by Richard W. Wise
At Bernifal, near the town of Les Eyzes, we got our biggest surprise. Our guide, Christine Desdemaines Hugon, trained the beam of her flashlight on the cave wall, and a beautifully drawn portrait of a Paleolithic man emerged. Human representations are rare—almost non-existent in French Paleo art. Unlike animal renderings, anthropomorphic figures, when they do appear, tend to be vaguely rendered, partial and indistinct. They are often hybrid figures like the Lion Man and the famous Sorcerer (La Grotte du Roc Saint Cirq). These images are best described as anthropomorphic and man-like, rather than as distinct images of human beings.
This portrait is one of the unique images in Bernifal and all of the caves of Southern France. We were not allowed to take pictures. The image, downloaded from the internet, hardly does the portrait justice. The flashlight's beam revealed a distinct, realistic image of a man with a long oval, pale white face outlined in black, prominent eyes and eyebrows, nose and mouth with black hair worn in a topknot gazing out at us.
Granted, our flashlight projected a white light measuring about 5500 kelvin. The artist would have been using the light of a direct flame at perhaps 1500 kelvin. Even so, unlike the image here, what we saw was white and very well-defined; the white color may have been due to calcite drippings that covered the portrait. The face would have been more poignant if seen against the natural gray background of the cave.
My immediate question: could it be a later drawing? No! The guide explained, the portrait is rendered not in charcoal but in Manganese dioxide, a chemical compound that cannot be dated directly. The calcite encrustation dates it as prehistoric.
To me, he resembled a Samurai warrior with Western eyes. Lit from the side, he sported a mustache. Who was he? Was this a self-portrait of the artist? He looks deceptively modern. He could be my neighbor. The artist, whoever he was, broke a taboo, but what sort of taboo? Human-like images are ubiquitous in Paleolithic art---though not so much in Southern France, where there is almost a complete lack. If were are talking about a realistic portraits, such as those at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira, there, there are none.
Next: Prehistoric Engravers. Stay tuned.