Marcel Ravidat, an 18-year-old apprentice garage mechanic, took his dog, Robot, into hills near his home at Montignac in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. There, the story goes, Robot ran into a hole created by a fallen tree.
Ravidat threw some stones into the hole and was surprised that they seemed to travel a long, long way down.
Returning with some friends and a teacher he climbed down the hole and began to explore. The boys discovered what were to become known famously as the Lascaux cave paintings – estimated to be between 17,000 to 20,000 years old and excitedly described by experts as “the cradle of art”.
In a cave complex arranged around a main cave about 20 metres long and five metres high were what turned out to be more than 2,000 painted and engraved images of animals and abstract symbols.
A protective layer of chalk had made the caves watertight enabling the artwork to be remarkably preserved in vibrant blacks, browns, reds, and yellows.
The paintings are almost all of animals. There is only one human and no flowers, trees or countryside. The meaning of most of the abstract symbols is unknown.
The cave complex was opened to the public in 1948 and soon attracted about 1,200 visitors a day. And that’s when the problems began.
By 1955, carbon dioxide from the breath of visitors, along with heat and humidity took their toll on the paintings. And the introduction of air conditioning brought with it fungi and lichen.
As a result, the complex was closed to the public in 1963, the prehistoric images returning to the darkness and isolation that they had known for thousands of years.
Public interest remained unabated, however, and led in 1983 to the opening of Lascaux II, a meticulously created replica cave.
Its main attraction is the Hall of Bulls Chamber. The four large black bulls in it include one that is over five meters (17ft) long – the largest animal painting in prehistoric cave paintings anywhere in the world.
Mr Ravidat became an official guardian of the cave and a guide who never lost his initial awe at the sights that he had been the first to see. He died in 1995, aged 72, after a heart attack.
Lascaux became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Only a few hundred meters away from the original cave, Lascaux II is a virtually identical replica with 80 per cent of the original images reproduced. It attracts about 250,000 visitors a year.
Published: October 11, 2017