Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pre-Historic Paintings in the Niaux Caves

John and Eileen wanted to visit the Niaux caves so I escorted them over to Tarascon (Nancy had gone last year with our niece, Kate, and declined another trip). I went to the cave in 2007, and less than a year before we had been to the Caves at Lascaux II. Those paintings are reproductions as are the caves themselves. In order to protect the paintings from CO2, and the subsequent deterioration, they were forced to build a total replica of the site, which is very finely done. The Niaux caves, however, are the real deal. You get to see paintings made by mankind around 13,850 years ago, give or take a few years. The cave paintings may have been far more numerous in the past, but now they only exist where the cave walls have remained dry for the past 13,000 years.
Let me put that number in perspective. Thirteen to fourteen thousand years ago is too much time for humans to imagine. As you walk the kilometer underground to the cave paintings, you pass graffiti from early cave visitors from 1603 and later, and to us, that seemed quite impressive. That time frame seems impossibly ancient to us North Americans, who think in terms of just a few generations. Our tour guide, Miriam, explained that those visitors from the recent past felt little appreciation for the paintings because they had not yet been carbon dated, and they thought mankind began with Adam and Eve just a number of generations previous, therefore felt no guilt when they left names and dates in the cave. Two thousand years ago we have the Roman Empire and Jesus Christ alive and healthy. The Egyptian pyramids were being constructed about five thousand years ago, give or take a few hundred years. Even that is a mind-boggling amount of time for me to imagine.
We were only able to stay a short time in front of the paintings because our mere presence hastens the deterioration process. But, we were able to study them and wonder why they were created, why only some animals were chosen to paint, mostly bison, horses and ibex, and why early mankind ventured to far underground to paint when they had other rock canvasses nearby? Scientists are able to answer some questions, such as what was used for paint and when they were painted, but no one can say with certainty why they were made. So, when I look at paintings made by mankind thirteen thousand years ago, I can rest assured I will never see anything, no evidence of man's passage, that is older. The only place I will see evidence of man that is more ancient is human bones, or stone tools, in a museum, and that doesn't fire my imagination like a paining on a cave wall.
(Please note that these are not my photos, as you are not allowed to take pictures in the caves. These are photos from other websites. My thanks to them.)


Anonymous said...

The drawings are beautiful and amazingly accurate, it looks to me. It hurts my brain to try to think about that long ago, it is like looking at the stars and trying to imagine how far away they are. lro

Anonymous said...

In 1972 Ron & I & daughters were driving across northern Spain and came across the cave paintings of Altamira near Santander, Spain. They were drawings and polychrome paintings of wild mammals. In 2008 scientists estimated that parts of the artworks were between 25,000 and 35,000 years old. The caves were closed in 1977, reopened to limited access in 1982 with a 3 year waiting list to enter. Latest news is now that the caves are planned to reopen towards the end of 2010.

I'm with you, Doug, I can't really fathom what 25,000 years ago would mean.

Anonymous said...

I always motivated by you, your opinion and attitude, again, thanks for this nice post.

- Norman

Peggy said...

Yes, 13,000 years ago. Puts us in perspective doesn't it?