LIFE at Lascaux: Early Color Photos From Another World
The story is so improbable, so marvelous, that it feels more like the remnant of a dream, or a half-remembered myth, rather than something that unfolded within living memory …
September 12, 1940. A warm afternoon in southwestern France. As two schoolboys hunt rabbits on a ridge covered with pine, oak and blackberry brambles, their dog excitedly chases a hare down a hole in the ground beside a downed tree. As boys will, the youngsters begin to dig, widening the hole, removing rocks, until they’re able to follow their hound down — and find themselves not merely in another world, but another time.
In the cool dark beneath the known world, the boys discover “a Versailles of prehistory” — a vast series of caves, today collectively known as Lascaux, covered with wall paintings close to 20,000 years old. In 1947, LIFE magazine’s Ralph Morse went to Lascaux, becoming the first professional photographer to document the breathtaking paintings. Still vibrant himself at 96, Morse shared his memories of that time and place with LIFE.com, recalling what it was like to encounter the strikingly lifelike, gorgeous handiwork of a long-vanished people: the Cro-Magnon.
“LIFE re-opened its Paris bureau after the second World War ended, in the same offices we rented before the war” Morse said. “One day we get a message from New York about some cave that people have been talking about. We do a little research, and find out that even though the cave was discovered a few years before, no one’s ever photographed the paintings. In fact, hardly anyone has ever been down there, except some guys who climb around in caves for fun. We know that the first thing we need is a generator to power our lights, but getting a generator anywhere after the war was almost impossible. We had to have people in London ship one over. Once it arrived, we were ready to go.
“The first sight of those paintings was simply unbelievable,” Morse said. “I was amazed at how the colors held up after thousands and thousands of years — like they were just painted the day before. Most people don’t realize how huge some of the paintings are. There are pictures of animals there that are ten, fifteen feet long, and more.”
“But it wasn’t a comfortable assignment,” Morse remembers. “It wasn’t a refined setting. It was a dungarees-and-sweatshirt job. When we first went down, there were no steps or anything. You slid down on a piece of wood, or on your rear end on the bare earth. A bit later, we put in some very rough wood steps, but it was easier to work underground than it was to get ourselves and all of our gear down there in the first place.”
The Cro-Magnon (from the French, “Abri de Crô-Magnon,” after a cave where remains were first found in 1868) were evidently far from the cartoonish, savage brutes of popular myth. In fact, over the past 150 years, scientists and artists alike have developed a complex, nuanced view of these early modern humans. In his most beautiful book, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), the writer Henry Miller — of Tropic of Cancer and The Rosy Crucifixion fame — asserted: “I believe that Cro-Magnon settled here [in the Dordogne region] because he was extremely intelligent and had a highly developed sense of beauty.”
Miller, who was also an accomplished painter, went on: “I believe that in Cro-Magnons the religious sense was already highly developed and that it flourished here even if he lived like an animal in the depths of caves.”
One of the central challenges faced by those studying the many, many images in Lascaux’s numerous chambers (the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Chamber of Felines, etc.) is assigning dates to images painted in what can only be called different “styles.” The Cro-Magnon might well have inhabited the region for tens of thousands of years. Were the images at Lascaux painted by Cro-Magnon artists across scores of generations? Were they painted by hunters paying tribute to their prey? By shamans hoping to harness the brute power of the natural world? Theories abound; but in truth, no one knows.
“We were the first people to light up the paintings so that we could see those beautiful colors on the wall,” Morse said. “Some people, not many, had been down there before us — but with flashlights, at best. We were the first to haul in professional gear and bring those spectacular paintings to life. This little French town — they simply didn’t have the money, the equipment, the capability to do anything like this after the war. So we did it — and they helped out, because they were as excited as we were to really see what was down there.”
“I seem to recall that we were there, in the village of Montignac, for at least a week, maybe two,” Morse said of his time in the Dordogne more than 60 years ago. “There we were, living in this little French town, heading down into the ground to go to work everyday. It was a challenging project — getting the generator, running wires down into the cave, lowering all the camera equipment down on ropes. But once the lights were turned on … wow!”
“In [Cro-Magnon man's] most expert period,” LIFE noted in its issue of Feb. 24, 1947 (in which a handful of Morse’s photos first appeared), “his apparatus included engraving and scraping tools, a stone or bone palette and probably brushes made of bundled split reeds. He ground colored earth for his rich reds and yellows, used charred bone or soot black for his dark shading and made green from manganese oxide. These colors were mixed with fatty oils. For permanence, the finest pigments of civilized Europe have never rivaled these crude materials.”
The treasures unearthed by those two French schoolboys and their dog, Robot, on that warm afternoon in September, 1940, LIFE asserted, comprised “the most important cache of cave art ever unearthed.”
In 1948, a year after Morse’s pioneering photographic work, Lascaux was opened to the public. But in 1963, the cave was closed after 15 short years when experts determined that carbon dioxide from the breath of thousands of visitors, as well as spores and other post-Ice Age contaminants tramped in from above ground, were damaging the paintings. Today, only a handful of people are allowed inside Lascaux for a few days each year to monitor damage (a mysterious, encroaching mold is the latest culprit) while they work to keep the magnificent paintings adorning the walls from going the way of their creators, and vanishing entirely.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com