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egyptian geese 2

You enter the cave, walk through tight spots, crawl on hands and knees and come out, 100 yards later, into a dark room, a widening in the cavern walls, and see, if you point your lamp at them, some of the most beautiful animals ever drawn by human hand.chauvet

The very first art — some 30,000 years old — is some of the best, and what you have are pictures of animals. On the walls at Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira in Europe, you find bison and elk, aurochs and rhinoceroses. When you find people drawn on the cave walls, they are hardly more than stick figures, but the animals are often so realistic you can identify them by genus and species.

You can see it in the Egyptian tomb paintings, too. Human figures are stiff, in the artificial “King Tut” poses so familiar from the hieroglyphs. The humans are stylized and symbolic rather than naturalistic. But the animals don’t share that fate: They are seen with a grace and directness at odds with all the machinery of symbolic hieroglyphs — a real duck, a real hippopotamus, a real ibis.knossos

You can see it too at the Palace of Minos in Knossos, where the mural is filled with graceful dolphins and mackerel.pompeii fish

Or in the mosaics at Pompeii, with its seafood menu of crustaceans, eels, octopuses and seabass. Animals have a special place in art.leonardo

They speak to us in a special language, even when they exist as a smaller part of another painting: the dog in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, or the mink in Leonardo’s Lady With an Ermine.

It is an element that reflects us and we can’t seem to do without. But what is that element?

“They connect us to something larger or greater than ourselves, or with a past we’ve forgotten,” says painter Anne Coe, whose work is well known for its sometimes satiric use of animal imagery.

And, in fact, the animals in paintings almost always have an ulterior reason for being there. They are doors to something. “Something larger,” as Coe says.

But it’s a two-way door, and what the animals mean depends on your direction as you pass the portal.

Almost like choosing which end of the binoculars to look through, you get very different takes on what animals are and what they mean.

Going one way, the animals are symbols. They stand for all kinds of things: sometimes totemic, sometimes archetypal, sometimes they are as simple as elephants for Republicans and donkeys for Democrats. But they stand for something other than themselves. Perhaps the Democrats would be better symbolized by a platypus or the GOP by a warthog, but there you go: We are stuck with the symbols. Everyone understands them; they’re shorthand.medieval animals copy

Medieval and Renaissance art is filled with this kind of symbology. The dog stood for faithfulness, the goat for lust, the lion for nobility. Of course, for the medieval mind, everything was a symbol.egyyptian bee

We still have some of this emblematic symbolism with us: busy as a bee; crazy as a loon; the industrious ant vs. the lazy grasshopper. We tell Aesop fables to our children to warn them about bad behavior.

But going through the door in the other direction, the animals are steadfastly not symbolic, and force us to see them for themselves as separate entities in the universe. They force us to recognize them as “thou” in theologian Martin Buber’s formulation of “I-thou,” as distinguished from “I-it.”

You look at the eyes in a painting by animal portraitist May Cheney and you see the “there” there. There is no mistaking the cat or dog or goat for an insensible beast.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” Buber himself said.may cheney dog

Cheney says, “The animal is present and looking back at you.”

And you are forced into the awareness that symbols are already several removes from reality, and that sometimes it is good to re-experience the world as it actually is.

When animals are symbolic, they are in some sense projections of ourselves. When they are not, they are reminders of all the rest of the universe. In either case, they kick-start us into the recognition of the larger connection we have with the world. And that is their function in art. After all, art itself is there to slap us into awareness, the way a doctor slaps a newborn into breath.

But whether the animals are symbolic or not, they also make us see them — as we come in the door or go out — either as kindred spirits, beings like us but in different form, or the opposite: beings that make us face the ineffable otherness of the world.

But there are more dichotomies, and more art to express them. Even if we see them as ourselves in fur or feathers, we have to ask: Are they similar to us because they are like us, or because we are like them? Are they people, too, or are we also animals?

“There is not an animal on the earth, nor a flying creature on two wings, but they are people like unto you,” it says in the Quran.

Western civilization has a long history of making a distinction between human and animal. The Bible gives us “dominion” over the beasts. We come up with all kinds of distinction to prove we are not animals. We have language, tools, laws, poetry. But looked at from the other side of the door, animals are no less distinct, no less deserving, no less intelligent than we are: Bees can make honey; humans don’t know how.

