Niaux Caves

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Niaux Grotte Bison, c. 14,000 y.a. http://prehistoart.canalblog.com/

Last week, I saw cave drawings that are 14,000 years old. This is the Tarascon Basin in southern France, not so far from the border with Spain. Bison, ibex, horses, and cave lion images on the gallery walls in the Niaux Caves offer an alternate experience to the typical French gallery visit one might expect in a country with so many art displays.

Seeing these cave paintings was nothing short of thrilling. These are the oldest forms of human art or writing I’ve ever laid my eyes on, and the place where they occur is spectacular — these figures appear more than 800 meters from the entrance to a cave network that’s more that 2 kilometers in length; the darkness in the deep subterranean caverns is darker than pitch black. These ancient and anonymous artists did not live in these caves; they walked, with torches as their light source, all the way into this particular place to create, to pay homage to these animals.

I’m pumped about the backstory here: the bison, the ibex, and the horse were all common animals in Europe 14,000 years ago, but not in the caves, mountains or valleys in this part of what’s called France today. The animals resided in the plains, which are relatively far from this narrow valley. These folks would have been semi-nomadic, which means that they were likely in contact with these species in flat-lands at some part of the year, then they retreated to this area for a different time of year. While they resided in huts or tents that were easily constructed, they plunged deep into this cave network to create this art. Of course, this means they had to find this cave network, explore it, then decide that this chamber was the place for their masterpieces. I love imagining what they must have been thinking when they decided that this was the place.

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“Wispy” bison, Niaux Grotto. http://www.grottes-en-france.com

The drawings are made from charcoal, which means the organic matter can be carbon tested — that’s how experts know that most of the drawings are 14,000 years old (there’s another set of drawings that were created 1,000 years later). The images are literal, not abstract, but show a sophisticated range of stylistic techniques. For example, natural contours of the rock were used to give some of the bison two-dimensional features, and in other places the horns of some of the animals are stylized in a wispy sort of way; additionally, some of the bison images are layered on top of each other. There is no abstraction and little change in the portrayal of the bison from 14,000 years ago and the bison drawn 13,000 years ago. Thinking of the art that we bring home to our parents to put on the refrigerator when we’re kids, I wonder what these artists’ mothers thought of this display. They must have been proud.

I used to teach ancient history to 9th graders. My class content included examining some of the reasons for the Neolithic Revolution, the time when humans transitioned from nomadic lifestyles to living in settled communities. The catalyst for this event — perhaps the biggest shift in human history — was development of technology that enabled humans to control the environment and create permanent living spaces. There are a couple of theories for what caused humans to settle down where they did. The most common theory is that humans settled in places where they could consistently create agricultural harvests. Examples abound: settlements in the Nile River Valley, the Yangtze River, Mesopotamia. There’s another theory that has fewer advocates, but is intriguing; humans settled in places where it was easiest to have access to the materials needed to express their beliefs of the afterlife. In other words, they lived in places that made it easier to worship. I first read about this theory in this Smithsonian article about the village in Catalhoyuk, modern-day Turkey.

In the mountainous part of southern France, villages, hamlets, towns, and small cities spread through the valleys, and are perched on top of craggy hillsides. The Pyrenees Mountains begin in earnest very close to here, and these population centers have long histories as basecamps for people who were preparing to cross the mountains. Human settlements in this area might be small in size, but they too have a long history, and perhaps it should not be a surprise that the earliest denizens of this region left behind artistic expressions of their lives. Clearly, the bison and ibex (the most common subjects) were important to these people. The images they look just like the animals they represent. I take this to mean that the observers knew their subjects well. Think about this: the ideas and the technique to depict them were so strong that the artists held them in their minds all the way from the plains to this mountain region, and all the way into the deep darkness of this cave network. Maybe it should not be a surprise, yet I stood there in amazement — at the articulation of the figures, by the location, by the age of the drawings.

In the week that has passed, I’ve been into six medieval churches (and stood outside five others), all of which commanded devotion and inspired belief with the size and grandeur of the building. The architects intended on impressing those who walked in the doors of these enormous piles of stone, brick, mortar, wood, and glass. To the casual tourist and even the non-believer of today, walking into the holy sanctuaries of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries provokes a deep breath at least, and often something closer to awe. The architects of the medieval churches designed structures to honor what they believed was the most important element in their lives. Their ancient ancestors knew something similar: that the animals of the plains were so critical to their existence that they were the only thing drawn on these dark walls, so deep in the ground, so far from the lands where the animals roamed. I saw this with my eyes, and I still have a hard time imagining their thinking.

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