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The Paleolithic Paintings of the Lascaux Cave

Lascaux, a cave in France, is World famous for its ancient art. The artists painted the chambers with aurochs a very old version of the cow. There is a Hall of the Bulls with striking images of these creatures that were far more aggressive than our modern domesticated version. They date between 15-17,000 years ago. Humans were alive in the paleolithic or stone age far longer than our recorded history. At that time humans had been in Europe for tens of thousands of years. Many animals would have been much bigger than today, the so called megafauna. There were huge bears, lions (yes in Europe!), the huge Irish elk, wooly mammoth and rhinos. We were both hunters and hunted.

The cave was discovered by accident by four boys. Their dog, called Robot, fell into a rabbit hole that lead to the chambers. It was one of the greatest discoveries of ancient paintings of the 20th century. Millions of people visited the cave. The fungal spores in their breath along with the change of environment has devastated the images. As a result a reproduction of the cave is open to visitors.

What do these paintings mean? They do not depict plants or the landscape but man and animals. What can we learn about the spirituality of these early Europeans? Prof Marcel Otte from the University of Liege is probably the World expert in this area. It seems likely that they were animists. That is believing that there are spirits in animals, trees and some inanimate objects. We now know that Neanderthals were way more sophisticated than we thought. Both they and Homo Sapiens practiced burial of the dead. Could they have believed in an afterlife? Or did they worship their ancestors? This strange World separated from us by a chasm of time remains lost and mysterious.