New view of the Old Stone Age

January 25, 1995

The discovery of more than 300 prehistoric paintings on the walls of an underground cave in southern France opens a startling new vista on human culture during the Old Stone Age some 20,000 years ago. The lifelike images of bears, mammoths, oxen and woolly-haired rhinoceroses were executed with a degree of skill that suggests Paleolithic man already possessed an artistic tradition that predated these images by thousands of years and which clearly had reached a high level of development by the time the paintings were made.

Very little is known about the people who created these paintings or of the use to which the images were put. At the time they were painted, the last Ice Age in Europe was drawing to a close (there had been at least three previous ones, alternating with periods of subtropical warmth, at intervals of about 25,000 years). Huge heards of reindeer roamed the plains and valleys. Human societies based on hunting and gathering sought refuge from the harsh climate, which resembled that of present-day Siberia or Alaska, in caves or in the shelter of overhanging rocks.

Some scholars believe the paintings were part of a magic ritual to ensure success in the hunt. For the Stone Age hunter, there was no clear distinction between image and reality. He believed that by making a picture of an animal he could bring the animal itself within his grasp, and that by "killing" the image he could kill the animal's vital spirit. On a psychological level, such magical rituals no doubt helped embolden many a Paleolithic hunter-artist, armed only with primitive weapons, to face the formidable beasts he portrayed.

The paintings were discovered by accident late last year in a mountainous region near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. The site is even larger than the famous caves of Lascaux and Altamira, where prehistoric paintings had been found previously. For the present, the French government will restrict access to caves to archaeologists in order to protect the paintings from moisture and temperature changes.

Old Stone Age art marked the highest achievement of a culture that began to decline soon after these paintings were made. Adapted to the special conditions of the receding Ice Age, it could not survive beyond it. Yet it remains a testament to the enduring character of the human urge for expression and to the creative imagination that makes such magnificent expressions as these possible.

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