After viewing the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux in Prefecture Perigeux in southwestern France last month, I am more grateful for the gift of life — where I am, what I do and the time frame I live in — than I’ve ever been before.
The discovery of the Paleolithic cave paintings in 1940 seems like a fairytale. On a fine autumn day in early September, an 18-year-old named Marcel Ravidat went for a walk with his dog, Robot, in the forest of his village Montignac, along the Dordogne River.
As most dogs are, Robot was adventurous; at the sight of a rabbit, he chased it and vanished into a hole in the depression ahead of them, which was created by an uprooted tree a year before. Marcel hurried there but he only saw tree roots and weeds blocking the hole, no trace of his dog. Frantic, he looked for the dog, calling its name. Then it showed up from behind him, wagging its tail.
Having read about secret underground channels where ancient treasures and artifacts had been discovered, Marcel was intrigued at the thought that a cave might be lying under his feet!
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He carefully planned an adventure. Four days later, on Sept. 12, he returned, armed with a grease gun to use as a torch, a knife to make the entrance large enough for him to squeeze through, and three boys from his school for moral support.
The boys were mesmerized when they saw in the torchlight cave walls covered with paintings of charging bulls, grazing buffaloes and galloping horses. They alerted their teachers about what they saw and the teachers contacted authorities.
According to the experts, the artworks survived at least 17,000 years, and the condition of the paintings was so superb that they named the cave The Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art.
The Lascaux opened to the public today is not what Marcel and his friends discovered in 1940 but its replica. The original Lascaux still exists as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, along with other prehistoric sites in the area.
But who painted those cave walls?
I’d never heard of humans called Cro-Magnon men who supposedly emerged in the southwestern part of France and surrounding areas laced with caves in the valleys some 30,000-35,000 years ago — some caves several miles long and deep.
According to what I’ve read, Cro-Magnons were every bit as human as we are today and were smart, except that they were larger in size and more solidly built than us, with prominent chins and wider cheeks. Interestingly, they didn’t live in the caves with paintings; they might have used the mouth of the caves to cover themselves from sudden rain or snow but lived elsewhere, in caves of higher ground or under boulders. These lower caves with paintings served them as a temple or a place to celebrate life.
It’s hard to imagine what kinds of gods existed then and what sort of rituals they demanded from their people. Were there music and dance? Were there such things as weddings, funerals and birthdays?
We live in a complex world today. We have too much — homes with heating and cooling systems, computers, cars, televisions, digital cameras, TV, guns — and as a result, we have stress and anxieties, like when we hear about North Korea’s missile tests or youngsters shot and killed by the policemen who are supposed to protect them.
How would Cro-Magnon man deal with such trauma if he lived here today?
It’s comforting to know that paintings on cave walls and ceilings with burned sticks or colorful berries or brown clay might have been the only hobby they had, especially on a dreary winter day when they couldn’t hunt or gather.
I’m glad that I live today not, an ancient time ago. But who will judge us 17,000 years from now?
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.