Sep 122015


On this date in 1940, the entrance to Lascaux Cave was discovered by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat. Ravidat returned to the scene with three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas, and entered the cave via a long shaft. The teenagers discovered that the cave walls were covered with depictions of animals. The cave complex was opened to the public in 1948. By 1955, the carbon dioxide, heat, humidity, and other contaminants produced by 1,200 visitors per day had visibly damaged the paintings and introduced lichen on the walls. The cave was closed to the public in 1963 to preserve the art. After the cave was closed, the paintings were restored to their original state and were monitored daily. Rooms in the cave include the Hall of the Bulls, the Passageway, the Shaft, the Nave, the Apse, and the Chamber of Felines.


Lascaux II, a replica of the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery located 200 meters away from the original, was opened in 1983, so that visitors could view the painted scenes without harming the originals. Reproductions of other Lascaux artwork can be seen at the Centre of Prehistoric Art at Le Thot, France.


Since 1998, the cave has been beset with a fungus, variously blamed on a new air conditioning system that was installed in the caves, the use of high-powered lights and the presence of too many visitors. As of 2008, the cave contained black mold which scientists were and still are trying to keep away from the paintings. In January 2008, authorities closed the cave for three months even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual was allowed to enter the cave for 20 minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions. Now only a few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave and just for a few days a month but the efforts to remove the mold have taken a toll, leaving dark patches and damaging the pigments on the walls.

The Lascaux valley is located some distance from the major concentrations of decorated caves and inhabited sites, most of which were discovered further downstream. In the environs of the village of Eyzies-de-Tayac Sireuil, there are 37 decorated caves and shelters, as well as an even greater number of habitation sites from the Upper Paleolithic, located in the open, beneath a sheltering overhang, or at the entrance to one of the area’s karst cavities. This is the highest concentration in western Europe.

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The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures, and abstract signs. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. Most of the major images have been painted on the walls using mineral pigments, although some designs have also been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern, and others have deteriorated entirely.

Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. Geometric images have also been found on the walls.


The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 5.2 meters (17 ft) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. The bulls appear to be in motion.


Less known is the image area called the Abside (Apse), a roundish, semi-spherical chamber similar to an apse in a Romanesque basilica. It is approximately 4.5 meters in diameter (about 5 yards) and covered on every wall surface (including the ceiling) with thousands of entangled, overlapping, engraved drawings. The ceiling of the Apse, which ranges from 1.6 to 2.7 meters high (about 5.2 to 8.9 feet) as measured from the original floor height, is so completely decorated with such engravings that it indicates that the prehistoric people who executed them first constructed a scaffold to do so.


There are many speculations on the purposes of the art in the Lascaux cave, all suffering from lack of intellectual rigor. Religion and magic are commonly cited as underlying purposes, which is almost laughable given that “ritual object” is the common designation by archeologists for any artifact whose purpose is unclear. There is a common and, I believe, false assumption that prehistoric peoples were deeply superstitious, and that religion and magic derive from superstition. It is often hypothesized, for example, without any evidence, that primitive peoples believed that at the onset of winter the sun was going away and had to be appeased with fire and sacrifice to bring it back. This is a highly ethnocentric slur based on the assumption that primitive people are stupid (and we are oh-so-very smart). Don’t you think that after millennia of spring following winter, people would have caught on?

People have also suggested that the art was part of hunting ritual, analysis of star patterns, depictions of hallucinatory trances, classification of local fauna, and so forth. Has it not occurred to anyone with half a brain that it might simply be decorative art? I have no idea concerning the purpose or purposes of the art were, but, unlike others, I will not waste your time with hypotheses that have no hope of being tested.

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The outlines of hands are my favorites, because they signal to me a vital human presence. The graphic below indicates how they may have been done (by blowing powdered pigment over one’s hand).


Foods of the Paleolithic era have been of interest since the introduction of the so-called “Paleo Diet.” The idea of a Paleolithic diet can be traced to the work in the 1970s of gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin. The idea was later developed by Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner, and popularized by Loren Cordain in his 2002 book The Paleo Diet, which has many, many imitators. In 2012 the Paleolithic diet was described as being one of the “latest trends” in diets, based on the popularity of diet books about it; in 2013 the diet was Google’s most searched-for weight-loss method. The diet is one of many fad diets that have been promoted in recent times, and draws on an appeal to nature and a narrative of conspiracy theories about how nutritional research, which does not support the paleo diet, is controlled by a malign food industry. I am not part of this “malign” industry; all on my own as a professional anthropologist I can see the flaws in the arguments of the diet’s supporters.

The central tenet of Paleolithic diets is that the modern human digestive system evolved in the Paleolithic era (unproven for starters), and has not evolved since then, although foods have – most notably because of the Neolithic revolution of the domestication of plants and animals, but also because of the relatively recent introduction of junk foods. Therefore, to be true to our bodies we should return to the diet of our ancestors, which means eliminating grains, dairy, excessive fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol, all of which are supposedly products of domestication. This is almost completely fallacious. While it is true that wild animals are leaner than domestic ones, and dairy foods are Neolithic novelties, there are plenty of edible wild grains, carbohydrates exist in wild tubers and other wild foods, and natural yeasts cause fruits, such as grapes, to ferment all by themselves if moistened and left alone.

Paleo diets are also high in meat, fish, and protein based on questionable assumptions about the balance in the average forager diet. Modern ethnographic data are not much help because contemporary foragers live in marginal areas such as the Kalahari and the Arctic north. Diets are completely dependent on what is available. When Richard Lee studied the !Kung of the Kalahari in the 1960s he estimated that about 20% of their diet was protein, whereas in that same period the circumpolar Inuit ate about 95% protein.

It is certainly true that modern people in general eat way too much fat, sugar, starch, processed food, and junk. This is hardly news. Cutting down on these foods is obviously beneficial. My own diet depends a lot on where I am living. I ate a lot of beef, vegetables, and fruit in Buenos Aires, and now, in China, I get a lot of rice, noodles, eggs and mushrooms. I am fortunate that in both countries a lot of the food is locally produced and, therefore, fresh. In southern England and downstate New York, I was very fond of gathering wild foods. There’s something very special about getting something for nothing. I’d always carry bags with me so I could harvest berries, nuts, greens, mushrooms, or whatever I found along the way. Wild mushrooms are a staple for me here in Yunnan province – the varieties available are amazing.


So I suggest a simple wild mushroom omelet using duck or goose eggs (readily available to foragers). The !Kung eat ostrich eggs which take a bit of getting into, but are huge – enough for a family of four.

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