Paleo Picasso

Red Cow painting with First Chinese Horse, Lascaux Caves

Every Journey Begins With a Stumble

“We were utterly crazy…”

For 300 million years in the Dordogne region of France, a black fungal delicacy slept patiently in the shadows of French Oak, Beech, and Chestnut. The fragrant lumps might be loitering there if not for an 18th-century lawyer turned gourmand who came up with a catchy phrase: “Truffles are 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 popularity of truffles skyrocketed. Stylish salons shaved it on fried eggs and mounds of spaghetti with exorbitant prices and turned ordinary cuisine into theater. As is always the case with nature there was a snag. Somebody has to discover truffles before they can be savored, and for a special skill is required. The kind a dog possesses.

On September 12, 1940, an apprentice garage mechanic named Marcel Ravidat was walking his dog Robot in the truffle-rich woodland near Perigord. According to local truffle hunters, pigs were the chosen species until hunters noticed a defect. Sows thought truffles were bonbons and consumed them ravenously. There’s no arguing with a 300-pound pig. Scientists concluded the fragrant aroma reminded female pigs of boar saliva. They found that simply irresistible. Pigs were fired and dogs got the job.

On that beautiful, cloudless September day, Robot the dog sniffed something enchanting. But it wasn’t truffle season. That should have been a warning. Ravidat called to him irritatedly. Robot ignored it. Contrary to the origin of the word robot or ‘one who serves,’ the dog stood his ground. A contest between impatience and canine instinct is bound to result in favor of the canine. It results from 14,200 years of breeding dating back to the earliest dog buried lovingly beside a human.

Robot couldn’t have known he was a mere two feet from the richest ancestral trophy below the woodland floor, an enchanted world, a scrapbook of ancient life, and a yearbook for the ages. In the grip of the hunt, Robot dug furiously but then something unexpected happened. The earth opened its maw and swallowed. Poof, Robot vanished.

Every great journey begins with a stumble.

Down The Rabbit Hole

Ravidat ran over and looked on in bewilderment. He could hear tiny, muffled cries from the earth. Getting down on his knees, clawing at the ground and widening the gap he reached down. Then he slipped into a small vertical shaft and landed several yards below on a pile of loose stones. Robot greeted him, tail wagging. Where were they? As the two stared they could hardly have known the Paleolithic epoch was saying welcome home.

Lascaux Cave entrance today

Four days later, Ravidat and three friends from a nearby village returned carrying an improvised lantern and descended the eight-meter-deep tunnel. What they saw astounded them. 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, and 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. Pictures of carnivores such as lions and bears seemed out of Disney France, but it would not open for fifty years. The teenagers were even more perplexed by four massive black bulls, one of which was 17 feet long. They had never seen such a creature. On closer examination, it was an auroch, a wild Eurasian ox and ancestor of modern cattle.

It became extinct during the late third millennium B.C.

Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Simon Coencas, and Abbe Henry Breuil

At first, Ravidat and his friends saw this was as a money-making scheme. Children from the village would pay to enter. But upon reflection, 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 during the Second World War.

Despite initial doubts, Breuil went along. When he came upon the cave, 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. Breuil undertook the responsibility to record the paintings in his notebook and began extolling the work to archaeological societies, ensuring their preservation.

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. 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 which led to a massive restoration.

Simon Coencas’s life came to an abrupt end when the Nazis deported him and 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 friends were reunited for the first time 46 years later in November 1986.

When Robot dutifully if inadvertently exposed the Lascaux cave paintings after 17,000 years he demonstrably earned the title of man’s best friend.

After seeing the cave paintings of Lascaux for the first time, Pablo Picasso remarked, “They invented everything.”

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Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham

Just trying to make sense of things. ex-publisher Forbes