The following piece is published as part of our TLM Young Writers series, a dedicated section of The London Magazine‘s website which showcases the work of exceptional young talent aged between 13-21, from the UK and beyond.
The Same Hands: Apathy, Climate Grief, and Palaeolithic Cave Art
Paris, September 1940. The Nazi occupation, now a few months old, is stabilising. Hitler himself has already walked within the city as if it were his own triumph, and it will be less than a year before the first non-French Jews in the region face arrest. France is humbled. Humiliated. Panic and confusion endure in the public consciousness. Down south the marching of German boots is distant enough that it can’t be heard – but the shadows of war, of conquering armies, of a planet choking on the fumes of industrialised imperialism still loom in the mind’s eye.
On Thursday the 12th, a mechanic named Marcel Ravidat walks his dog Robot through the woods near the southern village of Montignac, Dordogne. Robot scurries away, chasing a rabbit, or perhaps the lost instincts of his wolfen ancestors, and the 18-year-old has to coax him from the depths of a tiny cave entrance. A small pinprick in the surface of the earth, from which the dog resurfaces and Marcel – his interest piqued – returns to the next day with Robot and three friends; Simon Coencas, Jacques Marsal, and Georges Agnel. What they find inside will touch them so deeply they’ll vow a year of their lives to its protection.
Fast-forward to June 2020 where the weight of citizenship feels paralytic, and the impromptu meeting of four friends in the woods on nothing more than a whim feels as distant as the woolly mammoth does. Under the anxiety-inducing heat of the midday sun, I find myself sipping on a canned cocktail. It’s not my first, and most likely won’t be my last. Cigarette smoke curls around me as I struggle to fathom doing anything but scroll down through earlier and earlier posts on my phone, thumb almost daring itself to reach the end of my Twitter timeline, to find a simpler age through the same mindless motion. I discover a link to an episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast by author John Green, and I’m able to do just that.
Another year on, and the UN releases their ‘code red’ report on anthropogenic climate change that surprises everyone except myself. A projected global temperature rise of 1.5ºC and a global sea level rise of up to 30cm are to be seen within my lifetime. That’s a scientific reality that I, as a member of Gen Z, have been told of my entire life. I was raised on tales of the greenhouse effect alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. These are figures and statistics that kept me up at night just the same as catching glimpses of a late night showing of The Blair Witch Project did – plain as day for the world to see.
This report is terrifying and the realities of climate change are both immediate and angering. The growing condition known as ‘climate grief’ is notable in those paying attention to climate news, involving a state of mourning, or even full-on spiralling, and the concept of ‘doomscrolling’ refers to an internet user locked in that repetitive motion, searching for horrific news they know won’t help. Why am I not scared, though? Why do I seem somewhat blasé about the state of the world I’m about to inherit? Because in the midst of World War II, a dog called Robot climbed into a cave opening deep in the Vézère Valley, France.
The boys, upon entering the cave later named Lascaux, discover caverns filled with paintings. Not the works of Rembrandt hidden from incendiary bombs, but artwork on the rock itself, of horses, deer, and ibex. Lions, bison, and woolly rhinoceros loom over them from long ago, some of the animals depicted now extinct from the region or entirely. They seem to be orchestrated into hunting scenes, with animals of prey cornered by their predators, and there’s a distinct lack of flora and human figures. Jacques Marsal, one of those original four, is quoted as saying it was a ‘cavalcade of animals, larger than life, painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave [and] each animal seemed to be moving.’ As the cave grows darker and the modern world fades away, the artwork becomes more abstract; negative hand stencils, overlapped, in shades of red and black – iron oxide and charcoal dust blown onto a canvas of limestone. Human hands, the same hands as those holding the lamps, holding Robot’s leash. Some include the wrist. Others are missing fingers. Certain caverns would eventually be named Hall of the Bulls; The Chamber of Felines.
Despite swearing secrecy in a way only the young do, the boys speak to schoolteacher and member of a local prehistoric society, Leon Laval, who tells them this is a major discovery and warns them to protect the cave from vandals – and that under no circumstances should the artwork be touched. Marsal takes this seriously and, as mentioned prior, camps outside for almost a year. The French archaeologist, Henri Breuil, hears of Lascaux and visits, confirming its authenticity and estimating the age at around 17,000 years. This places the artwork as made during the last Ice Age, when the Mediterranean was covered in glaciers of solid ice, which explains the lack of fingers as frostbite. The artwork had existed, untouched, for geologic periods of time. Here, in the caverns of the ancients, young manual labourers stand shoulder to shoulder with wizened anthropologists, art curators, and doctors. They stand together in the dark and the cold as their oil lamps flicker.
They must’ve stood as equals. At least, it’s nice to imagine that they did.
Outside of the cave, though, it is wartime still. The dusty halls of a forgotten epoch are, understandably, not a priority for what remains of the French government, though they take over the site after the war and open it to the public in 1948.
