Sistine Chapel of the Stone Age: see famed French rock art in Joburg

A life-sized replica of France’s Lascaux cave is on show in SA. The director of Wits' Rock Art Research Institute tells Aspasia Karras why the sophisticated cave paintings it contains were such an important find

05 August 2018 - 00:00
Painted by people who braved cave bears and restricted spaces to reach them, the Lascaux caves in northwestern France were preserved by the limestone and were discovered in 1940.
Painted by people who braved cave bears and restricted spaces to reach them, the Lascaux caves in northwestern France were preserved by the limestone and were discovered in 1940.
Image: Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

On a thin, tall drafting desk, a large roll of tracing paper a metre wide and who knows how long unfolds a story that is millennia-old. The ink pen and the work in progress are clues pointing to the recent departure of an artist who has been meticulously copying and transcribing the rock art from a site romantically named TYN2, in the Eastern Cape's Mclear district.

David Pearce, the director of the Rock Art Research Institute, is talking me through what we can see. Here are the classic renditions of buck and other familiar animals superimposed on each other and commingled with the humanoid monsters of wild ancient dreams. Limbs with tentacles, extra digits and mysterious emanations signal meaning and beauty from the depths of time.

Pearce tells me that on the part of the scroll that is still rolled up, a series of human figures walk in a row. Each figure was painted centuries apart - the artwork we are seeing is a cumulative effort of generations of artists, each one communing with what came before, a bit like the missing artist who is transcribing the whole. This image of a marching column of humanity connecting visually with our ancestors who felt the first creative impulse, is why I am visiting Pearce at the institute, which sits on the first floor of the Origins Centre at Wits.

I want him to lay bare the mysteries of this impulse and the sense of connection with our essential humanity that I feel when confronted with rock art. I have just been to see the Wonders of Rock Art: Lascaux Cave and Africa exhibition at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, and I need an interpreter. Who better than this gently spoken scientist to cut through the mists of time.

Lascaux is part of a cave system in the Vézère valley in northwestern France and is a Unesco world heritage site. The caves, deep underground, were discovered in 1940 by a teenager and his dog. He came back with his friends to unlock the secrets of a mind-bogglingly beautiful Palaeolithic site, which for many years was the oldest known example of rock art at approximately 17,500 years old. The dynamism of the renditions of the hunters' animal prey, the perspective, the sophistication and the sheer majesty of the work created an almost reverential response in the observer. They called it the Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic era.

WATCH | Take a 360° tour of a replica of the Lascaux caves

"It disrupted people's views of the past," says Pearce. "The notion of art that was that good so very long ago was significant. These paintings disrupt the view of how humans originated.

"They are preserved so well because of the limestone and the fact that they were painted very deep underground. They are better preserved than many of our own rock paintings, which are mostly found in rock shelters, which are much more exposed so they don't last that long."


But this is still a fragile connection to the past. Lascaux has been closed to the public since the late 1960s due to the impact of visitors on the site. Various fungal eruptions have threatened the paintings. Even TYN2 has decayed between when it was found and recorded in the '60s and the most recent site visit. Large swaths of the rock have become weather-worn and have fallen, destroying the paintings.

"Now older caves like Chauvet in France have been discovered - which is dated at 32,000 years old - and some Spanish sites which may be 40,000 years old or some claim even 60,000 years old.

In South Africa, in the Drakensberg, rock paintings date as far back as 3,000 years, but in Namibia at the Apollo 11 site small slabs of painted stone are dated at 27,000 years old, and at Blombos [about 300 km east of Cape Town, on the coast], paint pots in perlemoen shell with traces of complicated paint of red ochre and animal fats have been dated to 100,000 years ago, and engraved ostrich eggshells dated to the same period have been found at several sites."

Pearce stops and lets those numbers sink in. It's almost inconceivable, considering how very ancient the chaps who built the pyramids and the Parthenon feel to the modern human. Comparatively speaking, the ancient Egyptians are but infants in the lifespan of humanity. Even more baffling is that this very long tradition of rock art only stopped in the 1920s, with the last recorded artists of the San in Southern Africa.

The Lascaux caves are known as the Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic era.
The Lascaux caves are known as the Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic era.
Image: Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

Pearce explains: "Lascaux opened up the possibility of early complex human behaviour."

The parallels with our own rock art seem obvious and are demonstrable in the exhibition at Sci-Bono. What are we seeing when we look at these works of art? The thinking is that they are intimately bound up in religious practices and beliefs - rituals, dances and trance, which gave access to a spirit world.

"These things are clearly related. They demonstrate very powerful social forces. In the Lascaux caves as in other Palaeolithic caves, we see suggestions of early religious practice. The location deep underground was significant. For the artists, making the art in the caves also posed great personal peril. There were cave bears - twice the size of grizzly bears - which are now extinct. Some of the work is made in very tight restricted spaces. The rock and interaction with the rock was key to ritual practices."

I want to know if Pearce spends his life in a state of perpetual wonder. "Discovering a new site often in a spectacular landscape is astonishing. You progressively see all sorts of details. In most sites, there are things we recognise, others are new and require explanation."

He concludes: "It's humbling - particularly when you go into the caves and see art made 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. You don't automatically understand what it is about. Human cultures in different times perceived the world very differently - it is a very good thing to keep in mind. But also to know that humans so long ago and for so long have had this impulse. It is an immensely long tradition."

• Visit the 'Wonders of Rock Art: Lascaux Cave and Africa' exhibition at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, Newtown, until October 1.