National Geographic : 1948 Dec
Lascaux Cave, Cradle of World Art BY NORBERT CASTERET IWith Illustrationsby National GeographicPhotographerMaynard Owen Williams IN THE hills of Dordogne, France, prehis toric caverns riddle the soft rock like holes in a cheese. Beside the little River Vezere the Lascaux Cave has surpassed all others in one respect. On its walls, fresh as the day cave men of at least 20,000 years ago outlined them on the rugged rock, is the finest collection of prehistoric drawings ever found. This realistic art, done from life, shows what vast changes have come since Old Stone Age artists recorded subjects familiar to them but now unknown within a radius of thousands of miles. Savants, provided with such new data, strive to solve the secrets of ages compared with which those of the Babylonians and the Pyra mid builders are almost modern. With Dr. Maynard Owen Williams, of the National Geographic Society, and his charm ing wife, I rode south across France to see these wonders for the first time. A cold wave had frozen the gutters of Paris, and beside the winding Vezere shiny stalactites of ice glittered in the weak sun of January. It reminded me of a day when we had swum in glacial waters at Montespan, 26 years ago (page 776 and map, page 774). Out of the Mouths of Children "Wise men," I said, "are delving deeper into the long-forgotten secrets of prehistory. But it was out of the mouths of youngsters that the first announcements of much prehis toric art have come." "You know," exclaimed my American friend, "that is a story! You have spent most of your life squirming through this prehistoric underground. You have a tremendous follow ing among French youth. You are the one to tell it. "But before you describe the wonders of Lascaux, you might tell how children, even truant schoolboys, helped discover such high brow relics of low-browed cave men." * So here it is. France, rich in prehistoric caverns, was the cradle of all art. It shares with Spain those magic Pyrenean grottoes upon whose rocky walls Old Stone Age men left sketches and paintings. Today they are important clues to man's beginnings. These prehistoric art treasures, relics of the Aurignacian and Mag dalenian epochs,t go back 15,000 to 30,000 years. Prehistorians study these ancient rec- ords-and sometimes discover new grottoes themselves. But through curiosity, love of adventure, and unspoiled talents for observation, mere youths have endowed the solemn science of prehistory with sensational finds. These amateurs have not been able to in terpret the secrets of the past, but they have often pointed the way to new wonderlands. A Little Girl Leads the Scientists In Spain, a certain Marcelino de Sautuola, a lawyer, had a passion for prehistory. In 1879 he was digging away in an obscure cave not far from Santander. Its name, Altamira, until then hardly known, has since become a household word. One day, fateful in the epic of man's grop ings toward the dawn of time, Sautuola took his little daughter into the spooky hole. Soon tired of watching her father scratch ing away, Maria stretched out on her back. Perhaps peopling the shadows with creatures of her own dreams, she looked up at the cracked and pock-marked ceiling above her. Suddenly she cried out that she saw, painted in red and black, the forms of bulls. Busy with his own dreams, Sautuola paid little attention. For some years he had known many crannies of the retreat. Of course no painting of this kind decorated its vault. Shadows perhaps, but nothing more. But an excited child is not easily hushed; so he looked up. The fame of the wonders he then saw was to sweep the world. Sure enough, there were the outlines of "bulls" or, on closer observation, bison, whose high-humped shoulders admitted no mistake. The lawyer-archeologist looked long at this vivid mural. He had never noticed it, because, in order to see it best, the observer must get away from its irregularities. *See "Parade of Life Through the Ages," by Charles R. Knight, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, February, 1942. t The Aurignacian epoch, noted for its well-de signed flints, was so named by Abbe Henri Breuil from the French cave of Aurignac. This epoch cor responds to that of the Cro-Magnon (Great Hole) Man, perhaps 20,000 years ago. About 8,000 years later came the Magdalenian epoch, whose culture reached from Spain to Siberia. It takes its name from a rock shelter near the monastery of La Madeleine near Lascaux. In this article the author uses a con servative chronology. Some authorities date the Late Old Stone Age as long ago as 100,000 years.