What the Lascaux Cave Paintings Tell Us About How Our Ancestors Understood the Stars

Pleiades in Taurus / infraredPhoto:
Pleiades in Taurus / infrared
Photo composite – NASA/JPL-Caltech/ J. Stauffer (Spitzer Science Center, Caltech)

Why We Look Up –

Lascaux is a World Heritage Site and late Upper Paleolithic cave complex in southwestern France that belongs to the Magdalenian Culture. Lascaux’s cave paintings were made c.15–18,000 B.C. The sophistication of the Lascaux cave paintings is extraordinary when considered against their great antiquity. Their subtlety, complexity of technique and metaphor are qualities we can immediately relate to. The full articulation of this cave art reveals a mind akin to our own. If time and language barriers could be set aside, it is very possible that Magdalenian people of the late Upper Paleolithic would understand us, and that in return we could understand them.

Paleolithic Cave artistPhoto:
Paleolithic Cave artist
Photo – vikrambalaji9

What do these great paintings tell us? Aurochs and other large animals portrayed in Paleolithic cave art were often hunted for food. The act of painting them in a sacred cave has often been interpreted as an important element in a ritual that invoked sympathetic hunting magic. The act of a painting the animal sends a message to its spirit, that great respect is intended and that only those individuals essential for tribal survival will be hunted and killed. The spirit world and the gods are asked to ‘understand’ and not penalize the human sphere. The act of painting, the actions and protocol by which these paintings are executed, is the ritual. The finished painting is a record of the ceremony. It is a static reminder of the bond between the spirit world and humankind and of the obligations each ‘world’ owes to the other. We do not know if these great animal paintings were prayed to. We do not know if Paleolithic religion venerated and prayed to icons.