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Cave paintings dig deep into our nature

May 25, 2011

The prehistoric pictures daubed on the walls of caverns in the Ardèche show the first stirrings of our artistic consciousness

Charcoal horses' heads in the Ardèche's Chauvet cave

Rock of ages … these charcoal horses’ heads, in the Ardèche’s Chauvet cave, are estimated to have been drawn more than 30,000 years ago. Photograph: AFP

A path leads from a village in the Cahors region of south-west France up a wooded, rocky hillside, commanding spectacular views of a deeply cut valley. Among the green pastures and woods in this region are overhangs and bluffs of limestone perforated with holes, like Swiss cheese – and it is one of these holes we are headed for.

At the end of the walk lies the cave of Pech-Merle, discovered by chance in the early 20th century and today one of the best places to see ice age cave paintings for yourself. The site is open to the public, and inside are wondrous natural formations framing truly transfixing paintings, the oldest of which are estimated to be about 25,000 years old.

That word “framing” is tricky. The most startling thing about visiting caves to see ancient art is the disorientating 3D world you enter. Caves, with their fantastical rock formations, are not like sketchbooks, canvases or even walls: as painting surfaces, the glistening mineral-encrusted bulges, cascades, pinnacles and concavities deep inside natural caverns are wild and intrusive and add a competing drama and meaning of their own. At Pech-Merle and other painted caves of the ice age, artworks of animals, dots and handprints interact enigmatically with their setting. Some paintings appear inside recesses and some under overhangs, and in one famous case in Pech-Merle, two horses have been painted on a natural surface that happens to be vertical and relatively flat – making them resemble a medieval wall painting.

In other words, entering a painted cave is a lot stranger than seeing photographs of cave art – it is a spatial experience, and the paintings haunt you not as disembodied images but as part of an eerie magical world of rock and darkness. This is one of the reasons Werner Herzog‘s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is worth catching in 3D while it’s still showing in cinemas. Herzog’s use of 3D is not just poetic in itself but also a genuinely unique opportunity to explore “inside” the Chauvet cave.

Only a few scientists will ever be allowed inside this majestic painted cavern, discovered in the 1990s, which has been decorated with masterly works of art even older than those in Pech-Merle. These are the most ancient figurative images ever found to date. Herzog has done the rest of us an immeasurable service in making not just its art but the physical environment of the cave – he even gets a perfume expert to describe its smell – accessible to the rest of us.

Read more at:  Set in stone: cave paintings dig deep into our nature

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