Dark and curious: “Prehistoric caves France” receives over 15000 results on YouTube. Standing inside one I understand why…

The walls of Pech Merle, a network of underground caves in the Lot region of France, are covered with paintings that could well be roughly 25,000 years old and yet rival the work of modern masters.  Preserved by a landslide at the beginning of the ice age, the caves are now enjoyed by a regular stream of visitors who  by all accounts are regularly stunned by the vivid artistry of these spontaneous masterpieces.

Looking at these walls with few clues how to read them I instinctively fall back on what I do know and approach the enigmas through the lens of a storyteller.  With due respect to the original artists who admittedly were not speaking to trends in participatory design  –  yet with all the niggling questions a place like this presents, the similarities between these prehistoric mysteries and best practice principles of contemporary interaction design are surprisingly distinct.

Lesson One: Create something unique to draw interest.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-00-39-18The underground tour is in French, of course – and it’s hard to read the standard English guidebook translation in dimly lit caverns.   Perhaps these omissions only add to the intrigue.  We’d booked online days ahead – as you have to – for the chance to venture down beneath the limestone massif that surrounds this valley and start to explore the cracks and crevices below.  These caves are full of unanswered questions and people from all over the world flock to ponder them.

Lesson Two: Mysteries can draw people in.  Pique your audience’s curiosity to enchant and intrigue.

Today the caves are lit by electric lights, carefully measured to minimize disturbance to the art works on the walls. Back twenty five thousand years ago, however, when people were painting those walls it seems unlikely that the need for fire light was all that compatible with the need for fresh air. At most small grease lamps lit the artist’s way through a labyrinth of more than one hundred thousand metres of underground passages.

How long were the artists down here?

Not long apparently – apart from the fact that they shared these caves with bears and the occasional hyena… experts propose that some of these paintings were produced in a single sitting.  Like a series of Picasso-esque swirls spilling out on to the canvas, which in this case are rock hard walls.  Those swirls are now dreams without dreamers – haunted echoes.

How can they be this good?

These questions niggle.  Presumably prehistoric artists weren’t painting all the time – at least not down here in the dark.  Was this artistic style part of a ritualised craft that was handed down generation upon generation?  Numerous caves such as these have been found in parts of France and Spain.

Lesson Three: Use spectacle to maintain interest.

As for the damp and cold, apparently when these caves were in use heading underground was the warmer option– that much I can garner from the guidebook at least. In the ice age cuddling up with a bear in its hibernation pad was less of a threat than enduring the vicious winds of winter. Even today the departments of the Dordogne and the Lot in south-west France where these caves dot the landscape empty out during the bleak winter months. Come Summer the area is abuzz with tourists. I am one of scores of holidaymakers basking in the heat, driving along mountain roads and riverbanks, losing count of the number of picture perfect medieval villages causing me to reconsider yet again the prospect of moving to France, all the while feasting on more varieties of cheese than I can name, or ever hope to recognize – and visiting the caves, n’est pas?

We visited two caves. Padirac in the north of the Lot is a giant, hollowed out tunnel full of stallagmites that drip spring water in to icy pools. The underground river that runs through the cavern is so large that visitors travel through the cave on boats paddle-powered by guides who make jokes about dodging ruffled, ice cream cone ceilings. This was surely the most adventurous underground boat ride that I’ve ever enjoyed. Yet of the two caves we visited in the region it was Pech Merle and its gallery of sublime prehistoric question marks that ultimately fired my imagination.

How many people stayed in these caves? How long did they stay? How often? Why did they come here? What did they do here? How did they survive? What did they eat? Why are there bear bones near the entryways? Why do most of the paintings feature large, powerful animals like bisons? (Why not each other? Trees, bees, birds etc.) Why is there also a painting of a wounded man – and why only one? How do those images relate to the image of a woman that also appears at regular intervals? WHY?

Lesson Four: For all but the most dedicated, provide pathways that participants can follow in order to find answers.

Cultures without books leave a legacy of unanswered questions for experts to debate and visitors to ponder. A single child’s footprint has been found, preserved forever in the floor of the caves, but as for hard data to answer questions like how often people visited, how many, who came and why…?

Here is what we do know – or, at least this is as much as I can ascertain from my initial research:

How were the images on the walls painted?

Contemporary Australian Aboriginal rock artists chew pigments from ground ochre and charcoal in their mouth to bind them before spitting them on to the walls.

pech_merle_mainGiven the look of these paintings, including the spray around images such as outlines of the artist’s hands.  It seems likely that the prehistoric painters working in these French caves did the same.

How did prehistoric artists manage to paint with such observational skill and expressive detail?

For a long time researchers believed that these cave paintings depicted dream animals, but they are also nature studies depicting real world, recognizable animals. According to recent scientific studies the dotted horse, depicted in the dual, layered image in Peche Merle is not a dream creature, but a type of horse that actually existed in those times.

What is so extraordinary about the work is that it is minimal to the point of being resolutely modern, single strokes are drawn spontaneously.   They are never repeated, never corrected and yet together they can evoke the recognizable image and sense of powerful, living creatures.

Aboriginal artists believe that their own rock paintings are enlivened by breath. Spat out from the artist’s mouth the art work becomes an animated extension of their spirit within that drawing. The artist channels a living spirit in to being, as it were.  According to this belief the expression is exact because it is the outgoing breath of that shape.

Why are most of the paintings of animals? Why horses, bison and mammoth?

I am guessing here, but I do wonder if because these animals provide an important food source they might also be linked to sacred mythologies? The images seem to feature bisons and horses, more often than bears, or snakes.  If this is an initiation site (a popular current theory) perhaps it is also linked with shamanic practice – with the idea that by drawing these creatures the artists also inhabit and perpetuate that power and movement?

Why are there images of a woman interspersed between these animals? 


There is only so much we know – as for how much we understand?

Lesson Five: Call for Action/Collaborate

If there are rock art experts out there who know more please feel free to relieve me of some of these mysteries.


images: Wikimedia Commons and Don’s maps