Sample text for The cave painters : probing the mysteries of the world's first artists / Gregory Curtis.

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The Naked Cave Man

This book began in 1986 when my daughter Vivian saw a statue she called “a naked cave man.” For several days we had been riding on horseback across the Dordogne, the lovely area of river valleys, rolling hills, and thick forests in south-central France. It was late spring, just before the arrival of the swarms of rowers, hikers, and campers that descend on the region each summer. I did not know at the time that in eons past this appealing landscape had also attracted groups of the earliest humans. Their ancient campsites, usually found under the rock overhangs in the limestone cliffs that line the rivers, have kept archaeologists happily busy since they were first discovered more than 150 years ago.

As the archaeologists dig deeper, they find layer upon layer of occupation, the date of each layer receding further into the past. Occasionally, in the upper levels, which can be 15,000 to 20,000 years old, these digs turn up tiny beads patiently crafted from ivory, an engraving of an animal on a rock, or some reindeer’s teeth with a hole drilled at the root that were once part of a necklace. The people who made these delicate objects were the same ones who ventured into the caverns in the hillsides, sometimes crawling through narrow passages for hundreds of yards, to create the paintings, engravings, and bas-relief sculptures that still touch the soul of everyone who sees them.

During our trip Vivian and I stopped at Les Eyzies-de-Tyac, a village on the banks of the Ve;zère River. We turned out our horses in a small pasture conveniently across the road from our hotel and went to visit Font-de-Gaume, then as now the only cave with polychrome paintings that is still open to the public. After a surprisingly steep climb, we arrived at the entrance—a narrow, upright gash in the rock near the top of a cliff. Three or four other tourists were waiting when Vivian and I arrived.

In a few moments the guide to the cave arrived and unlocked the metal door that covered the entrance. We walked in single file down a tall, narrow passageway that proceeded roughly in a straight line despite a few slight twists and turns. A narrow metal grille placed in sections along the way protected the cave floor. There were rather dim lights hidden in the walls on both sides. The guide turned them on in a given section as we arrived there and then turned them off as we passed through. After about seventy yards, the guide stopped. Using a red laser as a pointer, she began talking about the first painting.

I was tremendously excited. The little I knew about prehistoric painted caves came from photographs in books and magazines. Now, some of the real paintings were right in front of me in all their glory. There were round, fat bison drawn in gentle curving lines. They had deep, expressive eyes and tiny legs drawn in perfect perspective. Mammoths with long, curved tusks stood placidly among the bison. Horses outlined in black, now partially obscured by natural excretions, galloped across the cave wall. Most impressive of all were two large reindeer facing each other. The one on the right, a female, was on her knees. The male on the left, whose antlers formed a magnificent long arc, had gently lowered his head toward her and had just begun licking the top of her brow. The grandeur of the male and the delicacy of the female in this quiet moment, so intimate and tender, made the painting touching and irresistible.

Beauty in art or in nature or in a person is always surprising because it is stronger and more affecting than you could have anticipated. That’s why, even though I was prepared for the paintings in Font-de-Gaume to be beautiful, seeing them was startlingly intense, like having a flashbulb ignite two inches from your eyes. I was reeling a little, since there was so much about the paintings I hadn’t expected.

For one thing, they were punctuated with indecipherable signs. The simplest ones consisted of a horizontal line and a vertical one, like an upside-down T. Other signs had lines added to this basic shape. Some had slanted lines at the top and others had parallel vertical lines that made the sign look like a stick-figure house. And there were signs in different styles. Some were grids of straight lines inside a rectangle. Others were simply two circles below two arcs. They resembled a cartoon ghost peering above the horizon. Often the signs appeared alone, but they might also appear near or even within a painting. They weren’t writing, since the signs didn’t repeat the way writing would. Instead they must have been an elaborate code, with each variation having a specific meaning—a number or clan or time of year. In fact, they could be anything. But the presence of the signs proves that the paintings meant more to the people who made them than the paintings alone could convey. The signs marked the paintings in some way. They classified them or ordered them or attributed them according to . . . what? It gave me a start to realize that for their creators, these paintings by themselves were not enough. They needed a gloss, elaboration, captions!

Also, I was astounded by the way the cave artists used the contours of the cave wall to enhance their work. This is a special quality of cave art that photographs rarely convey. The powerful shoulders of bison, for instance, are often painted over a bulge in the rock that makes the muscles of the animals seem to swell realistically and gives the work a dimension that would have been impossible on a flat surface. This happens so often that it’s clear that the artists weren’t simply taking advantage of the contours they happened upon as they painted. Instead they must have examined the wall closely first so as to find the places where the shape of the wall suggested animals or parts of animals before they began to paint. This meant that, at least some of the time, the cave artists had painted the animals suggested by the wall rather than imposing their own ideas onto the surface.

Photographs in books or magazines make the paintings look random, and even in the cave there isn’t any apparent order at first. The animals seem lumped together according to whims of the ancient artists, and they are often painted one on top of the other in ways that are impossible in nature. The guide pointed out a red bison facing left that had a mammoth engraved over it facing right. The size of the two animals was roughly the same even though a real mammoth would have been immensely larger than a real bison. And, with the exception of the male reindeer licking the female, the animals didn’t seem to be doing anything. They were just there on the rock. Sometimes they faced each other head on, but even then they stood stoically and without any sign of aggression. And the mix of animals—bison, mammoths, horses, and even a rhinoceros—seemed random as well.

