After all this talk about art, I thought perhaps I should blog some. When I first saw this picture of Lascaux‘s Great Hall of the Bulls, I gasped. This photograph has tremendous impact because it shows the whole “room,” not just one or two figures from the paintings, as is usually done. You can actually imagine yourself walking along the footpath, overarched by these powerful images, and swathed in the coolness and solidity of bedrock.
What I’ve read of prehistory tells me that big-game hunting was a major development in human evolution. It required cooperation, and thus communication, and the calorie-rich food source permitted leisure and the support of elders and women with small children. The women could then provide better post-natal care which not only increased the population but also allowed a gradual increase in brain size because bigger-brained babies could be born earlier (to permit passage through the birth canal) and still survive. Elders were also important as keepers of knowledge and tradition which facilitated survival and was perhaps the beginning of human culture. With all that large animals gave early humans, it is no wonder that our ancestors chose to immortalize them in this natural cathedral.
An obvious question is whether there was any religious significance to these images. It is possible that they are simply a reflection of these peoples’ understandable preoccupation with hunting. The paintings may be a way of paying respect to the spirits of the animals who died so that the people could grow and prosper. Or perhaps they were painted in hopes of gaining supernatural assistance in the hunt, in which case they would belong to the realm of religion. Studies of extant “primitive” peoples suggest that the latter is indeed the case, though there is still some debate in the matter.
The universality of the form of this art strikes me. Leaving behind normal life and going inside a structure to encounter that which you value most is nearly universal. Whether it’s a cave, church, labyrinth, inipi, or a mind in deep meditation, it seems to be a common human need to “go inside” to contact the source of life. The parallel with the womb springs to mind immediately. Are all these interior places of worship imitations of that dark, mysterious, inaccessible place from which we all magically appear at birth?
The enigma of Paleolithic cave art like that at Lascaux is that it was created over a period of about 5000 years and then, about 11,000 years ago, it suddenly and unaccountably stopped. It would be another 6000 years before art of the same calibre would be created by humans again. What happened during that long silence? We may never know.