Twenty thousand years ago, the entrance to the cave was an overhang. It slowly crumbled, leaving behind a large passageway through which the painters and engravers entered.
About 8,000 years ago, a rockslide blocked the entrance. This natural closure explains the exceptional state of preservation of the Lascaux paintings.
In 1940, a tree uprooted by a storm opened a crack in the cave’s ceiling, leaving a hole 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter on the surface. It is through this hole that the four boys discovered Lascaux.
From 1948 to 1963, more than one million people visited Lascaux—an average of 100 visitors per hour! The excess production of carbon dioxide, water, and heat began to disturb the cave’s environment.
In 1950, the first of many crises hit: a green fungus appeared on the cave walls, followed by a white one, and black stains. Bacteria, algae, and fungi began to jeopardize the integrity of the cave’s masterpieces.
Since 1968, the human presence in Lascaux has been limited, allowing the cave to recuperate. Today, the traces left by its various “diseases” are subtle, but the site is sensitive and remains under permanent supervision.
A limestone cave sculpted by rivers ten million years ago, Lascaux is a succession of rounded cavities, without stalactites or stalagmites, offering painters true canvases made of white calcite.
The ancient artists etched images with blades and chisels and applied mineral pigments (made from soil and rocks mixed with liquids) using brushes and pads, or by spraying paints from the mouth or through a thin tube.
Twenty-five painted caves, including Lascaux, have been found so far in the Dordogne region of France, within the Vézère Valley, and are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Some have suggested that the images at Lascaux were created according to a recurring sequence that corresponds to the mating seasons: horses (spring) are painted first, followed by aurochs (summer), and finally by stags (autumn).
But was the cave a sanctuary of forgotten religion; a place for commemorative or initiation rituals; a sacred place with mythical representations of the creation of the world; or a place where the shaman (spiritual healer) practiced his magic? No one knows for certain.
Hunting a horse, bison, or stag provided enough food for an entire group—and prestige for the hunter. However, reindeer move in herds and are easier to isolate and kill.
Spearheads made from reindeer antler were found inside Lascaux and were marked with star signs similar to those seen on the animal paintings.
Grooves gouged into animals painted quite high on the cave’s walls and ceiling may be the result of scraping from spearheads attached to poles during rituals.
Forget about scruffy people dressed in rags and carrying clubs! Paleolithic humans knew how to make a needle out of bone and create sewing thread from vegetable fiber or tendons.
These people scraped animal hides, treated them with red ochre, and cut them with expertise. Their clothes fit well, and they even knew how to make buttons.
Men and women wore necklaces made of sculpted teeth and veils decorated with pearls made from shells. Such finery was linked to their status in the group.
When the cave was discovered in 1940, the best way to record accurate drawings of the paintings was to simply use tracing paper. A daunting task, the paper needed to be held up to (yet not touch!) the walls, as someone traced the lines that man made nearly 20,000 years earlier.
Decades of work by artists, photographers, filmmakers, engineers, scientists, and researchers have now resulted in unbelievably lifelike reproductions of the original works that not only allow the public to enjoy these ancient masterpieces, but also lead to a new understanding of this elusive Paleolithic site.
© Philippe Psaila
Out of the nearly 2,000 figures in Lascaux (Lass-KOH), there is only one image of a human depicted—perhaps a dying hunter or god—as seen here in The Shaft Scene.
Sixteen feet deep, the shaft is located in the center of the Lascaux complex. Its sunken position and difficult accessibility indicate that the painters reached it through another entrance that has yet to be found.
In France, someone who discovers a treasure is considered to be its “inventor.” Marcel Ravidat (age 18) and Jacques Marsal (age 15) of Montignac are thus considered the inventors of Lascaux, as are their friends, Parisians George Agniel (age 16) and Simon Coencas (age 13).
Here, Ravidat and Marsal (center) are pictured with their teacher, Léon Laval (far left), and Henri Breuil (far right), a famous prehistorian. After the war, Marsal devoted the rest of his life as chief guide at the cave until his death in 1989.
© AMNH/D. Finnin
The scientific name of the dinoflagellate species on the left (Pyrodinium bahamense) means “whirling fire creature of the Bahamas.” It rides the waves of the Caribbean Sea and collects in large numbers in sheltered coves.
Up to 30 percent of dinoflagellate species that live in the ocean light up the water when shaken or stirred, creating breathtaking bioluminescent displays, as is seen in the photo on the right.
© E. Daynès
Technology and scientific data guided French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès as she created this reconstruction of one of our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Bones and artifacts from around Lascaux helped her piece together her portrait of this young person, right down to the stitching on the child’s elaborate shirt.
From these same archaeological sources, scientists know that these Paleolithic people rarely lived past 40, but appear to have been surprisingly healthy overall. Skeletons show no indication of cancer, tuberculosis, or malnutrition.
© Philippe Psaila
In Dordogne, an artist works to recreate the cave walls for Scenes From The Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux. Each wall, made of an ultra-thin “stone-veil” polymer measuring .4 inches (10 mm) thick, takes 1,800 hours to create.
Guided by high-resolution photographs and stereoscopic pairs, the “copyist” uses natural pigments similar to those employed by the original artist to ensure accuracy and precision of the replication.
© Philippe Psaila
Lascaux’s artists took advantage of the cave’s surface texture and relief to create perspective and the illusion of movement. Overlapping or repeating limbs, coupled with the flickering light of moving torches, helped to “animate” the works.
For example, in The Crossed Bison Panel, the artist overlapped the hind legs of the animals and utilized a concave depression in the cave wall to create the illusion of two bison galloping at top speed toward the viewer.