Solo Traveler: Prehistoric Man Part II

The Visitors Center at Les Combarelles. Photo by Sherry Hardage
The displays of the new drawings recently discovered in Les Combarelles. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Solo Traveler: Prehistoric Man Part II

Our guide at Combarelles, the day after we visited L’Abri du Cap Blanc, was the same man from Cap Blanc! His English had improved slightly with all that practice with us the day before. He did a decent job explaining the inscribed drawings in the narrow snake-like cave.

Combarelles consists of two caves that open into a single entrance. One is closed off completely.  The tours last about an hour and are limited to six people to prevent pollution from our lint, hair, and accompanying bacteria. The tour only goes about three-fourths of the way into the full length of the cave. Deeper in the cave are recently discovered drawings, all of which are documented in the little museum at the entrance.

Prehistoric artists, over a very long period, carefully observed the shape of various spots on the rocks and incorporated the natural marks and formations into drawings of mostly animals and three female figures. The drawings were done with a single deep scratch with a sharp tool and in softer rock, a mere swipe of a finger.

A particularly lumpy area was chosen to display the torsos of the three women. The figure on the left was a front view with pendulous breasts and plump belly, thanks to the natural shape of the rock. The other two were the backs of two torsos with lovely large rear-ends. Further off to the right, a long horizontal “V” shape was aimed at the group of women, almost like a fat spear.

In the Combarelles cave were the stirrings of a written language. Symbols with unknown meanings were everywhere; especially triangles, Vs and Xs. The guide indicated that the V or triangle represented female anatomy, and the upside down V was the male’s. An X was the two together. I always wondered where the term “X-Rated” came from!

The archeological data indicates reindeer as the principle meat animal of the Cro-Magnon and later the Magdalenian people. Yet few reindeer are drawn or carved in the area’s overhangs and caves. I guess if you ate the same boring thing all the time, the harder-to-kill horse, bull, or mammoth might become the preferred choice for reverence.

This is the case in the Lascaux cave where, 17,000 years ago, a group of people painted enormous animals on the walls and ceiling. They were able to paint so high up because they used scaffolding. Deep circular holes in the walls were used to support the wooden poles.

What dominates the cave are enormous bulls, some in three-fourths view, some with animals superimposed on them, and some with other animals roughly indicated behind, as they would be seen in a herd.

What we are permitted to see today is an amazing facsimile. Visitors descend stairs into a darkened room with displays and explanations from a guide. Then the doors open and the cave is just beyond.

Every square millimeter of the most decorated section of Lascaux cave has been duplicated and painted with the same minerals the original artists used. The space is cool with a slight draft just like in a real cave, made very realistic because the room is actually underground. This is Lascaux II.

The original cave has been closed, and will remain closed forever. In the 1960s, after twenty years of humans traipsing through, the paintings suffered terrible degradation from mold and bacteria. The decision was made to duplicate it as perfectly as technology would permit, and on November 19, 1984, Lascaux II opened.

An identical copy of Lascaux II, called Lascaux III, is a portable facsimile that is traveling the globe, bringing the amazing art and artistic sensitivity of prehistoric people to modern people around the world.

A new project, Lascaux IV is underway. It will be an underground model of the entire cave system, replicated with every painting, drawing, and carving. It will open in 2016 about a mile from the current site.

Lascaux IV was designed by laser-scanning the original cave to create the model on a computer. This technology was perfected on the Chauvet Cave, discovered in 1994.  Chauvet Cave has paintings and sculptures much older than Lascaux, dating back 30,000 years.

Scientists dress in protective gear and are allowed inside only for short periods of time. The decision was made at the beginning of exploration to never allow access to the public. That cave and its facsimile are documented in the movie, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.

Inside Lascaux II, one quickly forgets that it is a model. The paintings are enormous. A bull dominates the ceiling on one side with a smaller one opposing. While many different animals are painted all over the cave, they do not cover every square inch of space. Clearly it was not some kind of long-term graffiti project painted by random people scrawling over the work of previous artists. Certain animals were given space, perhaps a reverence, apart from other drawings. The colors were vivid and varied.

Painting the cave was a tremendous amount of work, and clearly done with a sense of space, drama, and emotional impact. Human beings don’t undertake such projects simply for fun, there must certainly have been deep religious, or at least social, reasons to do it. The painted ceiling, the magnificence of the art, and its probable use in an animist religion, caused it to be nicknamed the Sistine Chapel of the Upper Paleolithic.

Photography was not allowed, but photographs from Lascaux’s original exploration can be seen at this link: LifeMagazineLascaux.

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website

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