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Prehistoric Cave Paintings and Artifacts

France

Walking through the Caves of Lascaux, under a stampede of 600 impressively painted animals covering its ceiling, we marvel at the artistry and artifacts of people 15,000 years ago.

Complete Video Script

[5] Once upon a time, some 30,000 years ago, when Ice Age glaciers melted, people had time to do more than just survive. Eventually, civilization in Europe was born and with that, so was art.

[6] Prehistoric Europeans, because they were human, were driven to create. Even before there was architecture, there were caves. In the south of France, with its honeycombed limestone cliffs, early humans painted surprisingly realistic scenes on the walls of caves.

[7, Font-de-Gaume Cave, Dordogne, France] From about 18,000 until 10,000 BC, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth, prehistoric people painted deep inside caves in this part of Europe. These weren't just crude doodles, but huge and sophisticated projects executed by artists and supported by an impressive culture.

[8] The most famous cave, Lascaux, now has a precisely copied replica next door, built to help conserve the original.

[9, Lascaux Cave facsimile, c. 18,000 BC, Dordogne, France] It's easy to underestimate the sophistication of people 10 or 20,000 years ago. These long-ago societies captured the world they knew with extraordinary skills. Wild animals are impressively realistic, caught in full motion — running, jumping, facing off. The canvas for these early artists was enormous — this cavern alone is a football field long, with over 600 animals life-size or larger. By torchlight, they'd flicker to life.

[10] Guide: We are in the Oxen Room, the most spectacular room of Lascaux. It's a sacred place. We don't live in a church; they never lived in the caves. And it's a huge composition, it's a calculated composition, because they have taken advantage of the slip of rock to relate in a circle two groups of bulls facing each other. And in the center of this composition, they have united the three principal animals of Lascaux: horse, ox, and deer.
Rick: Is this a hunting scene?
Guide: No, it's not a hunting scene because on the walls the hunter doesn't exist. They never tell the everyday life; the meaning is more complex.
Rick: What is the biggest animal?
Guide: It is this bull — it is the largest painting in the cave: 16 feet from the top of the horn to the tip of the tail.

[11] While over 15,000 years old, this was not the work of crude "cavemen," but of a complex society that produced skilled artists. Flames from these oil lamps flickered in those art-covered caverns. Think of how impressive the engineering challenges alone must have been — hauling in materials, grinding paints, erecting scaffolding — all before that first prehistoric Michelangelo could reach up and paint the first stroke.

[12, National Museum of Prehistory, Les Eyzies, France] Surviving artifacts give insight into these people. Mourners draped delicate jewelry on the corpses of loved ones — necklaces of stag teeth and tiny shells strung together. These barbed spearheads and fishhooks would work well today. Finely carved spear throwers show impressive naturalism for something three times as old as the oldest pyramids.

[13] Art is part of being human: We communicate and tackle problems. We imagine and evolve. What did the paintings mean? What emotions did they trigger? Did they worship these animals? Or capture them in paint to magically capture them in the hunt? We just don't know. But we do know that the people who painted these are like our close cousins. Compared to the beginning of humanity — born in Africa three million years ago — Lascaux was like yesterday.