Seeing mammoths and woolly rhinos

One of the highlights of our time in France was seeing some of the Ice Age cave art. Dating from about fifteen thousand years ago, it provides a fascinating but tantalising glimpse of the humans who were around at the time. They evidently had an intellectual capacity similar to humans today – but the exact purpose of their art remains just beyond reach, provoking many questions but few answers.

Some years ago, I’d read a book about Lascaux, a cave art complex which is sometimes called the Sistine chapel of prehistory. It is now closed to the public because of human-induced damage to the art. I didn’t realise that there were other examples of cave art that were still accessible. When I saw that Lot is close to some of the best examples, I was keen for us to go.

We went to two of the caves. One was to Pech-Merle, about an hour and a half south of Gramat (where we were staying), which has art from what appears to be two different eras. The oldest of these features a stylised painting of two horses, around which are stencilled human hands: these have been carbon-dated to about 29,000 years ago. Elsewhere there are a large number of outlines of other animals, which appear to be from a later era (possibly 15,000 years ago), including mammoths, bison and horses.

The painting of the horses in Pech-Merle cave, dating to 29,000 years ago. Picture credit: http://www.pechmerle.com

The other cave we went to visit was Rouffignac. This is near to the town of Les Eyzies, located in the Vezere valley (a hotbed of prehistoric art because there are so many examples in the region). The art within Rouffignac is extraordinary for many reasons – not least the remarkable detail and accuracy of the drawings of the animals that the artists saw in the world around them. There are over 150 woolly mammoths represented – over two-thirds of all of the art in the cave – as well as horses, bison, and ibexes. There are also ten woolly rhinos, which are comparatively rare elsewhere.

The three woolly rhinos in the Rouffignac cave. Photo from http://donsmaps.com/rouffignac.html

The ten-mammoths freize at the Rouffignac cave. Photo from http://donsmaps.com/rouffignac.html

The most stunning feature of the cave is the Great Ceiling, with 66 animals, many drawn in great detail (exemplified below).

Ice age art in the Rouffignac cave: mammoths and ibex. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)

The art provokes many questions: for example, why did they produce this art in deep caves, which do not reveal the evidence of human habitation that in other caves is abundant? This lack of human detritus enhances the sense of the specialness of the art for the communities that produced it.

The Great Ceiling at Rouffignac was produced when the floor level was only a meter from the ceiling (it has only recently been lowered for the sake of modern public viewing) – so at the time it would have been notably inaccessible. Thus, it wasn’t an Ice Age art gallery. There seems to be widespread agreement that there was deep spiritual significance to the art – but exactly what that significance was is again obscure.

Some other reflections that struck me:

  • The atmosphere of cave art is remarkably peaceful: this is particularly evident in Rouffignac. There is little evidence of conflict with humans or between the animals themselves: however much humans may have hunted animals at that time, there is little evidence of it here.
  • There is a curious lack of correlation between the animals being painted and those that show up in the remains of contemporary habitation. Thus, of the animal bones found in human shelters, the biggest proportion belong to reindeer and other mammals of a similar size – mammoths and rhinos feature to a much lesser extent.
  • There are remarkably few representations of humans, and those that are there are notably incomplete. Given the artistic abilities clearly present, the lack of similarly complete humans in art may suggest some form of taboo.

One reason I find this cave art intriguing is because it suggests that spirituality is a deeply-rooted characteristic of being human. However, much as I would like to press the evidence further to know what that actually looked like and how it was expressed, the glimpse we have provides a tantalisingly incomplete picture.

My other reason for fascination with the art is the light that it sheds on the wildlife of southern Europe during the Ice Ages. The woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos became extinct around the end of the last Ice Age – but these works of art were produced by humans who saw them with their own eyes.

Mammoth remains are relatively common in the fossil record – their huge size meaning that they are less vulnerable to decay than those of smaller animals. Occasionally, complete corpses appear in the melting permafrost of Siberia (such as Lyuba, the baby woolly mammoth found on the banks of the Yuribei river). They were the dominant mammal species of a type of steppe ecosystem which they themselves helped to shape, but has no equivalent today: perhaps unsurprisingly it’s now called the mammoth steppe. It was a grassland rich in flowering parts, and had few trees – partly because young trees would have been uprooted and eaten by the mammoths. This is the vegetation type that would have prevailed around the caves at Pech-Merle and Rouffignac.

The National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies contains, amongst many other remains from the era, a cast of a woolly rhino found in a tar pit at Starunia in Poland in 1929. It’s much older than the animals depicted in Rouffignac, but remains like this generally attest to the overall accuracy of the artwork – although not in every detail. For example, while the large humped shoulders are confirmed, the legs in the paintings are shorter than in the fossils. However I do wonder whether there was just one form of woolly rhino, or whether there was some geographical and chronological variation, to which the cave art is actually evidence.

Cast of a woolly rhino discovered in a tar pit in Poland in 1929

I took a bit less interest in the pictures of horses at Rouffignac – after all, we have horses today – but in so doing I missed spotting a detail which is significant. The forms shown are much closer to the wild horses of Mongolia (the Przewalski’s horse) than to our modern domesticated varieties.

The Ice Age cave art is a wonderful testimony to the life of the people living in Ice Age Europe, and of the wildlife they shared it with. Yet it also teases us with so many unanswered questions! What does seem clear, though, is that they were a deeply spiritual people. Their life and art reminds us that part of being human is to be spiritual.

I’ve been helped in my reflections by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon’s book, “Stepping Stones”. Also, “Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age” by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, was a valuable resource.  

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