Mark Twain made fun of our presumed superiority to the animals: “I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the ‘lower animals’ (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me.”hiroshige fish

You can see these choices played out in art, and not only in European art. It is there in the manga drawings of Hokusai and book illustrations of Hiroshige, the temple carvings in India, the Mayan glyphs and in the Chi Wara antelope headdresses of Africa.chi wara

Animals mean something to all cultures. You can see it most directly in the paintings of children.

When they are introduced to animals in the classroom by a teacher who brings a bunny or a turtle, the children respond intensely. You don’t have to teach them anything about art: They burn to make paintings of the animals. You can’t stop them.

And their paintings in the first or third grades parallel the adult art, although in childhood terms: Sometimes they see themselves as the animal, playing baseball or caring for the animal babies, and sometimes they see the animals as something foreign, exotic and emotionally powerful. Boys, especially, love to paint sharks or dinosaurs.kid shark

The untutored and spontaneous identification with the animals is so deep that you can’t prevent it from happening. This may or may not be animals’ primary virtue, but it is one too often overlooked when we consider their value as pet, draft animal or cutlet.

They are there in all our art: The animals are either mirrors or windows. We look into the animals’ face and see.

Ultimately, the animals are a connection with the world: They allow us to deflate our species’ solipsism and recognize that connection.pompeii fish 2

lascaux horse and sign

Seventeen-thousand years ago, a group of people very much like us descended into a cave in Magdalenian Europe and began painting animals on the walls. We can hardly know what drove them, although we enjoy pondering their motives.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Caves, like the one at Lascaux, had been decorated at least since 30,000 years ago — as at Chauvet caves to the east of Lascaux — but it is Lascaux that has most captured the world’s imagination. Tourists came by the thousands to walk through the galleries and be awestruck. That is, until their very enthusiasm began to endanger the drawings. Now, tourists come to see the replica of the caves at an attraction called Lascaux II.

My wife and I had been to France many times. We had visited most of the great cathedrals of northern Europe, from Amiens to Rheims, and had made pilgrimages to sites like Mont St. Michel and the Impressionist Eden where Claude Monet painted at Giverny. We had gained a profound education in the long line of history and culture that informs who we are today.

Carole likes to look into the old family photographs to see the physiognomic evidence of her genes, dating back to her great-grandfather, Rowan, who fought (on the losing side) in the American Civil War. She searches old genealogical records to carry that family history back further into time, at least back to the 18th century. For her, as an artist, looking at the bulls and horses of Lascaux is very like seeing the ultimate and oldest family photographs.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This is where our histories began, or at least, where they were first recorded, in the cave paintings along the Vezere valley from Montignac to Les Eyzies.

And, although Lascaux II is a reproduction, and not the original, it can carry the same potency that a reproduced family photograph can have. It is the pith of the image that carries the wallop and not its provenance. Seeing the imitation still gives us something that images in a book cannot convey: the size, the architecture, the surface. And it gives us a fighting chance to imagine ourselves in the caves before the development of writing, governments or digital watches. We can feel in our hearts the atavistic rumblings. That this is an act of imagination rather than a literal case is not only not a detriment, it is a positive improvement: Imagination is the source of everything here and that has come after. We would hardly be human without it.

We found the billeterie and bought our tickets for Lascaux II and were told there was an English language tour at 11:30 a.m. Lascaux II is about a kilometer out of town, up a narrow road and a narrower driveway, with lots of cinder parking lots at the top.

We waited where we were told to wait, and about 20 others joined us until a young man with balding hair and a flashlight came out and welcomed us in English with a characteristic French accent.

We walked down a flight of stairs into an underground chamber that had a dozen or so museum-style exhibits describing how the cave was discovered, how it was formed geologically, and how visitorship had damaged the original caves, and so a new reproduction was created for visitors, out of concrete, measured, millimeter by millimeter from the original. Two of the largest galleries were recreated in Lascaux II, including about 80 percent of the best animal drawings in the cave.lascaux ii

He led us into a darkened cavern the size of an auditorium and on both walls we saw animals, beautiful animals drawn, some smaller than lifesize, some, like the great 18-foot-long taurus, larger than life.

The bottom of the cave was “wainscotted” with clay, and no drawings were made on the clay.

