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Paleolithic Cave Art in France
Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France 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

Geographical location

Page 2 of 8

Contrary to a well-spread idea, Paleolithic rock art is not merely a 'cave art'. In fact, a recent study showed that if the art of 88 sites was to be found in the complete dark, in 65 other cases it was in the daylight (Clottes 1997). Three main cases can be distinguished : - the deep caves, for which an artificial light was necessary; - the shelters which were more or less lit up by natural light ; - the open air sites. The latter are essentially known in Spain and Portugal. Only one case has been discovered in France (the engraved rock at Campome in the Pyrenees-Orientales). The art in the light and the art in the dark: those two tendencies have coexisted for all the duration of the Paleolithic. The art in the dark was preferred in certain areas (the Pyrenees) and at certain periods (Middle and Late Magdalenian). The low-relief sculptures are only to be found in shelters. On the other hand, the paintings which used to exist in shelters have for the most part eroded away and only very faint traces remain, contrary to engravings which could in many cases be preserved in them.

In the shelters, there have most often been settlements next to the wall art. People lived there and went on with their daily pursuits close to the engravings, the paintings and low-relief sculptures. The case is quite different for the deep caves which usually remained uninhabited. This must mean that the art of the one and that of the other were probably not considered in the same way: in the deep caves the images were nearly never defaced, destroyed or erased, where as in the shelters the archaeological layers - i.e. the rubbish thrown away by the group - often ended up by covering up the art on the walls (Gourdan, Le Placard). The art inside the caves was respected, while the art in the shelters eventually lost its interest and protection.

The themes chosen

Whether for the art in the dark or for the art in the light, the themes represented are the same. They testify to identical beliefs, even if ritual practices may have varied according to the different locations.

Above all, Paleolithic art, from beginning to end, is an art of animals. In the past few years, some specialists have insisted upon the importance of geometric signs. It is true that those signs and indeterminate traces are numerically more important than the animals and that they constitute one of the major characteristics of the art. Under their most elementary forms, as clouds of dots and small red bars, they can be found from the Aurignacian in Chauvet to the Middle and Late Magdalenian in Niaux. They are the most mysterious images in cave art. Very few caves have none (Mayriere superieure, La Magdelaine) or, on the contrary, have nothing but geometric signs (Cantal and Frayssinet-le- Gelat in the Lot). This means that those signs are practically always associated to animals, either in the same caves and often on the same panels or directly on top of them (G.R.A.P.P. 1993).

However, our first and most durable impression of Paleolithic art is above all that of a bestiary, plentiful and various while remaining typical. Most of the animals represented are big herbivores, those that the people of the Upper Paleolithic could see around them and which they hunted. Those choices were not compulsory. They might have preferred to draw birds, fish or snakes, but they did not do so.

rock art cave paintings rock art cave paintings

Horses are most frequent in
Paleolithic wall art in France.
Photo by J. Clottes

Bison are numerous in the Ariege Pyrenees as here in Niaux.
Photo by R. Robert

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