In 1940, four teenage boys stumbled, almost literally, from German-occupied France into the Paleolithic Age. As the story goes, and there are many versions of it, they had been taking a walk in the woods near the town of Montignac when the dog accompanying them suddenly disappeared. A quick search revealed that their animal companion had fallen into a hole in the ground, so—in the spirit of Tintin, with whom they were probably familiar—the boys made the perilous fifty-foot descent down to find it. They found the dog and much more, especially on return visits illuminated with paraffin lamps. The hole led to a cave, the walls and ceilings of which were covered with brightly colored paintings of animals unknown to the twentieth-century Dordogne—bison, aurochs, and lions. One of the boys, an apprentice mechanic, later reported that, stunned and elated, they began to dart around the cave like “a band of savages doing a war dance.” Another recalled that the painted animals in the flickering light of the boys’ lamps also seemed to be moving. “We were completely crazy,” yet another said, although the build-up of carbon dioxide in a poorly ventilated cave may have had something to do with that.
This was the famous and touristically magnetic Lascaux cave, which eventually had to be closed to visitors lest their exhalations spoil the artwork. Today, almost a century later, we know that Lascaux is part of a global phenomenon, originally referred to as “decorated caves.” They have been found on every continent except Antarctica—at least 350 of them in Europe alone, thanks to the cave-rich Pyrenees—with the most recent discoveries in Borneo (2018) and the Balkans (April 2019). Uncannily, given the distances that separate them, all these caves are adorned with similar “decorations”: handprints or stencils of human hands, abstract designs containing dots and crosshatched lines, and large animals, both carnivores and herbivores, most of them now extinct. Not all of these images appear in each of the decorated caves—some feature only handprints or megafauna. Scholars of paleoarcheology infer that the paintings were made by our distant ancestors, although the caves contain no depictions of humans doing any kind of painting.
There are human-like creatures, though, or what some archeologists cautiously call “humanoids,” referring to the bipedal stick figures that can sometimes be found on the margins of the panels containing animal shapes. The nonhuman animals are painted with almost supernatural attention to facial and muscular detail, but, no doubt to the disappointment of tourists, the humanoids painted on cave walls have no faces.
This struck me with unexpected force, no doubt because of my own particular historical situation almost twenty thousand years after the creation of the cave art in question. In about 2002 we had entered the age of “selfies,” in which everyone seemed fascinated by their electronic self-portraits—clothed or unclothed, made-up or natural, partying or pensive—and determined to propagate them as widely as possible. Then in 2016 America acquired a president of whom the kindest thing that can be said is that he is a narcissist. This is a sloppily defined psychological condition, I admit, but fitting for a man so infatuated with his own image that he decorated his golf clubs with fake Time magazine covers featuring himself. On top of all this, we have been served an eviction notice from our own planet: the polar regions are turning into melt-water. The residents of the southern hemisphere are pouring northward toward climates more hospitable to crops. In July, the temperature in Paris reached a record-breaking 108.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
You could say that my sudden obsession with cave art was a pallid version of the boys’ descent from Nazi-dominated France into the Lascaux cave. Articles in the New York Times urged distressed readers to take refuge in “self-care” measures like meditation, nature walks, and massages, but none of that appealed to me. Instead, I took intermittent breaks from what we presumed to call “the Resistance” by throwing myself down the rabbit hole of paleoarcheological scholarship. In my case, it was not only a matter of escape. I found myself exhilarated by our comparatively ego-free ancestors who went to great lengths, and depths, to create some of the world’s most breathtaking art—and didn’t even bother to sign their names. [Continue reading…]