“You cannot paint on clay,” our guide said.aurochs and horses lascaux1947

But on the limestone above were a ring of horses overdrawn with a larger ring of bulls, as if a horse cult had made an altar for equines, and maybe centuries, or millennia later, a bull cult came in and made their altar for their bulls. The bulls were all bigger than the horses, and tended to be in outline form, while the horses tended to be filled in with color. (This was not universally true, but is the tendency.)

There was also a figure the guide called a “unicorn” at the very entrance of the cave, although why it was called a unicorn, I don’t know, since it clearly had two horns blazing out of what seemed like a lion’s head.lascaux unicorn

Carole immediately spotted it as a shaman wearing an animal hide and carrying two sticks, like the African deer dancers we have seen pictures of.

“The first figure, as we entered the bull room, was not the most impressive — the big bulls were — but the first figure is something you work your way back to after recognizing what the other figures are,” she said.

“The first figure is mysterious and it isn’t drawn with the same confidence as the bulls and horses. There are not the same strong completely informed curves. The first figure looks like a man with black legs whose back and head might be covered with a lion skin. In place of his head is a lion’s head, with what looks like two long, straight horns protruding from the temples. I think those two prongs were not horns, but were sticks the man was carrying. It looked like the sides of an animal skin were hanging down on both sides from the man’s torso, if he was a man.

“Our guide showed us what he called a ‘hump of fat’ on the man’s back, like the hump of a bull, or maybe a grizzly, but I thought it was the lion’s mane. It wouldn’t have been practical to make something there like a lump of fat, if the man were wearing a costume.

Because the man was right there, and drawn smaller than most of the other figures, he did not seem to represent his own importance; he seemed to be driving the animals. His placement puzzles me. I don’t know what these paintings were for, but I do know what they are, and I think that is joy.”

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Perhaps he was driving the animals in the cave in a kind of cattle drive.

The animals, especially the horses, tended to be drawn in series, and at least one series — “like a musical phrase,” Carole says — shows them advancing from a standing horse, through a walking horse to running horses.Lascaux II bull and horse

The horses were finely seen, with astonishing attention to anatomical detail, allowing for a certain amount of distortion, like the distended bellies on several of the horses, and legs rather shorter than their bodies would have had. Still, the attention to joints, hocks and fetlocks was surprising.

The bulls, much larger and drawn above and overlapping the horses, were often just heads and shoulders. Some had the curved backs and bellies and jaunty forelimbs racing out front. But although they also showed keen attention to anatomy, they clearly were meant to impress with size and energy.megaloceros room

The second room we entered was called the Axial Gallery and contained many more wonderful drawings, including a group on the ceiling, leading some to call it the “Sistine Chapel of prehistory.”black bull 2

You can see why they might say so, for the animals, all drawn with care for detail and expression, were everywhere.

“Our guide gave a running commentary and explanation of what we were looking at, but I tried not to hear him and tried to pretend that I had accidentally found it, so I could feel it only visually,” Carole said.

“I had a great feeling of joy and definitely a feeling of inspiration and gratitude. It felt just like a cathedral and I think I said out loud, ‘It is a cathedral, Richard.’

“I thought the most beautiful drawings and paintings were the bulls. They had wonderful curved horns, like Picasso’s bulls, but their heads were more prominent and really beautiful. Beautifully shaped and beautifully drawn. On at least one bull’s face, the detail of the nostril and the mouth were indicated by negative space against a black muzzle.

“If I had been alone, and obeying my instincts, I think I would have skipped and danced and clapped my hands, in a circle, round and round and round in the round room, just happy because of the bright contrast and the strength of the animals, and the joyous beauty of them running together, overlapped and contained within.lascaux II panorama 2

“There were little runs of horses like musical phrases.

“After seeing all these paintings and drawings, bulls, horses, reindeer, it becomes hard to believe they could have been anything but religious objects, icons or totems for clan worship.”

Despite being so realistic in so many ways, they are also somewhat stereotyped: the same horse shape from the same side angle. The same bull head over and over.

But there was one exception: At the end of the chamber, in a darkened corner where the passageway was bifurcated and narrowed, there was what looked at first like an upside down horse.falling horse

“Perhaps they thought it was Australian,” joked our guide.

