I found the tour of the prehistoric chambers of the Niaux caves spiritually uplifting. It felt revitalising to be reminded that we come from a long line of ancestors, and that a very long time ago those people were doing things that were very important and meaningful to them, even though we have limited understanding of their meaning.
I learned that many of my assumptions about the people who made the drawings were wrong. Here are some of the things I learned.
1. All those thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, some of them were trained artists. The drawings are technically very good, and were done with a variety of tools, including brushes and specific pigments that could be manufactured from available resources. If some trained as artists, wouldn’t some also have trained in other specialisms?
2. I wrongly assumed that they drew pictures of the animals they hunted in the area, but no, they mainly drew bison. Bison were plains animals, not mountain animals. They also drew goats and a few other large mammals, but no people, no birds, no plants, no mountains, no celestial bodies.
3. I wrongly assumed that whoever drew the pictures lived in the cave. Actually they were nomadic and would only rarely have come to the cave.
4. They appear to have had a basic written language, consisting of dashes and dots. Unfortunately, we have no way of decoding the symbols. Symbols of the same written language have been found in caves at least across a wide area of France and Spain. I had wrongly believed that writing and counting only came with agriculture and commerce after the ice age ended.
5. And lastly, I had assumed that the drawing were made by people filling in time, perhaps waiting for the winter to end. But these drawings were carefully planned then made only in certain deep parts of the cave. We walked a substantial distance (a kilometre?) into the cave before we came to the Black Chamber, which is where most of the drawings are. The artists took fat or oil torches deep into the cave and made the drawings, having carefully trained for just this purpose. And rarely; 80 drawings over more than a thousand years. That’s only one or two drawings per generation, on average. Over that time the artistic style persisted. The most recent bison drawings have the same markings that were used at least a thousand years earlier. The markings look to us like barbed arrow heads, but are probably something else, since arrows were not used and spears did not have barbs at the time.