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Paleolithic Cave Art in France
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Paleolithic Cave Art in France

by Dr Jean Clottes
Paleolithic Cave Paintings and Rock Art in France : Extracted from the Adorant magazine 2002

The Niaux Cave | Film Download

Less well known than other European caves such as Chauvet and Lascaux, Niaux houses some of the world's most spectacular rock art.
Download the Niaux Cave Film


Page 8 of 8

Wall images are perfectly compatible with the perceptions people could have during their visions, whether one considers their themes, their techniques and their details. The animals, individualised by means of precise details, seem to float on the walls ; they are disconnected from reality, without any ground line, often without respect of the laws of gravity, in the absence of any framework or surroundings. Elementary geometric signs are always present and recall those seen in the various stages of trance. As to composite creatures and monsters (i.e. animals with corporal attributes pertaining to various species), we know that they belong to the world of shamanic visions. This does not mean that they would have made their paintings and engravings under a state of trance. The visions could be drawn (much) later.

Trying to get into touch with the spirits believed to live inside the caves, on the other side of theveil that the walls constituted between their reality and ours, is a Paleolithic attitude of mind which has left numerous testimonies, particularly the very frequent use of natural reliefs. When one’s mind is full of animal images, a hollow in the rock underlined by a shadow cast by one’s torch or grease lamp will evoke a horse’s back line or the hump of a bison. How then couldn’t one believe that the spirit-animals found in the visions of trance - and that one had expected to find in the other-world which the underground undoubtedly is - are not there on the wall, half emerging through the rock thanks to the magic of the moving light and ready to vanish into it again. In a few lines, they would be made wholly real and their power would then become accessible.

Cracks and hollows, as well as the ends oropenings of galleries, must have played a slightly different yet comparable part. They were not the animals themselves but the places whence they came. Those natural features provided a sort of opening into the depths of the rock where the spirits were believed to dwell. This would explain why we find so many examples of animals drawn in function of those natural features (Le Roseau Clastres, Le Travers de Janoye, Chauvet, Le Grand Plafond at Rouffignac).

rock art cave paintings rock art cave paintings

The Chapel Horse from Chauvet

The Sorcerer of the Chauvet Cave

(left) Animals are sometimes represented as though they were coming out of cracks or - as here in the Chauvet Cave - out of the ends of deep recesses. Photo J. Clottes. (right) The Sorcerer from the Chauvet Cave.

In addition to the drawings of animals and signs, the intention to get in touch with the powerful spirits in the subterranean world may also be glimpsed through three other categories of testimonies. First, the bone fragments and other remains (teeth, flints) stuck or deposited in the fissures of the walls. Finger tracings and indeterminate lines might stem from the same logic. In their case, the aim was not to recreate a reality as with the animal images but to trail one’s fingers and to leave their traces on the wall, wherever this was possible, in order to establish a direct contact with the powers underlying the wall. This might be done by non-initiates who participated in the ritual in their own way and with their own means. Finally, hand stencils enabled them to go further still. When somebody put his or her hand on to the wall and paint was blown all over it, the hand would blend with the wall and take its new colour, be it red or black. Under the power of the sacred paint, the hand would metaphorically vanish into the wall. It would thus, concretely, link its owner to the world of the spirits. This might enable the 'lay people', maybe the sick, to benefit directly from the forces of the world beyond. Seen in that light, the presence of hands belonging to very young children, such as those in Gargas, stops being extraordinary (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998, 2001).


In the last ten years, many changes have occurred. New caves of great magnitude (Cosquer, Chauvet, Cussac) have been discovered. Their study has already brought a wealth of information and much is to be expected of the continuation (or the beginning, as in Cussac) of research in them, as well as in half a dozen smaller sites found in various regions of France. AMS radiocarbon dating has proved to be an invaluable tool not only to establish the extreme antiquity of the art in some of the caves but also to help us work out the different periods in their frequentation.

A lot of attention is now being paid to the archaeological context, to its preservation and to its analysis. As a result the activities of Upper Paleolithic people in the caves become more visible and understandable. Finally the new interpretative theories bring another framework in which to study and try to understand the reasons why Upper Paleolithic people went so far underground to leave on the walls their splendid if still mysterious images.

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