“Or perhaps it had been killed and was dead,” he said.

But a dead horse is not upside down like a cockroach, but flat on its side.

No, this horse seemed to be dust-bathing, rolling back and forth on its back, almost playing. Alone of all the paintings we had seen in the Lascaux II galleries, it seemed to be an artistic rendering of something the artist had seen in the real world and was drawn not because of its totemic meaning, but simply for the pleasure of rendering experience, of seeing the world.

Lascaux II was a decidedly more satisfying experience than the Font-de-Gaume paintings: The animals were better drawn and they could be seen with a clarity missing in the other cave. There was a joy to the energy of the animals racing and jumping; you could hardly fail to be exhilarated by them.Big Bull Lascaux II

And seeing them in situ — even in a reproduced situ — gave you a much deeper understanding of them compared merely to seeing the photos in a book. Some of them are giant, like the 18-foot bull, a scale you can’t reproduce in a halftone.

They are some of the most astonishing drawings I’ve ever seen, even if they are 17,000 years old.

For Carole, as always, they hit with a more personal note.

“Maybe one reason I love these paintings and this experience so much is that I’ve made this paint myself, many times, beginning when I was about six or seven years old, in my back yard. There was plenty of iron oxide red dirt, plenty of yellow ocher clay and always charcoal from the place where we used to build a fire and roast oysters.

Notice the overlapped hindquarters

Notice the overlapped hindquarters

“I regularly made mud pies out of the red dirt and yellow clay and set them out on the back steps to dry for my playhouse bakery. The stain that the red mudpies left on the steps would not come off, no matter how much I washed it. So when Daddy had the men in his plumbing shop paint the back of our house white, I couldn’t wait for the white paint to dry; I pestered my parents about when the paint was going to be dry and unfortunately, they didn’t think to ask me why I was so interested. As soon as it was dry, I mixed up a bucket of red dirt and water and got a window sash brush. I used the step ladder and painted everything I knew how to draw all across the back of the house, as large as I could and I signed it with my name.

“I asked Mother and Daddy to come out and take a look at the wonderful thing I’d done. Daddy was not pleased and I was sent back up the stepladder with the same bucket and soapy water, but it never came off. Eventually, we painted the back of the house white again, but some of the red still bled through.

“And all I really learned from this was that that red dirt must be one of the most powerful things in the world. It made me love it more.

“I’ve written a lot of poems about that red dirt. When I went barefoot, it used to stain my feet. The red water it made in the bottom of the bathtub was beautiful, running toward the drain.

“Then, when I was in my 30s, I had a house that had a fireplace and I always had pieces of charred wood. From the time I was little, I would try to draw with pieces of charred wood, because I thought Abraham Lincoln did his homework with such a thing. On this day, I used charred wood on paper to make a large drawing of the sun’s face. I drew the outline and the features with black and I made yellow ocher paint and red iron oxide paint from the dirt in my yard in Greensboro. I hung it on the wall above the fireplace, where it hung for six years. I called it ‘Abraxas, the god of change.’Lascaux II bull paintings

“I still love the range of contrast that you get from this velvety black, strong iron red and buttery yellow ocher. There were cows the color of yellow ocher that used to sleep in the grass on the river road past our house. When the grass in those fields turned lion colored, the cows were camouflaged. In the summertime, thousands of orange day lilies filled the same pastures.

“So, actually, when I was in the cave, I experienced the pictures in my body, with my hands and memory of mixing those paints myself, and feeling like a hero making pictures with the paint.”lascaux panorama

les eyzies bison carving

Open a bottle of champagne and leave it out, and by morning it is flat and stale.

Opening up a prehistoric cave can be like that. Lascaux caves in France, with its menagerie of animal paintings, lasted for nearly 20,000 years intact. It was discovered (or more properly, rediscovered) in 1940 and after the war, was opened to tourists. It was soon apparent that the cave was beginning to be degraded. Lichens were starting to grow on the walls, and the huge jump in carbon dioxide levels, from the breath of all those making the pilgrimage through the caves, was joining with the calcium in the limestone to form a layer of calcite that would soon cover and blur all the imagery.

It was that, like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the act of observation changed what was being observed. When you open up the box with Schrodinger’s cat inside, sometimes what you find is not quote so pleasant.

