First Artists

The greatest innovation in the history of humankind was neither the stone tool nor the steel sword, but the invention of symbolic expression by the first artists.

This is where the cave lions are.

And the woolly rhinos, mammoths, and bison, a menagerie of ancient creatures, stampeding, battling, stalking in total silence. Outside the cave, where the real world is, they are all gone now. But this is not the real world. Here they remain alive on the shadowed and creviced walls.

Around 36,000 years ago, someone living in a time incomprehensibly different from ours walked from the original mouth of this cave to the chamber where we stand and, by flickering firelight, began to draw on its bare walls: profiles of cave lions, herds of rhinos and mammoths, a magnificent bison off to the right, and a chimeric creature—part bison, part woman—conjured from an enormous cone of overhanging rock. Other chambers harbor horses, ibex, and aurochs; an owl shaped out of mud by a single finger on a rock wall; an immense bison formed from ocher-soaked handprints; and cave bears walking casually, as if in search of a spot for a long winter’s nap. The works are often drawn with nothing more than a single and perfect continuous line.

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