PREHISTORIC HANDS

 The paintings of Lascaux - a beautiful horse painted on the cave roof, with geometric dots.

I fell in love in a dark cave of curving walls and undulations and torchlit creations. It was still early morning, perhaps only 9am, but in the cave there were no indications of the day - time had ceased to exist, this far back in the cracks of inner Earth.

Oliver and I had waited in a light drizzle of rain at a picnic bench for the doors to open to Font de Gaume. I remember feeling a little dizzy at the thought of viewing the art of human hands that lived over 15,000 years ago. I had read somewhere that seeing prehistoric art is like aging a fine wine - the flavors and impressions deepen with time in the minds of those who see it.

Thirty minutes later, we were joined by several other adventurous souls. I think we all felt very lucky standing there, pensive and quiet, waiting at the entrance of the cave. Font de Gaume is the last cave with original, polychromatic paintings that is still open to the public, and the numbers of visitors allowed in become more restricted every year, with increasing talk of closing the cave. Our breath is potent, in places of such fragile and ancient beauty. The pollen, dirt and dust that we carry with us so conveniently in the outside world, is actually quite damaging inside the cave. And the flash of a camera can hasten the fading of prehistoric pigments. This time-wearing is natural, everything must eventually change and pass, but I can understand the anxious desires of scientists to preserve something so incredible. I left my camera in the car, taking only my bare hands, seeing eyes, and body clothed in thin, waterproof layers. I almost felt naked without the camera, as if there was nothing between me and those paintings.

That cave is imprinted in my memory.
I revisit it now, forming pictures into words...

Where there is now a narrow, chiseled path, feet once climbed over rocky formations, bodies squeezed through tiny cracks, to emerge into a dark womb-chamber. At first the darkness blinds the edges of my vision, but slowly, as my eyes follow the guiding light of one tiny torch, I begin to see.

I see, on the wall in front of me a great bison, his body formed of a red pigment, scattered across the wall as if it was blown there by a harsh wind. His belly is round and full with the shape of the rock, and his back and chest follow the lines of the jagged protrusion on which he stands. Further back, hidden in a hollow, there is the outline of a human hand. Some-body, a person, a living being with hands like you or I placed their palm, fingers spread, on the rock and then, putting pigment in their mouth, they blew gently across their own hand to trace its outline. I remembered a discussion in archaeology class of this very technique, and how many prehistoric hands were revisited over hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, painted over again and again. It is so human, to place one's own hand over an imprint of another, as if we are connecting through touch...

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
— JULIET - Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Then there are the reindeer: a male and a female. The male, he is standing, leaning forward towards the smaller female. She is kneeling. And in the light, directed by the gentle tone of our French guide, we can see one tiny tongue, not painted, but carved from the very rock... he is leaning in to tenderly lick her forehead. It is a moment of pure affection, so intimate, captured in the eyes and heart of a person who lived and breathed the natural world.

The evidence of attention was everywhere. At one point I began to cry. I could honestly feel the layers shedding from me in front of these devotional pictures that revealed the true nature of life: all connections, all interactions. I felt it again, later that day, in the replicas of Lascaux cave. So tangible, almost touchable - the web of connections, the mystery and special meaning found in life by observant, thoughtful and reflective beings.

Picasso has often been erroneously quoted as saying "we have invented nothing," after visiting Lascaux cave. Although the source is dubious, the words themselves speak volumes. None of the paintings I saw that day seemed the work of 'primitive' hands. These were not pictures of lesser skill or meaning or thought. There, everywhere, was the evidence of an artistry that goes beyond my own reckoning.


The shapes of the animals move with the walls, as if they are flowing, moving in the dark. The artists would have painted in the light of tiny oil lamps; adding to their pictures over time, perhaps on rainy days. Here and there, a missing bison body part is made up by the shape of the flowstone - a belly filled out by flickering shadows, and eyes left blank to reveal a small knarled calcite pip. Perhaps the missing legs of a horse were formed through shadow puppetry. The animals are placed into groups that imitate real life -  bison-horses-lions, and aurochs-horses-deer-bears are shown frequently together, while bison-aurochs-ibex are not shown side by side. It seems the artists were respecting the natural environment of each animal, as bison and lions live in open plains; aurochs, deer and bears live in forests and marshes, the ibex in rocky areas, and horses live in all. In some areas the animals seem highly animated - legs raised, bodies twisted or poised midair, multiple heads or legs showing a movement through various postures. To create this kind of art, one would need a depth of perception, observation and vision that is hardly rivaled in the world of art today! Each animal is made of sinuous line and graduated, careful application of colour, or remissions of it. Like a quick sketch, the general forms are captured, but something else is there too - a spirit, or essence. The walls breath, the creatures herd and prance and thunder and leap and fall. They move.

...

I had taken no pictures in Font de Gaume, but I snapped a few of Lascaux's replicas with the intent to simply remember. I remember the hundreds of bison, and stags, and horses, and cattle, a rhinocerous, a bird, a bear, and one human. That one human... located at the bottom of a large hole, he had the face of a bird. I know we will never fully understand the intent of the artists, but it was the most beautiful of all the mysteries, this depiction of man seeing himself. Although there are tens of thousands of animals shown in cave paintings around the world, the number of human depictions is very small. Perhaps it was taboo to paint such a thing - and that is why this one little bird man was painted in secret at the bottom of a hole. But then I thought of how the world must have looked to a human in those times. The human population was still small, and the world was vast and filled with animals! This was not a human-centric place, like the Earth we see today. A person living then would have seen far more of the outside world.

The animals in Lascaux are painted almost lovingly - large beasts full of power; animated and spirited.

There, too, were many small and strange symbols. Dots in rows of three, forming groups of six, found at the places where the cave ended. Squares that were divided into four, each part coloured with a different pigment. Small x symbols, along with lines, like Roman numerals. And a series of circles looking like little moons on a calendar.

It has been almost one year since I visited those caves, and the impression they left upon me has ripened like fruit on a tree limb - the blossom of awe I once felt is now full, deep and rich, and I cannot help but shed a few tears as I edit my words here.

I fell in love all over again that day. I fell in love with humanity.

 

 A beautiful prehistoric painting of a cow with horns, from Lascaux cave.
 A gorgeous prehistoric painting of a many horned deer, Lascaux, also with square geometry.
 A Przewalski horse in a field.