In the news/Vignette: Robot discovers the Lascaux Cave (1940)

According to Tom Kington, recently reporting from Rome for the British newspaper The Guardian (18 October 2012), two men noticed a wandering cat slip through a small opening in a cliff face close to their home in the ancient city. When they followed, they discovered a grotto filled with ancient Roman urns, which experts dated between the first and second centuries BC.

It is not unique for ancient artifacts to be uncovered by domestic pets. The most famous instance occurred on 12 September 1940. French teenager Marcel Ravidat and three of his friends were out walking with Marcel’s dog, Robot. When Robot fell into a hole that had been made by an uprooted tree, Marcel went after him. The boy slipped all the way to the bottom of a pit and found himself in a cave with brightly covered walls. The site, which is near the village of Montignac in southwestern France, is now called the Lascaux Cave. The walls were covered with paintings that dated from the late Paleolithic era, some 17,000 years ago.

The French can surely be forgiven, if they did not rejoice at this startling discovery. The nation had been defeated earlier in the summer, and much of the country, including Paris, was occupied by the Germans. Faced with severe food rationing, attacks on their colonies by their former British allies, and the struggle to create a fledgling resistance movement, the French had many other things on their minds. Paleolithic art did not put food on the table, or coals in the fireplace, or bring a husband or brother back home. A million and a half French soldiers were still locked away as prisoners-of-war in Germany.

The cave was not opened for public viewing until well after the war had ended.

The cave contains paintings of both animals and humans, plus many abstract designs: close to 2,000 images, in total.

What was the purpose of the paintings? Some scholars have suggested links with astronomy, geometry, spirituality. Others suggest the reasons were more practical: the study of humankind, and of the hunt.

France’s Culture Ministry has produced a video tour. Take a look, and make your own decision: The Lascaux Cave.

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