Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Lascaux from Philip's Encyclopedia

Complex of caves in the Dordogne in France, discovered in 1940. They contain examples of 13 different styles of Palaeolithic wall paintings, depicting horses, ibex, stags and a reindeer. The caves, some of which may have been used for ritual ceremonies, were closed in 1963 in order to halt the deterioration of the paintings.


Summary Article: Lascaux Cave from Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture
20198
Image from: Frieze of deer, c.17000 BC in The Bridgeman History of Science

Lascaux Cave, like many archaeological sites, was discovered by chance. Four young boys stumbled across the cave in 1940 in southern France near the town of Montignac. Inside, these adventurers encountered what later researchers further explored and analyzed: a cavern filled with paintings and engravings on limestone walls depicting an array of images, which were determined to have been created millennia before. Today, Lascaux Cave's contents provide a glimpse of a people and a time in prehistory of which little else is known.

Lascaux is a multichambered cave extending approximately 250 meters in total length when considering all its areas. Chamber widths vary considerably so that the height of Lascaux's ceiling is equally diverse in size, going from less than one meter to several meters high, with variations in dimensions sometimes happening within a single chamber. As for when the cave was occupied, researchers conducted the dating of Lascaux's occupations through the use of multiple techniques including carbon-14 dating and the observance of animal species depicted in the wall art. The results of these tests have generated a range of corresponding dates, particularly between 18,000 and 16,000 years ago.

The actual paintings and engravings within the Lascaux Cave include a myriad of designs ranging from realistic and abstract images of animals to images and designs whose meaning remains undetermined. The images include horses, aurochs, bison, and felines. In addition to the wall art discovered in the Lascaux Cave, researchers discovered tools such as projectile points, miscellaneous flint tools used for engraving, and pottery sherds. As with other caves discovered in Europe with similar artwork, the paintings and engravings within the Lascaux Cave demonstrate the use of multiple techniques to generate images on stone. The materials used to generate colors for the wall art at Lascaux were predominately iron and manganese oxides.

Questions remain as to the importance and function of these images to their creators. Some researchers have postulated that the images were to serve as magical aids in hunting, perhaps in rituals; others have argued that the images were created as a form of decorative art. While answers to these questions remain elusive, interest in the images of Lascaux Cave remains strong. However, further investigation of the cave and its contents has been suspended and access has been restricted. This was considered necessary to protect the cave and its contents from continued deterioration caused by multiple contaminants that were destroying Lascaux's art. When and if access will be granted to researchers in the future remains to be seen. Fortunately, researchers have at least acquired a glimpse into the lives and activities of those who occupied and decorated Lascaux Cave, thereby providing us with some understanding of an era that remains relatively unknown.

See also

Anthropology, Altamira Cave, Chauvet Cave, Evolution, Cultural, Olduvai Gorge


  • Aujoulat, N. ( (2005).). Lascaux: Movement, space, and time. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  • Tattersall, I., & Mowbray, K. ( (2006).). Lascaux Cave. In Birx, H. J. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of anthropology (Vol. 4, pp. 1431-1432). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • O'Donnell, Neil Patrick
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article
    Lascaux Cave
    Encyclopedia of Anthropology

    On September 12, 1940, in an oak forest just outside the small town of Montignac in southwestern France, four schoolboys crawled into a hole in...

    Full text Article
    Lascaux
    Encyclopedia of Archaeology: History and Discoveries

    Lascaux, a cave occupied during the Magdalenian period in the Dordogne region of france , was discovered by four boys in 1940, and it remains...

    Full text Article
    Lascaux
    Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth

    The famous site of Lascaux, containing around 2,000 paintings, is in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, and appears to date to the...

    See more from Credo