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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part III


 
By Richard W. Wise
©2022

 Did I say seven? More like ten days in Southern France devoted to cave art. From Vallon Pont d'Arc to Les Eyzes de Tayak, we've visited Chauvet, Bernifal, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Cougnac, Rouffignac and Abri du Cap Blanc. The first cave, Chauvet, one of the most important, is also the oldest dating 33-36,000 BP. The caves clustered around Les Eyzes are all from the Magdalenian Period 24-17,000 BP. Our travels covered about five hundred miles.
 
The paintings at Chauvet are true marvels. Out The art is about predators not the grazing animals typical of the caves at Les Eyzes. Cave lions, mammoth, cave bears and wholly rhinoceroses make up 65% of the art.
 
A brace of lions, visible only to the withers—heads outstretched—stalking the primeval taiga. Horses—each an individual—whiney and neigh. Below them, a pair of Wooly Rhinos meet horn-to-horn. Another group of stacked Rhino, the first six back lines only, or is it a single multi-legged proto-futurist animal, shown in multiple poses, shaking his horned head?
 
Most of what is seen at Chauvet are charcoal drawings. Much easier to date than later works where the artists used a mineral, Magnesium dioxide to draw the black outlines. The age of the oldest drawings was recalibrated in 2020 to 36,500 BP. 
 
The images portrayed are sophisticated. They have a freshness and originality lacking in the later works in Lascaux and Altamira There is some evidence of stylization, but it is limited. Is it any wonder that its discovery in 1994 threw the preconceived linear evolution of art into a cocked hat?  There is evidence that many groups visited Chauvet over the millennia prior to the landslide that sealed it 22,000 years ago. Perhaps, Chauvet acted as an inspiration to later painters.
 
Could Chauvet have been a beginning, the creative spark that resulted in a school of painting that lasted more than 20,000 years? And, what does it say about the cultural evolution of European Homo Sapiens? Stylized art is, after all, degenerate art. It takes creativity and turns it into uniformity. It is also an indicator of a maturing, settled culture. 
 
Archaeologically, the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern France is divided into five broad successive periods; Aurignacian (∼39,500–34,000 BP), Gravettian (∼34,000–26,100 BP), Solutrean (∼26,100–24,600 BP), Magdalenian (∼24,600–15,500 BP) and Azilian (∼15,500–11,500 BP). BP means "Before present" which is figured from the year 1950. The problem is coming up with a basis for these divisions, if divisions they are. All we have is a pile of bones in one hand and a pile of flint in the other. In some cases; we have images, painting, engraving, drawing and sculpture which is often ignored in archeologists  demographic evaluation of cultures in these successive periods.
 
Next: Spectacular Lascaux. Stay tuned.

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