The caves were closed to the public. In 1983, a simulation — a copy of the original caves — was opened as Lascaux II, and tourism heated up again. Tour guides led groups through the ersatz caverns and let us see a simulacrum of the original experience. They assure us over and over that the copy is precise down to the millimeter.

Lascaux II

Lascaux II

Yet.

I’m a naturally suspicious person. When a shopkeeper is friendly, I allow she may indeed be very nice, but I recognize she also has a self-interest in making customers feel good.

And when I see the great cathedrals of northern France, I question whether I’m getting the vision of the master builder and his sculptors, or am getting the Viollet le Duc version and a 19th century stylization of the Gothic art and architecture. They rarely let you know what parts of a church are original and what parts have been restored. Sometimes it is easy to tell, but much of the time, it is not.

Whether it is Sir Arthur Evans at the Palace of Knossos, or reconstructed pyramids at Chichen Itza or the Carnac alignments, the work, even of dedicated and honest archeologists, is suspect.

Entrance to Lascaux II

Entrance to Lascaux II

And when we visit Lascaux II in Montignac, Perigord, France, I am suspicious of the recreation of the original paintings by a 20th century artist, no matter how well meaning.

I’m not saying I don’t believe what I see is accurate, but that I harbor a constant suspicion that it may not be.

The problem is that the reproduced paintings are so much clearer and more contrasty than the genuine paintings we saw at Font-de-Gaume.

When I asked the tour guide about it, his answer was not satisfactory, and somewhat off point.

“These paintings were drawn from accurate photographs of the originals,” he said. “And they don’t vary as much as a millimeter from the real ones.”lascaux II panorama 2

But it isn’t the size that I was questioning, but that the photographs taken of the real cave may very likely have had their contrast boosted to make the images more legible, and I wondered if the artist who created the facsimile might have unconsciously reproduced jiggered-up photos.

Did he visit the original cave under the same lighting conditions he painted in, and did he compare his results, not with the photograph, but with the real paintings? This is not an academic question.

Our own biases secretly creep in whenever we look at the past. It cannot be otherwise. Even the most scrupulous “reproduction” is an interpretation.

It isn’t the honesty of the reproductions that I worry about. But I remember how easily fooled art experts were by Han van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers, and how shocked I was when I first saw them, with the gift of several decades between them and me, that anyone could ever have been fooled by them. Or even the Minuet by Paderewski, that he pawned off as a long-lost dance by Mozart. In the 19th century, it sounded genuinely like Mozart to their ears, but our ears can not be fooled: It is pure Victorian kitsch.

Abbe Breuil

Abbe Breuil

Often, in books, the images we see of cave paintings are not photographs of the original, but reproductions of drawings made of them. Abbe Henri Breuil, for instance, made many of them. He was one of the first and most influential archeologists to study the many cave paintings in France and northern Spain. But his drawings often make the originals clearer and of higher contrast. And we cannot always know if he has given us a perfect copy, or a modern interpretation.altamira bison pair

Consider his famous drawing of a bison from the caves at Altamira in Spain. He has added the horns and has made clear what is obscure — or has made guesses at what its original makers would have wanted us to understand.

He made a famous drawing of a supposed “sorcerer” from Caves of Trois-Frères, but a simple comparison of the drawing with a photo of the original makes one skeptical of all such attempts to reproduce the cave paintings.sorcerer pair

It is our own time and culture that colors what we pick from the welter of confused sense data that we see before us. We need to make sense of it, and invariably make a kind of sense that works in the confines of the culture we have been born into.

The air we breathe is invisible to us, the culture we absorb is odorless and tasteless. Only later can the habits and prejudices of one age be clearly spotted by its successor.

(It is easier these days to spot the cultural accretions from the Romantic 19th century, less easy to spot our own. One scratches one’s head at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, comparing when on one hand, he declares “alle menschen werden bruder” — all men will be brothers — with the “Hogan’s Heroes” march where the tenor tells us that joy is like the hero after victorious battle. Who has he battled, if all men are brothers? Clearly, the Romantics had a different, and mythic vision of war than we can ever sustain after the Somme, the bombing of Dresden or slaughter at Stalingrad. Beethoven and Schiller were certainly blind to this irony. We can never be.)

