Placed in context of the time it was found, the discovery of the Lascaux Cave was overshadowed by a world in crisis. France has just fallen to Nazi rule three months earlier. Four boys, and a dog with the forward thinking name of ‘Robot,’ discovered the Lascaux Cave while on a search for mythical treasure. News of discovery of the cave spread. One of the boys, Jacques Marsal, pleaded with his parents to allow him to guard the cave entrance from vandals who might destroy the ancient site. They acquiesced, and he spent the rest of his life as the chief guide of the cave.
It is not the oldest cave found. The Metropolitan Museum of Art dates the art at around 15, 000 BCE. Roucadour Cave art is estimated to be 24, 000 BCE. Perhaps the Lascaux cave is a beacon for the immigration of a group- or simply an indication that the tradition of cave art was alive and well in prehistory. It is believed to be the best example of Paleolithic cave art. There are approximately 2000 paintings within the cave, and most of them are pictures of animals. Many are pictures of horses and stags. Paintings of animals have been superimposed over older renderings, communicating that artistic quality was less important than the placement and symbolic significance.
There are many interpretations of these paintings: from communicating an understanding of the stars to images based on hallucinations. It is interesting to note that while a regular diet at this time would consist of reindeer, there were no representations of this animal. The cave itself would not have been used for shelter, but possibly a gathering place. Most of the paintings are found in hard to reach locations in the cave, encouraging the belief that they were made as part of a magical ceremony- possibly to increase the chances of success in the hunt. It has been suggested that these caves were chosen based on their ability to be illuminated during the winter solstice (Newgrange might be a descendant of this ritual). Some of the paintings would have needed a form of scaffolding to paint their size, increasing the impressiveness of their creation.
Hollowed out bones were found in the cave, and have some of the pigments used within the shaft. These were evidently used to blow paint onto the wall. The colours that were used on the walls, and in other cave art paintings, are predominantly brown, red, black, white and violet. All of these colours were available to Paleolithic people through iron oxide, calcite, and charcoal. Iron oxide can be mined, and comes in a range of colours: yellow, red, purple and brown ochre. Some historians suggest that the painters at Lascaux might have traveled 25 miles to obtain these precious minerals. The colours were ground up, possibly using bones from the animals they hunted as a pestle, and a hollow in the cave floor being the mortar. The liquid base could be a range of possibilities from blood or urine to animal fat.
Due to human interaction with the cave, the art is in grave danger. Mold, fungus, lichen and crystals threaten the priceless art. A replica cave was created for tourists only 200 meters from the original; an interesting alternative when faced with a curious financially vibrant public.