The discovery of parietal art in the 19th century
With the initial discoveries of parietal art in the late 19th century came questions about the origin of these expressions and what had inspired humans to paint and engrave in the innermost depths of caves. Such interrogations were at the heart of debates by the various generations of archaeologists who examined the problem.
Leaving behind the theory of "art for art's sake" – the common interpretation in the wake of the first investigations that were carried out – we move to more ethnologically-based hypotheses. Thus, following a series of observations, particularly in the caves in Ariège, of several images of bison whose flanks were marked with arrow-like signs, the works were interpreted as creations linked to the magic of the hunt.
Nevertheless, it became clear that, as more and more sites came to light, the number of figures marked in this way remained very limited.
Other theories, in particular ones focusing on fecundity and totemism, have been raised, but without any more validity. Max Raphaël carried out the first studies devoted to the spatial organisation of the graphic ensembles. In 1957, Annette Laming-Emperaire took this same path, and emphasised the intentional aspect of the combinations, which had similarities to genuine mythical and religious themes.
André Leroi-Gourhan adopted this approach and, based on statistical data, established a consistent overall system in which parietal motifs were linked to their topographical position. Animal figures and signs were attributed to specific sectors based on themes and shapes. For Leroi-Gourhan, the cave seemed like an truly organised world.
In the late 1990s, an approach formalised by Jean Clottes and Davis Lewis-Williams led to relate the parietal ensembles to shamanism.
More recently, research carried out at Lascaux by Norbert Aujoulat between 1988 and 1999 revealed the fact that the construction of the panels followed a fixed and unchanging protocol, according to which horses were always drawn first, followed by aurochs and then stags. Under such conditions, time itself becomes a crucial factor. This sequence, systematically used for every composition in the sanctuary, responds to biological requirements, revealed by the seasonal attributes seen on the animals. This analysis shows that the horses' features correspond to the early spring, the aurochs to the summer and the stags to the autumn. The various phases of these biological cycles indicate, for each species, the beginnings of mating rituals, which bring life. Over and beyond this literal reading, it is the rhythm, and even the regeneration, of time that is symbolised. The phases of Spring, Summer and Autumn are thus reproduced, a metaphoric evocation that, in this setting, links biological and cosmic time.
These vast painted and engraved compositions seem like witnesses to a spiritual way of thinking, whose symbolic significance is based on a cosmogonic approach. From the entrance of the cave to its very depths, the great book of the first – the founding – mythologies unfurls before our eyes, with its central theme, the creation of the world.