Yesterday, visiting Pech Merle, an ancient cave near Cabreterts, a village in the midi-Pyreéneées section of France, I could not believe my guide’s words. The drawings in these caves are 25,000 years old, renderings of horses, mammoths, aurochs, pre-historic cows, bear and the imprint of a negative hand. These ancient people made art, painstaking, time consuming, beautiful, sensitive art. They drew with their hands on soft stone, etched with a tool on harder stone. They used pigment, magnesium oxide to make black, iron oxide to make red. Five hundred years later, an artist added spots to horses using ash. Dates can’t be exact. Scholarship continues to evolve. What is clear is the negative imprint of a hand on a cave wall. So, how did the artist create a negative image? Pretty sophisticated. He or she—and one print does seem to belong to a woman—placed a hand on a wall, and in the case of the smaller hand which I saw more clearly, it was a left hand. Then, taking colored dust into her mouth the artist spit pigment onto the wall. Careful, controlled little puffs. A single hand print took twelve hours. Did this artist work alone? Did she have helpers, all taking dust into their mouths, all spitting. We don’t know. We do know that archeologists reached these conclusions about time using materials available 25,000 years before the Common Era. Then, they reproduced the artist’s process. Twelve hours for that hand. Thirty-two hours for a horse.
Temperature and moisture continue to preserve these drawings, a fish with scales, a mammoth with long wooly hair. A theory is these caves were used for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps, though, this was an ancient artists’ studio, a place where people came to make art. I am particularly struck by the rendering of a bear’s head, its snout, it’s nostrils, seemingly quivering and picking up my scent as I stand where an ancient artist must have stood, etching his fine lines. How many hours for this bear’s head?
Inside the cave, stalagmites and stalactites. On the ceiling rock formations that look like clouds, on the cave’s floor, standing rock that resembles columns. A foot print sunken down into what must have been mud, and I am imagining an artist, leaving the cave, heading home after a long day, exhausted, satisfied, knowing that she has left behind some essence of humanity on these cave walls.