The First Exploration of the Niaux Cave
Our Palaeolithic predecessors had entered the Reseau Clastres via the Petite Caougno cave, a couple of hundred meters before the entrance to Niaux cave, assuming - understandably - that the two caves were separate. We now know that they are part of the same geological system.
The first scientific expedition of the Niaux cave in France, was in 1971 when Jean Clottes and Robert Simonnet, entered these unseen pristine chambers to study the cave paintings we now term Magdalenian parietal rock art, after spelunkers had first emptied the siphons and discovered the new galleries. But as they were to discover, there was more than just the art.
When the first spelunkers explored the cave now named Reseau Clastres, in a huge chamber they discovered charcoal drawings, small in number, but beautifully executed - three bison, a horse and a weasel. The weasel was of interest for 2 reasons; not only was this subject matter unique in prehistoric art, but the stylized sophistication of the drawing allowed Jean Clottes and Robert Simonnet to determine how the artist had executed it - in 10 bold and faultless strokes. It was a figure quickly made by an experienced artist.
After a disorientating amount of time underground exploring the newly exposed sections of the Niaux cave, the Bradshaw Foundation team made their way through the rest of the Niaux cave system.
Entering the Niaux Cave
The main entrance to Niaux leads into a large and even-floored cavern, wide and high-ceilinged. The cave walls are smooth and clear - and empty. For the first 400 metres there are no paintings or engravings; simply no rock art whatsoever. But at a particular point the open cavern becomes restricted, caused by an ancient collapse of enormous jagged boulders from the ceiling. As Jean Clottes remarked, one can continue into the cave by climbing with considerable difficulty over the debris, or squeeze through a narrow passage to the left. As one emerges from this, and on either side of the opening, the paintings begin - as symbols. Simple linear lines in red seem to mark the beginning of the painted cave, the beginning of the experience.
These enigmatic and understated decorations continue, with a hundred or so red and black geometric signs - dashes, bars, lines, and series of dots - some painted using tools, some using fingers. The red is hematite, the black is either manganese dioxide or charcoal, both ground and mixed with water or fat. Precisely what the symbols represent is hard to say, but they are not random. They have been daubed strategically, sometimes opposite each other, sometimes on either side of a conspicuous fissure.
One of the most tantalising symbols is the claviform. They are painted in red, and frequently found in this region of France and the the Pyrenees. They are all attributed to the Magdalenian epoch - 15,000 to 12,000 years before present. There are various interpretations - boomerangs, clubs, or axes, as the famed Abbè Breuil surmised. Or stylised female figures, according to the hypothesis of Professor Andrè Leroi-Gourhan. Or a time-unit, perhaps of a lunar month, which may explain why they seem to appear alongside the meticulously painted dots. However, the palaeolithic symbolism avoids modern cognitive computation, just as present-day Christian iconography - a religion represented by a baby, a virgin mother and a cross - might do for archaeologists in thousands of years in the future.
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→ Palaeolithic Cave Art and Depth Psychology by Dr. Ilse Vickers