Last week, I started a journey back in time to look at some of the many prehistoric relics left in this region by our ancestors. This week, we’re dropping in on the artists who used cave walls as their canvas 30,000 years ago, and then travelling even further back to meet their predecessors, Neanderthal hominids. A recent local discovery may transform our thinking about them.
Cave paintings at Pech Merle, Lot
A frisson travelled up my spine when I gazed at this image of a hand, outlined with ochre paint. This was almost like a self portrait, which the artist had communicated across thousands of years.
The cave paintings at the Grotte du Pech Merle in the Célé Valley of the Lot are not so well known as those of Lascaux in the Dordogne (top), but you can still see the originals, unlike the Lascaux replicas. Access is restricted to avoid damage to the paintings.
The most famous images at Pech Merle are the hand and the bizarre spotted horses, which research has found did exist then. The artist used a natural outcrop of rock for the head of the horse on the right. There are numerous other paintings of the animals found there at the time – woolly mammoths, reindeer, aurochs and bison – and a few humans, as well as other hands.
An explosion in cave art took place between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago. The Célé Valley, a busy hunting route, was one of its centres. Ten other caves with paintings exist in the area, but only Pech Merle is open to the public.
When cave paintings were first discovered, they were thought to be forgeries, too sophisticated for primitive humans to have produced. Carbon dating knocked that on the head.
However, as with many prehistoric remains, nobody really knows what they were for. The traditional view was that the artists painted the animals they hunted, but others believe they had a spiritual function. Some experts argue that the paintings were the work of shamans who “fixed” on the cave walls what they underwent in states of altered consciousness. This also reinforced their standing in prehistoric society.
Whatever the paintings’ function, the creative skills of the artists speak to us across the millennia. They may not have had writing, but they knew how to reproduce what they saw. They had a grasp of abstract art, too.
You can take a virtual tour and book online here, but nothing compares with the reality.
Neanderthal structures at Bruniquel
The conventional view of Neanderthal man as primitive, brutish and lacking in awareness is being overturned. The race died out around 40,000 years ago and the last known colony was in Spain.
Were Neanderthals victims of genocidal slaughter by the bigger-brained homo sapiens? Not necessarily, since there’s evidence that they lived alongside each other for several thousand years, and may even have interbred. Did they die out because of some genetic mutation or declining fertility? Or were they simply marginalised because homo sapiens outdid them in hunting and life skills?
We may never know, but recent discoveries show that Neanderthals had a more sophisticated social organisation than was once believed. They may have buried their dead and had religious beliefs. There’s also a debate about whether they were capable of producing both realistic and abstract art. The latter is evidence of a more heightened awareness.
Last year, a discovery deep in a cave at Bruniquel, Tarn-et-Garonne, moved forward the debate about Neanderthals’ capabilities. Two circular structures were found, composed of broken stalagmites, in which the fragments had been classified by size and wedged to maintain the structure.
Did the circles have a spiritual or an artistic purpose, or both? No obvious practical function comes to mind. They do show, though, that the people who made them had mastered the challenges of working underground, co-operated to create the circles and had a planned design and a purpose in mind. This goes well beyond the view of Neanderthals simply eking out a hand-to-mouth existence.
What is even more surprising is the date of these circles. Modern dating shows that they are around 176,000 years old, and thus predate by a long way the first appearance of homo sapiens in Europe, around 45,000 years ago.
Prehistoric life was tough, but our ancestors managed to have a spiritual life and produce wonderful art forms. I wonder if they had a sense of posterity or any inkling that people would see their work thousands of years later. The Pech Merle hands suggest that they might have done.
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