It isn’t that I think we should be allowed to visit the original Lascaux: It is clear that visitation destroys them, and I’m all for preserving them.

But I asked if scholars are allowed to visit the original and the guide said, “No. Not even scholars are allowed in. There is a keeper of the cave and he ventures in on a strict schedule to monitor the air, the humidity and the temperature, but no one else may enter.”

So, I wonder if all the latest scholarship is based on inaccurate reproductions.

Because at Font-de-Gaume, the paintings, while beautifully drawn, were noticeably low contrast, often barely legible on the walls. You had, in many cases, to acclimate your eyes to make out the bull or his eye or his horns.

In some cases, animals we were shown may be more like the fanciful shapes people make out of stalactites and stalagmites in tourist caves — “Here is the ‘ham and eggs,’” or “Can you see the elephant here?”

Our Lascaux guide assured us that the originals at Lascaux look “just like the reproductions, and are very clear,” and I have to say they look bright and legible in the photographs in the books.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

“Font-de-Gaume was made something like 4000 years after the Lascaux paintings,” he said. “They were not the same culture.”

And he implied that the Font-de-Gaume artists were inferior and less able to articulate their animals and less able to make their contrast ring out.

So, when our guide tells us the Lascaux facsimiles are accurate, I am inclined to believe him, and when Carole tells me that the shopkeeper was really nice and loved talking with her, I tend to believe Carole knows it is so. Yet, I also remember that the shopkeeper does a better business by being friendly.

NEXT: Visiting Lascaux II 

font de gaume drawing

On every continent, save Antarctica, early humans have left their mark on rock faces. Whether Australia or southern Africa or Asia, there is rock art left behind. The most famous and most familiar, of course, are the cave paintings of Europe. Dating from 30,000 years ago to roughly 10,000 years ago, they are the starting point from which we begin every survey course in art history.

The most famous caves are Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France, but there are hundreds of others, including the recently famous Chauvet cave in southern France.

I have taught some of those survey courses, but I had never seen any of the actual caves: I had only seen reproductions in my Janson or Gombrich. Several visits now to Europe have given my wife and me the chance to see some of the cultural monuments we had only dreamed of seeing: Chartres, Giverny, the Louvre — and the cave paintings.

You come to think of yourself as an adult, and that you have seen pretty much everything — in general if not in particular — and you develop a skin of insouciance. It is children whose eyes widen, not adults. We measure and compare, we add some small dram of new experience to the old and hold all in emotional proportion.

That ceases to be possible when staring at the bison, aurochs and horses scratched, drawn and painted in the inner recesses of inaccessible caverns, with a palpable lacuna of 20,000 to 30,000 years in between ourselves and the clearly living and breathing — and thinking and feeling — people who left this evidence on the limestone walls.

Bison, Font-de-Gaume

Bison, Font-de-Gaume

And we fall in awe that those people we depict as “primitive” cave dwellers could be so artistically advanced, so visually sophisticated. Yet, there is also a kind of glass wall between us and them. We have no idea why they painted and scratched these images; we have no idea what the images meant to them. We are left to guess.

Those guesses fall into two large categories: On one hand, a group of modern people assume the prehistoric people were decidedly primitive, unlike us in so many ways beyond merely not having smart phones; on the other hand, there are those who make the empathetic leap and recognize that the Cro-Magnon human is exactly the same species as we are, with exactly the same brain power, same potential for neuroses, same skills, and that if we had been in their position, we would perform exactly as they did, and so perhaps the cave paintings are not something alien and other, perhaps they can be understood, not as Alley Oop, the cave man, but as mon frere, ma soeur.

The first art we saw is 17,000 years old, on a cave wall in the Vezere river valley of the Perigord region of France. There were bison, reindeer and horses, drawn with an anatomical awareness that European artists didn’t seem to recapture until the Renaissance.

We had planned first to go to Lascaux in Montignac, but the roads are not always well marked in France and we wound up instead in Les Eyzies at the other end of the Vezere valley.

And it all came to us by accident.

The plan was to drive from Angouleme to Montignac to see the Lascaux II reproductions of the cave art of the original, now closed Lascaux caves.

The road wound through green valleys, up over wooded hillsides and over streams. Eventually, we got to Les Eyzies without ever seeing Montignac.

