In the Dordogne Valley near the Bordeaux region of France there’s a cave with a magnificent 15-thousand-year-old painting of a horse on the ceiling. The ceiling is about 12 feet high in this particular part of the cave, but the painting is so big you have to tip your head right back and keep turning around to be able to see the entire thing. When I saw it, I kept wishing I could just lie down on the floor, like you would to look at the stars. In fact, if this painting were a constellation, it would be about the size of Orion in the northern hemisphere on a cold winter night. It’s just a line drawing, in plain black, but the horse is perfectly rendered, perfectly proportioned and with a sense of perspective, a precise, highly skilled representation of a creature the artist was clearly very familiar with — as precise as any highly skilled artist would paint today.
But when this gigantic painting was made fifteen thousand years ago, that ceiling wasn’t 12 feet high. It was, remarkably, a mere four feet or so from the floor. The cave was excavated to its current depth so that archaeologists could work in there standing upright.
The artist could not have stood up in that part of the cave. The Cro Magnon people were pretty big, even the women, so the artist would likely have been a good six feet tall or pretty close to it. So he or she would have had to have been lying down to do the painting, and more remarkably, would never have been able to see the entire piece — four feet is just way too close.
Not only that, but it’s unlikely there would have been enough light in the cave to see the whole painting at once. We know they had small stone oil lamps, some of which have survived for all these thousands of years so we could find them in this cave and others like it. They may also have had torches made of some vegetable matter like, say, bulrushes. We just can’t know for sure, because they would have decomposed very quickly.
What we do know for sure is how dark it would have been. All we have to do is turn out the lights that are there now to see that it is still pitch black. So those little oil lamps and even bigger torches would have been all the light there was — dim and constantly flickering, a lot of shadow and a lot of smoke, and not much illumination to paint by. And too close to the painting to see the whole thing.
But that’s not all.
You see, this painting is a full kilometre from the entrance to the cave, with no other way in, and no openings in the ceiling for a light source. That apparently has not changed in 15 thousand years.
They would have had to carry in those little oil lamps, along with fuel for those lamps and all their brushes and paints. That’s an awful lot of stuff to bring with you when you have to crawl at least some of the way and possibly for the entire length of that long, dark kilometre from the mouth of the cave.
And for what? To paint. To paint. Not just the giant incredible horse, but dozens of other animals familiar to them — deer, bison, cows, mammoths, and so on.
Why would anybody go to all that effort to paint something they could have painted closer to the entrance of the cave? Or in a cave where the floor and ceiling didn’t force them to paint while lying on their backs?
Nobody knows for sure, and we likely never will. These people lived long before recorded history and no clues survive that would give archaelogists any certainty about why. Was there some kind of ritual having to do with either the actual making of the paintings or with viewing them afterwards? Maybe initiation rites? Or are they simply art for the sake of art? Some need to express creativity hardwired in their DNA, like birdsong or the songs of the humpback whale?
For that matter, why do any of us create anything, ever?
I have yet to find a satisfying answer to that. In fact, the best I’ve come up with is, “because we can.”