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Planet Earth

The First Masterpieces

By Tim FolgerJanuary 1, 1996 6:00 AM


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Even by a conservative estimate, it would be fair to say that the last time human eyes had gazed upon these horses was some 20,000 years ago, and it may well have been 10,000 years before that. But at the beginning of 1995, photos of these magnificent animals were being devoured by billions of eyes around the globe.

The paintings were discovered in December 1994 when three French spelunkers came upon a previously blocked cave in limestone hills near Avignon, in southeast France. Along with the horses, they found more than 300 paintings of bears, mammoths, woolly rhinos, and other Ice Age animals, all rendered in red, yellow, and black pigments derived from charcoal and iron ores, and many of them leaping or running across the broad cave walls. In beauty and sophistication, the paintings rival those of the famous Lascaux cave, a couple hundred miles to the west. Lascaux is about 17,000 years old, and at first sight researchers assumed the paintings of this cave--now named Chauvet after one of the spelunkers--could not be much older.

But late last spring, radiocarbon dating revealed images of two rhinos and a bison to be between 30,300 and 32,400 years old, making them the world’s oldest wall paintings and forcing archeologists to rethink some ideas. Many had thought cave painting evolved only gradually to the grandeur of Lascaux. But Chauvet shows that astonishing artistic ability may have arisen very early in human development. Our ancestors did not need millennia of trials and errors to achieve great art, says paleolithic art specialist Jean Clottes, one of the first to examine the cave. Artistic capacity was one of the components of our species probably right from the start.

As with all cave art, the purpose of the paintings will most likely forever remain a mystery. Perhaps the paintings played a role in some sort of initiation rite; maybe they were a form of hunting magic. They were certainly a kind of magic, says Clottes, even though for those people there was probably no sharp distinction between a magic world and an everyday world. But he doesn’t think the paintings had anything to do with hunting, since most of the animals portrayed--bears, rhinos, lions--were not hunted. My speculation is that they could be part of shamanic rituals, of getting in touch with powerful forces in the guise of animals hidden in the deepest recesses of the Earth, behind the wall of the cave.

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