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    Art Appreciation: The Grotto of Font-De-Gaume


    Some 40,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans appeared in Europe. Replacing the Neanderthals, these people had more in common with humans today than anatomy alone, as they also were accomplished artists. These so-called Cro-Magnons painted beautiful images of animals (bison, deer, horses, wolves, bears and even a rhinoceros - to name a few) that are wonders to behold even today. On a recent visit to one of their art museums—a cave in the region of Bordeaux, France—some friends and I spent a few hours wondering at these creations.

    Although I received a good grade in my art history class in college, I consider myself to be very much an amateur when it comes to art.  Nonetheless, a few things suggest themselves about the artists:

    1.   15,000-20,000 years ago, they were producing beautiful drawings deep within narrow limestone caves, necessitating some form of artificial light that worked long enough to let the artists work.

    2.  Because some of the animals (such as reindeer) depicted last lived in France during the last Ice Age, we know those paintings are some 15,000 years old (some are at least 5,000 years older) and were created by hunter-gatherers who existed in very inhospitable conditions and possessed only Stone Age implements.

    3.  These people's eyes worked like ours do today.  Evidence for this includes:

    - their use of colors (with minerals, they were able to create the colors of red, yellow, black, brown and violet).  Whenever two deer face each other head-to-head in the cave paintings, one is always red and the other is always black.

    - their use of perspective in their art, showing all four legs and twisting heads and antlers, portrays realistic three-dimensional beasts instead of cartoonish two-dimensional drawings.

    -  the paintings are often literally three-dimensional, as the artists took advantage of natural cave wall undulations, with stalagmites perfectly positioned as legs and tails, bulges in the wall to represent shoulders and heads and invaginations to represent perfectly positioned eye sockets.  In some instances, the artists apparently used primitive stone chisels to create eyes in the heads of the animals subjects. Frequently, studying an  image for a few moments reveals that it is probably better thought of as a painted sculpture than as the kind of painting one would see on a canvas.

    4.  The artists were smart, and had studied their subjects in great detail. The paintings depict great anatomic detail, to the point where only fairly recently did the finding of a frozen woolly mammoth allow scientists to appreciate that an extra flap of skin present in one of the cave paintings is an unusual and previously unknown anatomic feature of these extinct giants.

    5.  Although they made their homes in caves, they did not live in the caves in which they created these beautiful images. Whatever their reasons for doing so, these early humans created actual museums.

    I try to imagine what life must have been like for these Stone Age cave-dwellers who had to survive by hunting large animals for food using stone weapons while avoiding being hunted themselves by dangerous predators. They had to figure out how get through the cold winters (not to mention the Ice Age), staying warm and adequately fed. And presumably mild ailments by today's standards (infections, trauma, appendicitis, high myopia) were often lethal. Yet some of them were gifted craftsmen who learned to create "paints", fashion crude art implements and chisels and make beautiful and accurate works of art ingeniously positioned on limestone walls while their smokey torches flickered in the narrow caves. The effect is far beyond what one human being living today (yours truly) could probably accomplish.

    As we exited the cave, my friend said to me, "I wonder if these people were any less smart than us?  Based on these drawings, I wouldn't think so."

    Few of these prehistoric cave museums remain open to the public. If you get the chance to visit one in the near future, I think you'll be glad you did.

    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of ...

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