That is, they seemed random until you looked a second time. We were in the cave only forty-five minutes that afternoon, but that was just long enough to begin to see some order despite the apparent chaos. Female animals are painted red, for example, although not every red animal is a female. When animals face each other, one is red and one is black. The black animal is on the right in the paintings nearer the entrance but appears on the left in the paintings farther in the interior. Late in the tour, I looked back at a frieze of bison that I had seen straight on a few moments earlier. Now the animals curved around the wall of the cave and appeared three-dimensional. Their legs were in perfect perspective, which added to the strong illusion that they were moving away down the corridor. Clearly the artist had planned for the painting to be seen from the spot where I stood.

That spot, provocatively, was before a tall but shallow cavity in the wall that is known as the Bison Cabinet. It was located in a spacious oval room that opened at the end of the long corridor we had followed from the entrance. The room reminded me of a nave in a small church. It even had a domed roof. And the Bison Cabinet, which was a curving recess, had the air of an adjoining chapel. As the name suggests, it is filled with paintings of bison. Five are well preserved and easy to see, but originally there were ten or more. The bison swirl about as if floating in the clouds. They face right, left, up, or down, and just below them is a wide horizontal fissure in the wall. Were they emerging from the fissure or were they being sucked down into it? And wasn’t there some connection between these bison in the Cabinet and the bison receding down the hallway that were best seen from a spot just before the Cabinet?

Vivian had looked as long and hard as I had, and we both found ourselves put into a kind of emotional swirl by the experience. Happy but set slightly off-kilter by what we had just seen, we left the cave to visit the museum of prehistory. In the summer of 2004 the museum moved to a dramatic new building located just below the old one. But in 1986, the museum was still in an old chateau high in the cliffs behind Les Eyzies. The rooms were filled with polished wood-and-glass cases that seemed left over from the nineteenth century. Some of them held the tedious, repetitive displays of chipped stone tools—meaningless to a layman—that are inevitable in a museum devoted to ancient humans. But other cases contained rocks or pieces of antler with engravings of bison or horses. There were a few rocks with engravings of vulvas that were so faint it was a wonder that even archaeologists on the lookout for artifacts had noticed them. We wandered about listlessly. In Font-de-Gaume we had just seen the heights Ice Age civilization could reach. In the museum we were seeing the detritus of daily life.

At last we walked back outside. In front of the museum there was a long, narrow terrace with a white limestone statue of a Neanderthal in one corner. Perhaps seven feet tall, streaked and stained by wind and rain, he stared out of sunken eyes. His square head sunk down in his neck, he held his arms stiffly at his sides, and his face was contorted. Everything about his expression and posture conveyed tension, anger, and threat. He frightened and embarrassed my daughter, who declined to have her picture taken with, as she said, “a naked cave man.”

Instead we turned away and looked out across the valley below. The village was just at our feet. In front of it, the Ve;zère River made a long slow bend. Trees whose branches bent down to the water lined both riverbanks. Beyond them a wide, level valley stretched out until, in the distance, another wall of cliffs rose up. Gray clouds, threatening rain, covered the sky and made the valley look lush and green, and for just a moment everything I had seen that afternoon made sense.

If you looked at the landscape the way early humans might have, it became clear why they had made their homes in the cliffs where my daughter and I now stood. The overhangs gave shelter. The height of the cliffs prevented any approach from the rear by threatening animals or by other humans. The river below would attract herds of migrating animals and other game, and anyone living high in the cliffs could follow their movements for miles across the valley. Here was a safe place to live where food was plentiful.

But surely those practical reasons weren’t everything. There was something else about the landscape before us, something that would have been surpassingly important to people who could paint masterpieces on the walls of a cave. The landscape was beautiful. Sometime long ago, hadn’t our distant ancestors stood where we now stood and paused, as we did now, to relish the scene below, to revel in the trees by the river flowering in springtime, to watch the flight of birds or the patterns of animal herds crossing the valley, or to marvel as a storm front moved in over the distant hills, as one was doing now?

In that moment when the three of us—the angry statue, my daughter, and I—all looked across the same green, ancient, and seductive landscape, this book was born.

During my research, every time I entered a cave the same excitement I’d felt the day I first saw Font-de-Gaume with Vivian returned undiminished. It happened even when I revisited Font-de-Gaume itself many times, often arranging to go alone with just a guide. The solemn mammoths, the tender reindeer, and the swirling bison in the Bison Cabinet never failed to make me pause in wonder.

But, as the caves became more familiar, I was also able to assume scientific neutrality. As a result, I began to see much more. I would stand by a wall while the guide shone a light at oblique angles, and figures that had been invisible rose into view as if they had been summoned from the solid rock behind the surface of the wall. Sometimes these images were beautiful, but sometimes they appeared to be just doodling—strange animals, funny human shapes, or a line of red painted in a small crevice to make it look like a vulva. Such great variety in a single cave proved that many people had ventured inside for a variety of reasons. Not everyone who drew on the walls was a great master—although many were. And not everyone who entered the cave kept his or her mind on solemn thoughts. While some painted grand images of their society’s history or myths or visions, others seemed to have scratched their own private musings in the corners. Everything that’s there—not just certain images or groups of images—must be considered in order to understand the meaning of the art in the caves.

This book contains two narratives, one considerably shorter than the other. The shorter one covers several million years as Homo sapiens arose in Africa, migrated out, and, about 50,000 years ago, pushed across Europe from east to west. Some groups went on clear to the Atlantic Ocean. But those who stopped short of the ocean and lived on either side of the Pyrenees were the ones who began to paint in the caves. Their work was the most impressive part of an outflowing of creativity by Homo sapiens that began about 45,000 years ago and has continued ever since.

From the Hardcover edition.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Cave paintings -- France.
Cave paintings -- Spain.