The Grotto of Font-De-Gaume

July 1, 2014

Examining the intelligence of the early man through artistic expression

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD

 

Some 40,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans appeared in Europe. Replacing the Neanderthals, these people had more in common with humans today than anatomy alone, as they also were accomplished artists. These so-called Cro-Magnons painted beautiful images of animals that still are wondrous.

On a recent visit to one of their art museums-a cave in the region of Bordeaux, France-some friends and I spent a few hours marveling at these creations. Although I received a good grade in my art history class in college, I consider myself to be very much an amateur when it comes to art. Nonetheless, a few things suggest themselves about the artists:

I

Some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, they produced beautiful drawings deep within narrow limestone caves, necessitating a form of artificial light that worked long enough to let them work.

II

Because some of the animals depicted last lived in France during the last Ice Age, we know those paintings are some 15,000 years old and were created by hunter-gatherers who existed in very inhospitable conditions and possessed only Stone Age implements.

 

 

III

These people’s eyes worked like ours do today. Evidence for this includes:

  • Their use of colors (with minerals, they were able to create the colors of red, yellow, black, brown, and violet). Whenever two deer face each other head to head in the cave paintings, one is always red and the other is always black.

  • Their use of perspective in their art, showing all four legs and twisting heads and antlers, portrays realistic three-dimensional beasts instead of cartoonish two-dimensional drawings.

  • The paintings are often literally three-dimensional, as the artists took advantage of natural cave wall undulations, with stalagmites perfectly positioned as legs and tails, bulges in the wall to represent shoulders and heads, and invaginations to represent perfectly positioned eye sockets.

IV

The artists were smart, and had studied their subjects in great detail. The paintings depict great anatomic detail, to the point where only fairly recently did the finding of a frozen woolly mammoth allow scientists to appreciate that an extra flap of skin present in one of the cave paintings is a previously unknown anatomic feature of these extinct giants.

 

V

Although they made their homes in caves, they did not live in the caves in which they created these beautiful images, creating actual museums.

I try to imagine what life must have been like for these Stone Age cave-dwellers who had to survive by hunting large animals for food using stone weapons while avoiding being hunted themselves by dangerous predators. They had to figure out how get through the cold winters, staying warm and adequately fed. And presumably mild ailments by today’s standards were often lethal.

Yet, some of them were gifted craftsmen who learned to create “paints,” fashion crude art implements and chisels, and make beautiful and accurate works of art ingeniously positioned on limestone walls while their smoky torches flickered in the narrow caves. The effect is far beyond what one human being living today (yours truly) could probably accomplish.

As we exited the cave, my friend said: “I wonder if these people were any less smart than us? Based on these drawings, I wouldn’t think so.”

 

Few of these prehistoric cave museums remain open to the public. If you get the chance to visit one in the near future, I think you’ll be glad you did.