Lascaux Cave, like many archaeological sites, was discovered by chance. Four young boys stumbled across the cave in 1940 in southern France near the town of Montignac. Inside, these adventurers encountered what later researchers further explored and analyzed: a cavern filled with paintings and engravings on limestone walls depicting an array of images, which were determined to have been created millennia before. Today, Lascaux Cave’s contents provide a glimpse of a people and a time in prehistory of which little else is known.
Lascaux is a multichambered cave extending approximately 250 meters in total length when considering all its areas. Chamber widths vary considerably so that the height of Lascaux’s ceiling is equally diverse in size, going from less than one meter to several meters high, with variations in dimensions sometimes happening within a single chamber. As for when the cave was occupied, researchers conducted the dating of Lascaux’s occupations through the use of multiple techniques including carbon-14 dating and the observance of animal species depicted in the wall art. The results of these tests have generated a range of corresponding dates, particularly between 18,000 and 16,000 years ago.
The actual paintings and engravings within the Lascaux Cave include a myriad of designs ranging from realistic and abstract images of animals to images and designs whose meaning remains undetermined. The images include horses, aurochs, bison, and felines. In addition to the wall art discovered in the Lascaux Cave, researchers discovered tools such as projectile points, miscellaneous flint tools used for engraving, and pottery sherds. As with other caves discovered in Europe with similar artwork, the paintings and engravings within the Lascaux Cave demonstrate the use of multiple techniques to generate images on stone. The materials used to generate colors for the wall art at Lascaux were predominately iron and manganese oxides.
Questions remain as to the importance and function of these images to their creators. Some researchers have postulated that the images were to serve as magical aids in hunting, perhaps in rituals; others have argued that the images were created as a form of decorative art. While answers to these questions remain elusive, interest in the images of Lascaux Cave remains strong. However, further investigation of the cave and its contents has been suspended and access has been restricted. This was considered necessary to protect the cave and its contents from continued deterioration caused by multiple contaminants that were destroying Lascaux’s art. When and if access will be granted to researchers in the future remains to be seen. Fortunately, researchers have at least acquired a glimpse into the lives and activities of those who occupied and decorated Lascaux Cave, thereby providing us with some understanding of an era that remains relatively unknown.
Neil Patrick O’Donnell
See also Anthropology; Altamira Cave; Chauvet Cave;
Evolution, Cultural; Olduvai Gorge
Aujoulat, N. (2005). Lascaux: Movement, space, and time. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Tattersall, I., & Mowbray, K. (2006). Lascaux Cave. In H. J. Birx (Ed.), Encyclopedia of anthropology (Vol. 4, pp. 1431-1432). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.