Paleo Picasso

The four teenagers with archaeologist Henry Breuil

— Every Journey Begins With a Stumble

“We were utterly crazy,” exclaimed one of the boys.

For nearly 300 million years, a black fungal delicacy has lain patiently in the shadows of French Oak, Beech, and Chestnut trees in the Dordogne region of France. The fragrant lumps we call truffles today might still be loitering if an 18th-century lawyer turned gourmand hadn’t come up with such a memorable phrase to describe them: “the diamond of the kitchen.” If Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had said ‘make fungus great again’ the public reaction could not have been more profound. The truffles’ popularity skyrocketed. and almost instantly. Stylish salons began shaving it on fried eggs and mounds of spaghetti, charging exorbitant prices and turning ordinary cuisine into theater. As is usually the case with nature, there would be a snag. Like extraordinary people you meet occasionally, Truffles must be discovered before they can be savored.

As it just so happened, on September 12, 1940, Marcel Ravidat was out for a walk in the truffle-rich woodland near Perigord, global headquarters of the exotic black truffle, with his dog Robot. Local farmers will tell you that at one time pigs were the truffle hunter of choice, as they exhibited a natural enthusiasm for the task. Then they began noticing a curious defect in their technique. Sows would consume the truffles. Scientists studied the problem without result until they finally concluded the fragrant aroma reminded female pigs of boar saliva which they found irresistible. Pigs were fired and dogs got the job.

On that beautiful, cloudless day, Robot the dog sniffed something enchanting to the senses and mysterious in origin only it was not yet truffle season. That should have been a warning sign. Ravidat called out irritatedly but Robot refused to return. Contrary to the origin of the word robot or ‘one who serves,’ the dog stood his ground. A judgment between impatience and canine instinct is bound to find in favor of the canine. It results from 14,200 years of breeding dating back to the earliest dog buried beside a human, forever defining its role as man’s best friend and latter-day truffle hunter.

Robot knew unmistakably something was hiding beneath the surface. The dog was two feet from the richest ancestral trophy just meters below the woodland floor, an enchanted world, a scrapbook of ancient life, and a yearbook for the ages. Robot was digging furiously in the grip of the hunt, getting closer, but before he could flush the quarry something unexpected happened. The earth opened its maw, swallowed, and poof. Robot vanished. Every great journey begins with a stumble.

Down The Rabbit Hole

Nine days before Marcel Ravidat and Robot were strolling in the gentle groves of the Dordogne some 600 miles south of London, Adolf Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to rain fire on men, women, and especially children, in a contemptible display of inhumanity called the Blitz. The goal was to return England to the stone age. Marcel Ravidat and Robot could have hardly known that at that moment a mystical series of coincidences would bring them directly into contact with that time period sooner and safer than bombers flying overhead. They would do so through the medium of art, not war.

Ravidat ran to the hole and looked on in bewilderment. He listened closely and could hear tiny, muffled cries. Getting down on his knees, clawing the earth, and widening the gap, he reached down below to grab something before he too slipped down a small vertical shaft and landed on a pile of loose stones. Robot was there to greet him, tail wagging. As the two stared at each other they could hardly have known the Paleolithic epoch was saying welcome.

Four days later, Ravidat and three friends from a nearby village returned to the cave carrying an improvised lantern and descended the eight-meter-deep tunnel. They found an ancient paleolithic atelier with stags, horses, deer, and ibex emblazoned on the walls. Frescoes of vibrant colors were painted with mineral pigments like ocher or charcoal, with other motifs etched into stone. Inadvertently, the four teenagers had stumbled into the Lascaux Caves, which date 20,000 years to the Paleolithic era, and the paintings are considered the first narrative artwork in human history. Their reaction was disbelief, awe, a touch of fright. They leaped about like “a band of savages doing a war dance,” observed one of the teenagers, prompting him to exclaim, “We were utterly crazy.”

Crazy is a good word. A man chasing a bison made little sense. They barely recognized the animal from American westerns. Nor did pictures of carnivores such as lions and bears seem quite right, and Disney France would not open for another fifty years. The teenagers were even more perplexed by four massive black bulls, one of which was 17 feet long. On closer examination, it was an auroch, a wild Eurasian ox and ancestor of modern cattle, although none of them ever saw one before. It became extinct during the late third-millennium b.c.

Journeys to the archives of the earth are fraught with missteps, and at first, Ravidat and his friends thought this was a surefire money-making opportunity. Children from the village would pay to enter. But upon reflection they reconsidered and realized the discovery was more than an amusement. They alerted a teacher, who contacted a local priest turned archaeologist, Henri Breuil. He had already achieved local fame for discovering cave paintings in Altamira, Spain, and like some of the boys, he was in the Dordogne seeking refuge from the Germans.

Despite initial doubts that four awkward teens could have uncovered such a treasure, he went along. When Breuil came upon the cave paintings, he turned to the boys and said, “comme les bijoux de ta mère,” or guard this as if it were your mother’s jewelry,” to ensure the art wasn’t vandalized. He did more than set the ground rules. Breuil undertook the responsibility to record the paintings in his notebook and began extolling the work to archaeological societies, ensuring their preservation for future analysis. He didn’t merely save the day, he saved 20,000 years of days.

Following the priest’s instructions, 15-year-old Jacques Marsal requested permission from his parents to sleep in a tent to guard the cave at all hours of the day and night. Ravidat and Marsal took turns standing guard throughout the winter of 1940–41. Sentry duty had to be discontinued until the German army withdrew from France.

The Guardians

The cave reopened in 1948. Marcel and Jacques returned as guides. They noticed the green algae in 1958 and 1959 that led to a massive restoration. Marsal worked as a cave warden until he died in 1989. The trip for Simon Coencas came to an abrupt end when the Nazis deported him his parents to Buchenwald. He was saved by the French Red Cross in one of the story’s many twists, becoming one of the few people to witness both humanity’s depravity and paleolithic artistry. On a happier note, the four friends were reunited for the first time 46 years later in November 1986.

Marcel Ravidat died of a heart attack on March 31, 1995, at his home in the village Montignac in the Dordogne region. He was 72.

When Robot dutifully if inadvertently exposed the Lascaux cave paintings after 17,000 years he did a favor for humanity. After seeing them for the first time, Pablo Picasso remarked, “They invented everything.”

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