Les Eyzies de Tayac

Les Eyzies de Tayac

Turns out, that was a good thing.

Les Eyzies is a small village, made up mostly of cafes and souvenir shops, all along a single street below a tall yellow limestone cliff. These bluffs line the river valley. In them are dozens of caves, and many of those have prehistoric art in them.

Lascaux, further north just outside Montignac, is, of course, much more famous. But the cave has been closed for decades; a substitute cave, called Lascaux II is open to tourists, featuring recreations of the original art. It had been our intention to visit that cave first, and then perhaps check out some of the other, lesser sites along the river valley.

But because we came the wrong way, we found the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, which is one of the only remaining caves with polychrome painting still open to the public. They protect the cave as well as they can by only allowing 12 people in at a time, and fewer than 200 a day. You have to make an appointment.font de gaume entrance

So, we stopped by the office — a shack with books and souvenirs for sale — and asked if it might be possible to get a ticket for the next day.

“We are closed Saturday,” she said. “But we have tickets available for this afternoon at 3.”

It was about 12:30 at the time. So we bought our tickets and drove around the countryside, looking at the paysage and enjoying the many roadside attractions, like the Prehisto-Parc, which features those familiar papier mache Neanderthals bagging a concrete mammoth. We passed on going in.

We drove all the way to Montignac, just to see the scenery, and, boy were we even happier we had come the wrong way.

Many years ago, when Carole and I first visited Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation, we came to it the back way, along a dirt road from New Mexico. We didn’t know what we were looking for and got lost on the back roads through the forest. But eventually, the road started down the side of a cliff and we saw a large hole in the ground a couple of miles ahead. It was Canyon de Chelly, and the road led us up to it with no traffic, tourists or souvenir shops. We came upon it — actually upon Wild Cherry Canyon, a side canyon — and got out of the car and had the canyon to ourselves, looking 400 feet straight down into a rock hole. It was awesome. It was only later, getting to the head of the canyon, that we saw the traditional entryway, Chinle, a godawful tourist hole rank with traffic and jewelry stands. If we had come to Canyon de Chelly through the front entrance, we would have been put off by the wretched poverty of the Indians and the rancid commercialism of the dusty town.

Postcards for sale, Montignac

Postcards for sale, Montignac

So it was at Montignac, a fussy, busy, crummy town, catering to the worst of the tourist trade. If we had seen it first, we would have held our noses, visited Lascaux II and gotten the hell out of Dodge as fast as possible.

But coming up through Les Eyzies instead, we got a boat load of prehistoric places, smaller and less commercialized than Lascaux II, and we found a hotel a few miles north of town called the Hotel Peche-Lune, a large, new hotel with large, clean rooms and a great restaurant out front.

By then, we had used up our extra time and came back to Font-de-Gaume, in time to begin our tour.

It was an unannounced trek uphill for 500 meters, a grueling bit of alpine climbing for Carole and me, huffing and puffing, 20 yards behind the rest of the group, and losing ground.

Cave entrance, Font-de-Gaume

Cave entrance, Font-de-Gaume

At the top, there was a hole in the mountain and our guide took us 12 in to see the cave paintings. The cave is not the wide, high sort of Carlsbad Caverns sort of cave, but a seam in the limestone eroded out, about 120 meters into the hill, with several side cavities off at a good Karstian 90 degree angle. At its narrowest, the cave rubbed both shoulders, and there were a few places I had to duck my head, but mostly, it was wide enough for one or two people to pass, and in the main grotto, the ceiling was 100 feet up.

It is dark inside, with a faintly lighted footpath, and a few round lights on the wall that were switched on to dimly illuminate a three-foot bison on the wall about a foot above head height. No, there was another one a little on. And another. Actually there were five bison in the first section of the cave. The first was the clearest, hunch-shouldered, battering ram head, tiny legs and a wooly coat of brown. A small hole in the rock served as the beast’s eye.frieze of bison

The first impression is that the paintings are so faint as hardly to be visible at all. But as you get used to the low illumination in the cave, you realize that what is actually surprising is that they are still visible at all after 17,000 years. It is an astonishing passage of time: 15,000 years before Christ. 12,000 years before the Great Pyramid at Giza. That we could see them at all has to be a miracle.

