On the third day of an international conference in France of experts on prehistoric rock art, National Geographic Digital Media senior producer Andrew Howley makes his first visit into caves adorned with images painted 13,000 years ago.
Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–Today the laptops were shut and the projectors powered down, as the participants in the IFRAO conference on prehistoric rock art around the world piled into buses with people who shared their language for tours of some of the region’s most beautiful and important decorated caves. I was with Group 4: English-speaking and headed for Bédeilhac and Niaux.
Bédeilhac was first, an enormous cavern used during World War II as a plane repair shop, and in the 1970s for a film where a small plane was actually flown into and out of the grand entryway. Walking 300 meters inside, you begin to reach the untouched prehistoric area, and are treated to a stately black bison silhouette, hard-to-reach engravings, and a replica of the even-harder-to-reach molded clay bison, one of only a few such sculpted images from the region.
After a quick lunch of leftovers and a box of the local vintage, we headed up to Niaux, the grandest of the decorated caves in Ariège.
While some caves have been found in modern times, like Lascaux (discovered 70 years ago this coming Sunday), and many are still waiting to be found, Niaux, with its relatively easy entry way and wide caverns, has been known throughout history. This fact is illustrated, quite literally, by rock art of another kind.
Names of visitors and dates of visits cover several sections of the caverns (though they’ve been removed from where they were close to the prehistoric images). Some date from as recently as 2008. Others are verifiably from the 1600s. Still others claim to date from 1304 (no chance, based on the handwriting style) or to have been written by a first-century Jewish man by the name of Jesus. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
So if people have been visiting the caves for at least the past 400 years, you may be wondering if they made any mention of seeing the prehistoric art. The answer is yes. And no. These early modern visitors did record their experiences and described the caves as having images of “horses and cows,” but they seem to have had no awareness of the deep antiquity of the images’ creation. It’s a testament to the timelessness of these works from such a distinct time.
Cathedral in the Mountain
After walking for a while longer, we reached the greatest section of paintings in Niaux, the Salon Noir. As we entered the great “cathedral in the mountain,” we turned off our flashlights and our way was lit only by the lights controlled by our guide.
This increase in darkness (while exciting and atmospheric) is done as a precaution against changing the natural temperature and lighting conditions of the cave system too much. For decades, Niaux’s tour programs have been strictly guided by scientists’ recommendations for the number of people, duration of each visit, and number of visits per day, and it has helped keep the paintings in a very good state of preservation.
Lascaux famously suffered greatly from changes in humidity and temperature from years of unrestricted visits and elaborate but ultimately detrimental attempts at air conditioning. That cave is itself closed to all but a few now, while workers fight off a pervasive image-covering fungus. Visitors are welcomed at a full-scale replica cave called Lascaux II.
In the gloom of a single light, we followed our guide to the first panel, where she pointed out the outlines of two bison. One (bearing a striking resemblance to an animal-cracker bison) is in fact the oldest painting in the cave, carbon dated to 13,850 years ago. To put that in perspective, if one day at noon you started thinking through 16 years every minute, you’d hit Jamestown in about 15 minutes and ancient Rome around 2pm. Stonehenge would go up around 5pm, and you wouldn’t see this bison being painted until almost 2am the next day.
The lights went out and came back on as the first major panel was revealed. Here there were bison and horses, big and small, overlapping, facing each other, some complete, others partial, and all of it eye-openingly fresh and clear.
After years of seeing images like this in books and two full days of seeing them projected on sun-blanched outdoor screens, seeing them bright and bold and on their original cool, hard, wildly undulating surface was exhilarating.
In the Internet era, we see images constantly. Big and small, hi-resolution, 3-D modeled, and so on. But the blessing is also a curse. Images now can be seen anywhere, but they don’t actually exist anywhere.
In Niaux, these bison, horses, and ibex are most definitely existing. This is where they were made, this is where they’ve been for 13,000 years, and this is where they will be tomorrow and 13,000 years from now.
We processed around the large semi-circular Salon Noir, alternating between moments of quiet observation and reflection, excited pointing and questioning, and even in the depths of the cave, scholarly debate. My two favorite points of contention today: Can you say that some of the paintings are “better” than others? and can you tell whether any two were made by the same person?
After that, we made our way back out into daylight and the bright orange bus that would take us back to our home base.
What Were They Thinking?
Among all the various ideas that bounced around today, there was still the recurring theme that we’ll never really know exactly what the makers of prehistoric rock art were thinking, but we can be pretty sure that there is no one simple explanation or answer. These images, and the experiences of making or seeing them can have many meanings at different levels at the same time.
My favorite illustration of this came shortly after we entered Niaux, and our guide pointed out the much smaller entry tunnel that the Paleolithic people had used.
Picturing a group of people in handmade leather garments softly stepping along a sandy floor across the gallery from where we were processing with our flashlights and hiking boots, I said to my neighbor: “I was just thinking how here we are now, and this is where the people of the past really were, and it’s almost like it’s all happening at once, and while they’re the people of the past to us, we’re the people of the future to them…”
“While you’re having those thoughts,” he replied, “I’m singing “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho.””
I whistled along and we continued deeper into the cave.
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