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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

The themes chosen

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Horses are dominant . Locally they may be outnumbered by bison (the Ariege Pyrenees;) or hinds (Cantabrian Spain), occasionally even by rhinoceroses and lions at the very beginning (Chauvet) or, much later, by mammoths at Rouffignac (Plassard 1999). None the less, they always remain numerous whatever techniques were used at any period and in any region. We might say that the theme of the horse is at the basis of Paleolithic rock art. This is all the more remarkable as that animal, even though present among the cooking debris of Paleolithic living sites, was often less plentifully killed and eaten than reindeer and bison, or again ibex in mountainous rocky areas. This means that it played a major role in the bestiary. The same could be said, even if less so, for the bison, whose images are also found in relatively high numbers from the Aurignacian to the end of the Magdalenian.

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Chauvet Lions

Chauvet Rhinoceroses

Lions (left) are rarely represented except at the beginning of Upper Paleolithic Art here in Chauvet (Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardeche). Rhinoceroses (right) are also quite rare in general except at Chauvet. Photographs by Jean Clottes.

The importance of animal themes varies according to the different regions but much more in function of the periods considered. For ex-ample, the enormous number of normally rare dangerous animals in the Chauvet Cave created a surprise: rhinoceroses, lions, mammoths and bears represent 63% of the recognisable animal figures (Clottes (ed.) 2001).

However, this is not a unique phenomenon, isolated in time and space. In the Dordogne, at the same epoch, Aurignacians made use of the same themes in their shelters and their caves in much higher proportions than can be found in later art. This would mean that an important thematic change took place in the art of the south of France at the beginning of the Gravettian or at the end of the Aurignacian, when their choices changed from the most fearsome animals to the more hunted ones (Clottes 1996). Human representations can be found, but in far fewer numbers in comparison with the painted and engraved animals. About a hundred have been published, not counting hand stencils and hand prints or isolated female sexual organs. This numerical inferiority, constant at all times during the Upper Paleolithic, is in sharp contrast to what one can see in most forms of rock art all over the world. In addition to their relative scarcity, human representations evidence two main characteristics: they are nearly always incomplete or even reduced to an isolated segment of their body; they are not naturalistic, contrary to the animals.

Whole human representations are exceptional, hardly a score. They may be carved women (La Magdelaine in the Tarn, Le Roc aux Sorciers in the Vienne), or women sketched with a finger or a tool on the soft surface of a wall or ceiling (Pech-Merle, Cussac), or painted (Le Portel) or engraved men (Sous-Grand-Lac, Saint-Cirq, Gabillou in the Dordogne).

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Venus of Laussel

La Magdelaine

The Venus of Laussel (Marquay), Bas-relief of Female. This lady is aged 20,000 years, she holds a bison horn in one hand. Photo Museum of Aquiraue, Bordeaux. Reclining woman carved on the wall of La Magdelaine (Penne, Tarn). Photo A. Serres.

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