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What did ice Age people do in deep caves?

People of the Upper Paleolithic consistently used the
topography and unique wall surfaces of caves in their art
throughout the entire period. They concentrated images
around shafts in several caverns. In Niaux, France, most of the
images were located at the end of a deep gallery in a place
where the voice resounds in a most impressive way. A number
of examples of animals are painted or engraved on walls as
though they were issuing from or disappearing into recesses.
The cave as a place crawling with spirits in animal form, literally at hand, ready to emerge from the walls, is also apparent in
the use of natural relief surfaces in the rock. People seem to
have believed that animal spirits were there inside the walls,
half ready to come out. Perhaps painting the missing outlines
to complete them aided humans in accessing the spiritual
power of the animals.
The creators of the art explored extensive caves sometimes
more than a mile long, such as the French caves at Niaux,
Montespan, Rouffignac, and Cussac. They crawled through
narrow passages, climbed avens (natural chimneys), crossed
precipitous ledges, and even descended shafts several meters
deep. These speleological feats make sense only if they wanted
to get to the deepest and farthest parts of the earth—probably
to access the hidden powers of the underground rather than
achieve exploratory prowess.

Lascaux Cave, Dordogne, Fra nce


The caves were probably felt to be places of power that
could be attained and used in a variety of ways through
images, but also by touching and marking the walls to access
the supernatural power believed to reside in the cave. One
possible procedure was to make finger meanders on the soft
rock surfaces. On occasion, they were made by children,
for example at Rouffignac and Cosquer, and perhaps also by
the uninitiated or the sick—directly exposing them to any
supernatural power in the rock. Hand stencils and hand prints
could have played a similar role, with the paint facilitating
contact through the wall. At La Garma, Spain, and Cougnac,
France, the walls were simply touched with fingertips covered
in paint.

We have many examples from deep painted caves of
deposits of objects in special places that may have been made
to placate spirits, and more have been discovered recently at La
Garma and Chauvet. Another ritual gesture seems to have
involved sticking bits of animal bone into the cracks and fissures of the walls in 17 painted caves in southern France and
Spain. At Chauvet, France, bones were found stuck vertically
into the ground.
These examples of artistic and apparently ritual behavior
testify to an attitude among Europe’s Ice Age people toward
caves. They desired to reach beyond the ordinary world of the
living, to pierce the veil separating it from the supernatural
forces close by, and to touch the spirit world either directly or
by means of an offering, however symbolic. When sticking bits
of bone into fissures or into the ground, it was probably not
the object itself that was important, but rather the will to
bridge the gap and contact the power in that supernatural
world of the dark and bring some of it away to help with the
problems of everyday life—much like the Jewish practice of
inserting prayers written on bits of paper into the cracks
between the stones at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
This supernatural connection has recently been supported
by the discovery in 2000 of the first Ice Age burial in a deep
painted cave, Cussac Cave in France, which created quite a stir.
About a mile long, its abundant art, mostly engravings, is stylistically homogeneous and attributable to the Gravettian
period (28,000–23,000 BP). The remains of seven human
skeletons were discovered in bear wallows deep inside the cave.
A radiocarbon date obtained from a bone (25,120 BP ±120 years) suggests that the cave’s art and the skeletons could be contemporaneous. Given the otherworldly nature of deep caves and their likely association with
the supernatural, it is quite understandable
that they might be considered a fitting location in which to deposit
the dead. The data we have point to ritual activities on the part of Ice Age
people. That they went underground repeatedly over more than 20 millennia to produce art, to perform ceremonies, and to bury
their dead reveals the longest lasting religion in the history of
the world. Deep caves and their supernatural connections
played a major part in that religion.1

Jean Clottes received his Ph.D. from Toulouse University in 1975. He has published or edited 23 books and 350 papers. He is
Editor of the International Newsletter on Rock Art (INORA) and
Director of Collections (Arts Rupestres) at Éditions du Seuil and
at La Maison des Roches, both in Paris. He was appointed
Director of Prehistoric Antiquities for Midi-Pyrénées in 1971. In
1992, he was appointed General Inspector for Archaeology at the
Ministry of Culture, and in 1993 he became Scientific Advisor at
the same Ministry for all matters related to prehistoric rock art, a
position held until his official retirement in July 1999. His primary interest is in prehistoric rock art.

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