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Saturday Art: A Very Old Bison

This painting of a Bison is part of the wall at a cave called the Font-de-Gaume, near Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sirieuil, in the Dordogne Valley France. The most famous cave in the region, Lascaux, was closed off for thousands by dirt and rock for years After it was discovered, the flood of visitors damaged the paintings, and eventually it was infected with mold and completely closed. In a nearby public cave there is an excellent reproduction, right down to the shaping of the walls to reinforce the paintings of the animals.

The Font-de-Gaume was open for those thousands of years, and once it was found, people came and went with little damage to the cave. That lasted for a long time, but now it too is closed off and visitors are limited.

The entrance to the Font-de-Gaume is up the side of a cliff maybe half a mile. The artists didn’t go far back into the cave; it isn’t that deep. It is dark, however, so they carved out ledges and scooped out depressions in those ledges to hold oil and juniper wicks for light. The artist worked the wall, which is already rough, into the shape of the Bison, so that as painted, it is anatomically accurate. Its muscles bulge out at you, and its horns seem real. The colors are a bit washed out in this picture, and the color of the rock predominates. In the soft light of the guide’s flashlight they seem warmer, the polychrome tints are stronger.

This painting is from the Magdalenian culture. The people moved north as the glaciers retreated. There is a lot of flint in this area, and they were masters at shaping that flint. The museum is full of knives, scrapers, spear points and other tools. There are also carved stones, vaguely shaped like humans.

The people didn’t live in the caves, they lived in abri, hollowed out places in the cliffs, which they closed off with animal skins in the winter. This is a beautiful place to live, a river brimming with fish, wild asparagus, walnut trees, and plenty of animals like the ones in this cave. Hunting and gathering must have been pretty easy, leaving plenty of time to paint. Well, it is France.

The artist was one of us, a human, homo sapiens sapiens. I’m quite sure of this. Some of the paint was applied by blowing it through a tube. Under one of the ledges is a hand outlined in paint: one of the artists put his hand on the ledge and blew paint around his hand. It was probably a teen-ager showing off for friends. A human teen-ager.

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