We moved down the corridor of the cave to another spot, where we saw a giant reindeer, maybe 4 feet long, with a great hoop of antlers curved in a giant C from his head and forward. The shoulders and antlers were the clearest to see, the head, partly painted and partly incised in the stone, was more difficult to make out, but when you did, you saw the reindeer was licking another animal standing in front of it: another reindeer, facing the opposite way, darker and more obscure.

Comparing the "enhanced" reproduction with the actual drawing. More on this in Part 2

Comparing the “enhanced” reproduction with the actual drawing. More on this in Part 2

There were more bison and some horses, and what struck you, after realizing how faint some of the imagery was, was how beautifully they were drawn. It is the drawing, not the painting, that is the most notable.

The painting is really bichrome: There is black, mostly for outline, and there is a kind of white, faintly yellow, and there is the ocher mixture of the two, making the brown.

Why are these images here? Who made them? You cannot help but agonize over their meaning. Over the years, there have been many proposed explanations, but none of them really help.

Surely, you think, the paintings might have been the only part of some more elaborate installation that has otherwise long rotted away. We’ll never know.

Over dinner, Carole and I came up with a dozen stories.

I mentioned the football “Game Plan Theory,” with Xs and Os on the blackboard to teach the tactics of the game. Perhaps some ancient hunting teacher was showing the younger generation the ropes.

Or perhaps it was a school, says Carole. One bison, two bison, three bison, learning to count.

She also wondered if they might not have been painted not by adults, but by children, or a single child especially talented at art. And perhaps they are in the caves because that child kept them as his secret place, where he decorated his play fort walls with his drawings.

I said that we should not rule out the possibility that they were created not by men or boys, but by women. “It has to be possible,” I said. “Perhaps the cave was the place in which women were isolated for their menses. Many primitive societies do such things.”

“Then I would expect the animal paintings to be about mothers and calves, or animals giving birth,” she said.

The usual explanations about magic and shamans might be true, but I wondered if we don’t too often condescend to our ancient forebears.

“These were Cro-Magnons, which means they were modern humans in every anatomical aspect. They were exactly the same species as us, with exactly the same brainpower. The only difference between then and now is cultural: We have built on the culture we inherited, as our grandfathers built on the culture they inherited, from the pickax to the digital watch.

“Perhaps we should ask what would we have made these paintings for. Maybe the answer isn’t some tribal woo-woo, heebie-jeebies, but something as practical or as quotidian as our own lives.”

I wasn’t sure what that would be: Certainly these cave paintings were not made as art galleries. Seeing them is a pain in the ass, and there is no track lighting, to say nothing of the lack of white wine and cheese.

It used to be thought that the paintings were hunting magic, capturing the image of the animal to be hunted, to make it easier to capture the meat on the hoof. But recent studies of the caves make it clear that the animals in the paintings were not prey animals. The cavemen did not eat bison or lions or bears.font de gaume single bison

The second theory is that they were “animal masters,” that is, the animals of cult worship, and the painting of them was a magical means to capture their power, their emotional power.

My own best guess is that they might have been images for meditation, something to concentrate on to bring the observer into an altered state of consciousness. Certainly, many of the drawings — at least elsewhere in the world — contain odd hallucinogenic dots, crosses and spiral patterns, the same imagery that modern drug-religion ceremonies induce and that can be seen in Huichol paintings.

The thing is, we’ll never really know. Almost certainly, vital evidence has disappeared over time, rotted into oblivion: The paintings are denuded of their context and we have nothing to go on but the measly remains, not even so much evidence as dinosaur bones.

We discussed this all over a great dinner at our hotel: We began with a salade de perigourdaise, which was lettuce, foie gras on toast, and lots of duck innards skizzied up and hot. It was surprisingly delicious and very meaty. Carole picked at the lettuce, but couldn’t bring herself to eat duck parts she couldn’t recognize: gizzards, livers — for all we knew duck tongues and spleens.

The main courses were better accepted by a wider population of the Nilsen household. Carole had a faux filet — a beefsteak — bien cuit, thank you very much, and some sliced, fried potatoes. I had a magret de canard with the same potatoes. My duck was really great.

“Duck, the OTHER red meat,” I said.

I saw no ducks on the cave walls. Surely they enjoyed ducks as much as I do.