La Grotte de Niaux (the Cave of Niaux) contains wall paintings that are between 15,000 and 17,000 years old! It is very hard to imagine that amount of time. Just over 500 years since Columbus set sail to the Americas. 2,000 years ago, the Romans were dominant in Europe and the Mediterranean, including this area in the foothills of the Pyrenees. King Tut lived about 3,300 years ago. The first cities developed about 9,500 years ago. These paintings come from almost twice as far back.

There are over 300 known caves in Europe that contain prehistoric art. The public (like us) can access directly only about 20 of them, including la Grotte de Niaux. When we realized that the cave is only about a 90-minute drive from our house, we knew we needed to visit.

Before visiting the cave, we stopped at the nearby Parc de la Préhistoire (The Park of Prehistory).

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It offers indoor and outdoor interactive exhibits that help the visitor to the Grotte understand a bit about the people, the animals and the environment in this part of Europe around 15,000 years ago. The most recent ice age was just ending; this region of the Pyrenees had none of the forests we see today.

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The valley today

The landscape was grasslands and steppe. Immense bison, woolly mammoth, cave lions, giant deer, reindeer, bears and horses roamed and thrived.

On the grounds of the park, we saw and stood in a few recreated structures of the Magdalenian peoples, who lived at this time. While archeological sites in Spain, France and Germany inform the recreations, they helped make real for us modern visitors how people lived in this valley so long ago. You can see the most basic shelters of wood branches, hides, and roof openings to let the fire smoke out. Not too different from teepees and yurts.

These were not “cave people,” which is really a fiction. Prehistoric people didn’t live in caves: deep in the interiors, there was no light except for very short-lived expensive torches. But people did use the mouths of caves for shelter during harsh times of the year.

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The mouth of the cave

La Grotte de Niaux opens out of a rocky hillside above the mountain village of Niaux. The cultural authorities celebrate this cave. They have constructed a grand rusted-steel monument and lookout at the entrance of the cave.

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The dark zone at the top of the photo is the cave opening.

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There is some irony to this forceful celebration. The paintings in this and the other caves around Europe are extremely delicate. Air from outside, human exhalations and body heat, moisture and the mold that it supports, and even light degrade the organic pigments of the paintings. For this reason, you can’t directly visit some of the more celebrated cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux in southwest France; you visit a meticulously detailed replica. (We had the good fortune to visit the replica a few years ago. Despite our being completely aware that we were experiencing paintings technically from only a few years ago, the art, and the understanding of the originals’ immense antiquity, moved us anyway.)

For most of these caves and their paintings, tourists started to visit in big numbers only in the 20th century. Until the middle of the 19th century, people believed that the world was no older than 4,000 years. Those who visited la Grotte de Niaux before then (some as early as the 1600s) weren’t interested in the paintings because they thought the markings were just oldish graffiti. They came to experience the geology and natural features of the cave, like the stalactites and stalagmites — which they broke off and took home to their gardens. They delighted in adding their own graffiti on the cave walls, with their names and dates.

As the natural sciences matured in the 1800s, scientists followed the evidence and realized that the world was far older than just 4,000 years. The paintings that they had dismissed suddenly exploded in significance.

Today, we ordinary visitors can see the paintings in person under strict conditions. Tour groups are small; ours had about 20 people. There is no electricity in the cave, so each of us carried a boxy flashlight. To minimize the impact of our exhalations, we weren’t allowed to linger.

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Our knowledgeable guide. The red boxes behind her are the flashlights.

The cave system is very large; its galleries and caverns extend for many kilometers into the mountain, but we were allowed to go only about 1.2 km / 3/4 mi into the main cave. Our guide told us many times not to touch anything: no walls, no formations, and certainly none of the paintings. We walked about a half an hour over limestone worn into dune patterns by past water events; up and down through tight passages that were no wider than our shoulders and required everyone but the little kids to crouch; and through suddenly tall and vast caverns. The experience of being in the cave, with lights only from our flashlight, was in itself fun and fascinating.

Another rule was no cameras! So the images that follow are from post cards available at the gift shop!

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We learned all sorts of interesting things about these paintings and the people who made them. And yet, it seems that so much is not really known. 15,000 years is a long time! Mysteries will always endure.

One big mystery is why did anyone make these paintings in the first place. The ones we saw are far into the mountain. Interestingly, the paintings exist only in a few specific locations, despite there being kilometers of walls equally effective as rock canvasses. Even in the chamber where we saw paintings of bison and horses, the images adorn only two short sections of wall. Over the centuries, different artists painted new animal images over older ones, rather than using empty adjacent walls. What was it about this particular cavern? One theory (among many) is that the cavern was large and tall enough for some kind of group celebration or ritual, perhaps with dancing and music.

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In one small spot, the markings are abstract and geometric. Signposts? Signatures? Coded messages?
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An example of drawings overlapping each other

On the other hand, perhaps only the artists, who may have been shaman, were able to see the paintings. Perhaps it was the act of drawing them that was what was important. Our modern idea of going to see paintings may have had nothing to do with their reason for being.

Another mystery is why the paintings depict almost exclusively bison and horses. The Magdalenian people hunted and ate reindeer and other herbivores, fish, and plants; but not bison and horses. So why single-mindedly paint animals that weren’t part of their daily lives and crucial for survival? No one knows! Perhaps representing the bison and horses had symbolic protective power.

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Even though these paintings span thousands of years, they exhibit consistent stylistic features. The horns of the bison are not realistically drawn, but the artists didn’t wander from the convention. In other paintings in caves in northern Spain, there are different style bison, as well as a few in the style of Niaux. These stylistic conventions, and regional variations across Europe, strongly indicate that even 15,000 years ago, communities of prehistoric people traded across big distances and were in some ways aware of each other.

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All these facts and conjectures are interesting, of course. But the best part was simply standing deep in the mountain with flashlights in hand, looking at paintings made by people incomprehensibly long ago. Prehistoric artist shamans stood in this cave. Illuminated by animal-fat torches, real people reached out to the cave wall. They reverently (perhaps) and expertly (obviously) rendered images of powerful animals that were important to them. Then they walked out, and may have never returned. 15,000 years later, we can rest our eyes on these lines, and imagine.

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