Monday, August 04, 2014

Fun facts about the prehistoric painted caves of France: A guest essay by Glenn Cooper

Today's guest post from bestselling thriller writer Glenn Cooper takes us way back into humankind's past and to a small and long-hidden corner of southwestern France: the painted caves of Lascaux.


Fun Facts About the Prehistoric Painted Caves of France
Glenn Cooper

The painted caves of France and their magnificent wall art are bottomless pits of fascination which have kept scholars busy for decades trying to unlock their secrets. They give us an unusually intimate window into the psyche of our distant ancestors. The paintings speak to their attitudes about their place in the natural world and perhaps their conception of the supernatural. In researching The Tenth Chamber, I re-learned things I’d forgotten from my days as an archaeology student and picked up quite a few new learnings. Here are some entertaining facts I’d like to share.

At the time when much of the cave art was produced in Europe, about 20-30,000 years ago, there were probably no more than 5,000 people alive at any given time. That’s a number perilously close to zero. One or two more environmental challenges could have wiped out all our direct ancestors, and where would that have left us?

Cave art mainly depicts large mammals which were the primary food source of the Cro-Magnon, early modern man. Horses, bears, roe deer, bison, antelopes, lions, some life-sized, were all expressively painted, often in full gallop. Fish are occasionally seen and birds, such as owls appear. However, humans figures are extremely rare—there is a single human at Lascaux Cave, and he is little more than a stick figure hunting a beautifully drawn bison. It is a puzzle why man ignored his fellow man when it came to art.

While drawings of humans are uncommon, stencils of human hands are very common indeed. Large sections of limestone can be found covered in arrays of red-stenciled hands. Experimental archaeologists have shown that the stencils were produced by placing powdered pigment into the mouth and blowing it over a hand which has been stretched out on the limestone. The significance of the stencils are unclear but it’s marvelous that we can literally see the hands and fingers of the artists.

Some cave art from the Upper Paleolithic period is no more than simple line drawings or etchings into limestone. However, other paintings are rich in bold swaths of color, a palette of reds, yellows, browns, and blacks. The colored paints were derived from natural pigments easily found in the surrounding environs. Iron oxides were turned into reds, ochre became yellows, and orange, manganese was used for black. Most of the paintings were made deep in the caves, far from natural light. The artists used simple lamps. A piece of limestone was hollowed and a lump of animal fat was placed inside along with slow-burning twigs, like juniper. Once lit with an ember, they would have burned for an hour or more.

Most of the painted caves were found serendipitously by local people, not by organized archaeological expeditions. Lascaux Cave, for example, was found by four boys and their dog, Robot in 1940. They were looking for a mythical tunnel under the Vézère River said to contain treasure when they came upon a depression caused by a fallen tree. Underneath the sink hole was a deep hole which proved to be the entrance to Lascaux.

At Lascaux, years of unfettered access by scholars and tourists caused near catastrophe. First a green mold was introduced which began to blur and fuzz the paintings. More recently white calcite patches, the result of excess CO2 from the lungs of visitors threatened the paintings. Lascaux is now sealed to allow the scientific community the opportunity to take a time-out and find solutions. Expert monitors enter the cave only a few hours a year to take photos and collect data. Fortunately, an excellent replica cave, Lascaux II, is open to the public.

It’s a near certainty that there are amazing painted caves in France and elsewhere which have not yet been discovered. As recently as 1994, a magnificent new cave was discovered in Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in the Ardèche region of France. The art at Chauvet Cave is earlier than Lascaux by 12,000 years and is in many ways even more magnificent. I absolutely believe that before too long yet another cave will be discovered in much the way my protagonists discover the fictional Ruac Cave in The Tenth Chamber.

About The Tenth Chamber

From the thriller writer, Glenn Cooper, whose books have sold six million copies and have been top-ten bestsellers, comes a novel which draws on the author’s background in medicine and archaeology to create a riveting page-turner.

Abbey of Ruac, rural France – A medieval script is discovered hidden behind an antique bookcase. Badly damaged, it is sent to Paris for restoration, and there literary historian Hugo Pineau begins to read the startling fourteenth-century text. Within its pages lies a fanciful tale of a painted cave and the secrets it contains – and a rudimentary map showing its position close to the abbey. Intrigued, Hugo enlists the help of archaeologist Luc Simard and the two men go exploring.

When they discover a vast network of prehistoric caves, buried deep within the cliffs, they realize that they’ve stumbled across something extraordinary. And at the very core of the labyrinth lies the most astonishing chamber of all, just as the manuscript chronicled. Aware of the significance of their discovery, they set up camp with a team of experts, determined to bring their find to the world. But as they begin to unlock the ancient secrets the cavern holds, they find themselves at the centre of a dangerous game. One ‘accidental’ death leads to another. And it seems that someone will stop at nothing to protect the enigma of the tenth chamber.

About the author:

Glenn Cooper has a degree in archaeology from Harvard and practiced medicine as an infectious diseases specialist. He was the CEO of a biotechnology company for almost twenty years, has written numerous screenplays and has produced three independent feature films. His novels have sold six million copies in thirty-one languages. He lives in Gilford, New Hampshire.



  1. That is cool. I watched a documentary about the art in the Chauvet Cave, and it was fascinating. The Tenth Chamber sounds really interesting.

  2. My husband and I went to an old renovated theater to watch Werner Herzog's documentary about the caves - very interesting. This book will go on the to-read list for sure!

  3. For anyone who hasn't yet seen the official Lascaux site developed by the French government, it's well worth exploring. The art is awe-inspiring.