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Unorthodox Thoughts

chewing gum for the mind

Tag Archives: lascaux

Pigment was blown onto the cave walls using hand stencils, perhaps by Neanderthal?

While writing my previous post related to the knowledge of ancient man, I was concerned about pushing the limits of accepted timelines around the Lascaux cave paintings of France.  The conservative dating of most cave painting sites around the world have always been considered to be roughly 17,000 – 24,000 years ago.

Reverence for the bull is common amongst ancient cave paintings

Recently, this thinking has changed as a result of a new archaeological technique that measures the growth of  tiny stalactites on top of the paint pigments.  Using this method, the world’s oldest cave paintings have been dated in Northern Spain within a series of 11 caves; the most prominent being at El Castillo.  It appears that not only are many of the finds at least 40,000 years old, but according to researchers may have been created by Neanderthal.

These boat pictures give new meaning to the term ‘Ancient Mariner’

Another interesting facet of this discovery is that these cave paintings were created over a period of more than 20,000 years; which is two to four times longer than Lascaux site is thought to have been maintained.

Many people have accused me of trying to portray ancient man as a ‘Noble Savage’.  The argument most of these critics give is that ancient myth, religion and knowledge are useless to study because ancient man didn’t understand the world in the way we did today.  People can’t get past the fact that ancient cultures used stories filled with anthropomorphic figures (part-man, part-animal beings) and other symbolic metaphors.  It doesn’t occur to people that it would be difficult to pass down knowledge to an ancient audience in a way they could not only understand it; but themselves repeat it.  In my opinion, shamanism and myth/story telling was the instrument for both passing down this knowledge and the framework for preserving succession so that this knowledge could continue to be propagated.

Don’t buy that argument?  I will leave you with this quotation by the late Giorgio de Santillana, History of Science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of whom I will be talking more about in future posts concerning myth:

“[the modern reader] insists on his capacity to understand mythical ‘images’ instantly, because he can respect as ‘scientific’ only page-long approximation formulas, and the like.  He does not think of the possibility that equally relevant knowledge might once have been expressed in everyday language. He never suspects such a possibility, although the visible accomplishments of ancient cultures – to mention only the pyramids or metallurgy – should be a cogent reason for concluding that serious and intelligent men were at work behind the stage, men who were bound to have been used to a technical language…”


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It is commonly accepted by most that before agriculture and animal husbandry held sway within the fertile crescent, most humans were rather brutish and simple people who were only concerned with their basic needs.  Hunting, fishing, gathering, shelter..

However we know that our brain’s ability to reason, at least on an anatomical level has remained the same for about 200,000 years.  We also know that there have been extinctions of roughly thirty known hominins (hominids); and these are not monkeys, these are humans I am talking about.

In fact, all hominins since homo habilis (2.4 million years ago) have been human.  All of these branches of humanity failed in the end, with the last failure happening between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago in Neanderthal. (but not until they gave us some of their DNA)  Could you imagine if there were other forms of human life that were sentient living on Earth with us today?  That was the reality during prehistory.

The Lascaux Cave paintings discovered in France by four teenagers in 1940 changed the way we think about pre-history to some extent.

Estimated to be between 17,000 and 30,000 years old, they not only represent art; but a good understanding of time and long-term project work, maintenance and restoration as the cave walls show forensic evidence of being painted (and the caves complex being occupied) over a period of 5,000 – 10,000 years.

lascaux caves, franceI have read articles written that ask silly questions such as “Can the Lascaux paintings be considered art?” After visiting Lascaux, Pablo Picasso emerged from the caves so impressed that he lamented, “We have discovered nothing!”

During the winter solstice sunset these paintings are lit up within the cave, implying an understanding of time and astronomical cycles.  The star constellations of the Bull, Unicorn and Capricorn are also depicted in the paintings; which in turn reinforce their dates of creation due to the known position of star constellations at the times of creation.

The interesting thing to me about Lascaux is that it was found in an undisturbed cave, safe from the ravages of man and nature.  In fact, after only 72 years the paintings have been seriously damaged by the presence of humans and are no longer able to be visited.  How did ancient man keep the same series of paintings congruent for 5,000 – 10,000 years?  To me, it implies a dedication to culture and a respect for the past that hasn’t been possible for the last 5,000 years at all.  Maybe we can learn more than just about art from the Lascaux paintings?

(NOTE – there is another hominin that died off between 17,000 and 12,000 years ago named Homo floresiensisThis was a dwarf human with a smaller brain and was discovered on the island of Flores, east of Java.  The brain of Home floresiensis was much smaller than Neanderthal and modern humans.  Coincidently, Neanderthal had a larger brain than ours.)

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