by Richard W. Wise
Author: The Dawning: 31,000 BC
Of all the caves we visited, Grotte Cougnac won first prize for its natural beauty. In its broad chambers, slender stalactites drip from the high ceilings and translucent tubes cluster in masses like soda straws. Thin stalagmites rise from the floor—some stubby and phallic. Others have mated with stalactites to form elegantly shaped columns that remind us of a cathedral nave by Antoni Gaudi.
Dating back to the early Gravettian Period (33,000, some say 28,000-21,000 BP), its art contains the oldest art of the painted caves clustered around Les Eyzes de Tayak. Some may even be contemporary with the latest art created at Chauvet (31,000 BP). It should be noted that the periods discussed are specific to Central and Western Europe and are based on the evolution not of art but of tool-making technologies.
The art throughout the caves is highly stylized, meaning that the style of the art in one cave adheres to conventions similar to those of other caves with renderings of the same period.
Each figure seems to begin with a gracefully drawn backline that defines the subject's ultimate shape. The outlines are often a single uninterrupted line. The elegance of line indicates a well-trained eye and hand. Drawing on cave walls, there was no way to erase or start over. The animals drawn are realistic, but these are icons. This is not true of Chauvet. The 35,000-year-old art is naturalistic; animals possess a singular individuality not present in the later art. Perhaps, it is the original which provided the basis for the stylization and uniformity which came later.
The images, drawn in wood and bone charcoal and red ochre, include ibex, horses, and a beautifully rendered frieze of megaloceros—an ancient species of giant elk crowned with magnificent racks of antlers (see above). This image is among the oldest, with a Carbon 14 date between 30-24,000 BP. Showing a herd in motion, the frieze is reminiscent of some of the art at Chauvet, though not nearly so well executed. This period corresponded to the last glacial maximum when winter temperatures were at their lowest.
As early as 50,000 years ago, the cave was visited by Neanderthals, who sheltered in the entrance but probably did not explore the cave in depth. The caves were in use by Homo Sapiens for over 10,000 years.
The cave also boasts two rare anthropomorphic figures. One, drawn in charcoal, is of a crudely drawn man-like figure bent forward and pierced by what appears to be seven spears. The other, probably drawn by the same hand, is incomplete, beginning just below the shoulders with three spears, one rather uncomfortably piercing the figure between the buttocks. Dated to 25,000 years BP, these drawings are virtually identical to figures found at Pech-Merle and Lascaux.
Next: The Venus Figures, Part I. Stay tuned.