‘The Final Passage’ showcases the Chauvet Cave in southern France, through a phenomenally immersive visual experience. There is a link to this film, as well as to the second video, at the bottom of this post.

The second video, ‘The Past We Can Never Return To’, tells the story of the Lascaux Cave, and reflects on what cave art means to us today. Lascaux is also located in southern France, so while I am aware cave art is present all over the globe and there are a number of other prolific examples in other countries, this post will likely be more limited in focus, as I discuss a little about what I learned, as well as my own thoughts and feelings.

Cave art is special for a number of reasons, the most obvious perhaps being the astonishing age of some examples. The art on the walls and ceiling of Lascaux cave was determined to be at least 17,000 years old; in the Chauvet cave, the oldest of the paintings are a staggering 36,000 years old. For those will little or no anthropological experience, it is difficult to imagine humans at that time: what they thought or felt, what practices they took part in, or what their life experience was like. Cave art allows us a little insight, even if it is simply to speculate, or imagine.

I suppose what qualifies this subject for a ‘Folkdays’ post, is that cave art has been described as ‘the oldest record of storytelling’. It is a pictorial story, of course: an illustration of the fauna present in the landscape; scenes from everyday life, such as hunting; possibly even depictions of geological events such as volcanic eruptions. There is still plenty of debate on how exactly to interpret these stories. Opinions are divided on whether the paintings of bison, antelopes, and mammoths depict sources of food, sources of danger, or something more spiritual; they could be all three at once. The idea of the drawings being a form of ‘hunting magic’, was put forward by Henri Breuil: the drawings conjure up an abundance of prey, and offer protection against predators. If true, this interpretations shows early humans to be respectful of the balance in nature, and of their place within the landscape.

We might be tempted to claim that humans have since lost that respect for balance and nature. Humanity has become so sprawling and destructive that it has taken a worldwide pandemic to remind us of nature’s power, and our precarious position as a part of it. In this way, cave art serves as a reminder that we must be aware of what can be our downfall, as well as what we can gain. An interesting insight into what cave art can teach us during the time of coronavirus can be found here. Cave art also shows us how we have not lost all respect for the balance of nature. Noticing how the water vapour in human breath was causing the growth of mold and destroying the art, authorities closed Chauvet and Lascaux caves to visitors in 1994 and 1963 respectively.

There is another type of art on the walls of both caves (and many others across the globe): hand stencils. Compared to the prevalence of animal drawings, depictions of human are rather rare, and significantly less detailed. When these early human did mark their own presence, it was in a more abstract way: by blowing pigment at a wall and leaving the negative of their hand behind. Hand stencils are much of the focus in ‘The Past We Can Never Return To’, and narrator John Green offers an interpretation of the story they are telling: ‘I was here. You are not new.’ These hand prints, the same shape and size as our own, almost invite us to reach out and connect with those who made them. They bring us far closer to the life of early man, in a way skeletal remains simply cannot.

Yet, unlike skeletal remains which can be removed and displayed in a museum, the cave art cannot be moved, and the caves themselves are now closed. So that visitors could still get a sense of the environment underground, and see likenesses of the art, replicas of the Chauvet and Lascaux caves were made, painstakingly recreating the paintings with many of the same pigments used in prehistoric times. While this might be underwhelming to some, it does show humans to still have a sensitivity to the world around us, and the damaging effect we can have.

It also reveals, in opening the replicas at all, that we still desire that connection our ancestors offered us through their art. Green expresses how it appears making art was ‘not optional’ for early humans. In the same way, allowing ourselves to see and experience this art is not optional. Art is a means of connection, an instinctual need to create, and share both in the enjoyment of the making and in the receiving. It cannot, and will not, go ignored.

  • To watch ‘The Final Passage’, available to view online until 7 June, click here.
  • Missed the film? You can still explore the vast Chauvet cave here.
  • A similar immersive tour of the Lascaux cave can be viewed here.
  • ‘The Past We Can Never Return To’ can be viewed here, or below.

For more ‘Folkdays’ content, see my blog.

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