What were we humans painting 16000 to 25000 years ago? — horses, bison, mammoths, sometimes people, and… outlines of our hands.
It’s a poster in the entry lobby to Pech Merle, an ice age cave in Southern France, one of the few still open to the public.
Oh, and dots. We (our ancestors) were painting dots — dots that meander through the scenes and make us wonder about their meaning, and dotted horses that modern researchers have determined were not just another excuse for dots, but most likely represent ancient horses with coats in patterns similar to our Appaloosas.
Road sign – on the way to Pech Merle
A reproduction red hand-print on a sign in a village near Pech Merle, Southwestern France
Hand print, souvenir postcard
We assume illiteracy, but their visual language was rich, and still speaks to us. Who’s to say the patterns of dots and animal shapes weren’t a language of symbols we just haven’t found the Rosetta Stone for? Or maybe, as one of our group suggested, considering some of the exaggerated female figures we saw here we could argue instead for teenage-boy graffiti.
But there’s also a relatively recent study of prehistoric hand stencils that argues many if not most were made by women. Could female artists have had an equality in ancient times that we don’t have even today? (hey, maybe those cave-men weren’t such cave-men after all)
Hand-print and horses – from the tourist brochure for the Pech Merle cave
It couldn’t have been easy to do — in dark caves, with flickering torchlight, at difficult heights in corridors deep underground. But on a lighter note, here’s one thing our ancestors may not have seen when exiting the caves…
Exit through the gift shop – Pech Merle, with cute fuzzy mammoths and cave bats
And one thing we cave tourists have in common with the prehistoric world? — no photography. And I understand that. I’m just glad they let us breathe (body heat, moisture and CO2 from our breath can be harmful to the paintings, with the result that only a few are still open to the public).
This was our favorite cave tour of our April trip to southern France. We thought it had some of everything — dots, horses, mammoths, reindeer, bison, and aurochs, some human figures, and of course, the outlines of hands along with incised drawings, and even fossilized footprints.
Do you have a cave tour to recommend?
Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Hands
Pech Merle Cave
More on Pech Merle
Who made those hand-stencils?