I often find myself wondering what these people, tourists with painful, recent memories of war and genocide, would’ve thought of Lascaux; for years, the world must have felt like it was ending. I believe they must’ve felt similarly to how I did upon discovering the cave myself, in my own way, in my own context. I believe they felt comforted by the figures of long-dead horses and collages of unsettling hand stencils, some of which must’ve been the same size as their own. We are immeasurably older than we care to think about.
Southern France is blessed with numerous caves like this, another being Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, in what’s called the ‘European Grand Canyon’ in Ardèche. Chauvet is even scarier in this regard, as radiocarbon dating shows that this cave was inhabited as roughly far back as 37,000 years. The people who lived there were true hunter-gatherers, and it’s possible they rubbed shoulders with the last dregs of the Neanderthals. They inhabited Chauvet twice, and even though the paintings are all materially and stylistically identical, the two periods that humans painted the cave were around 5000 years apart.
That is roughly half the age of recorded human history. The oldest ruins we know of, Göbekli Tepe, are only 12,000 years old in what is now considered Turkey. The understandings and practices that built Chauvet endured for at least 5000 years and that is tough to swallow in a world where it’s hard to stay angry at things that happened last month. Industrialisation, and thus the process of global warming, began less than 200 years ago. The modern world may seem terrifyingly vast and prematurely doomed, but we are prisoners of time and history. The painters of Chauvet would’ve lived the same day, over and over again; yesterday, the same as today, the same as tomorrow, which is unfathomable in a time when just the headlines seem to spell our doom and moral decay every morning over breakfast. We are trapped in the cave of our own creations. The ways we look at the world, the types of lives we lead, the problems we’ve created are specks of dust in the torchlight compared to some functionally-identical negative hand stencils in the south of France.
Artwork like this is found across the world, and another common motif are strange geometric shapes, dots, and lines interspersed among hunting scenes and handprints. These pieces are genuinely impossible to interpret. It’s a fool’s errand to even try. The loss of context has made them, if not meaningless, then without meaning. I struggle to imagine what those humans would have made of a van Gogh, or a Picasso, or a Pollock; it’s sobering to think just how much of our art struggles to retain its original intentions given enough time. There’s just a glacier-filled canyon of difference between the death of an author and the death of a culture.
It doesn’t need to take 37,000 years for history to be forgotten, though – 80 years will do that well enough. Some sources name Ravidat as a mechanic, and others as a local student. His entire account, the presence of Robot the dog, and the exact date of Lascaux’s rediscovery were all contested by those four original teenagers. It’s been said they were investigating local tales of hidden treasure, or looking for a secret entrance into the nearby Lascaux Manor. Add in the possibility that the boys may have attempted to charge visitors entrance to the cave before telling the authorities, and the tale I weaved of purity and art in the midst of war manages to crumble somewhat. Stories matter less than the meaning we derive from them and the one I told is nice enough.
Picasso, after visiting Lascaux in 1940, reportedly said ‘in 17,000 years – we have learned nothing’. I’m hard-pressed to disagree, both in the techniques of the artwork and the mistakes we make. Were there once, long ago in some forgotten proto-language, discussions about whether or not we were polluting? Creating graffiti? Would this art be additive or destructive? How did we view ourselves in relation to the natural world? Looking at the content of the artwork, there’s always been a distinction between human and nature – almost never did we paint ourselves, in thousands of years’ worth of hunting scenes not once were we considered part of that world, and fighting that mindset is half the war being waged by climate scientists in the 21st century.
Don’t think of visiting Lascaux or Chauvet, though. Don’t dream of seeing these paintings, of standing mere inches away from some of the oldest expressions of sentience on the planet. Lascaux was closed to the public in 1963, and Chauvet – discovered in the late 1990s – was never opened. We had learned one lesson, at the very least; the paintings are highly delicate given their age and composition. The mere presence of truly modern humans with their hot, moist breath and bright, offensive torchlight has caused the artwork in Lascaux to decay. Since the turn of the millennium, there’s been evidence of black mould and lichens growing on the pigments that had survived the advent of agriculture, gunpowder, and nuclear weaponry. As John Green says in that episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed covering Lascaux, my discovery, “even the act of looking at something can ruin it”. As an aside, the Lascaux artwork has since been copyrighted by the cave museum which I find sickening to a certain extent. These are some of the purest expressions of humanity we have and even they cannot escape the profit motive which is ruining the planet.
It is to the great shame of the West that people still go hungry, but the inability of our impoverished to take food from the shelves without punishment is incomparable to what we must’ve felt in the midst of an Ice Age winter, when we hadn’t even discovered agriculture, our children crying out and starving. Perhaps that is what we intended with those hand stencils. Perhaps they’re a declaration against the suffering and the confusion; we don’t know why, but we were here. We mattered. At the very least, that’s what I am able to take away from them. Things can still matter to us, can still be beautiful to us, despite the chaos. We can still leave a mark, regardless of today and tomorrow.
Caves like Lascaux and Chauvet teach us next to nothing new, materially. We had seen paintings like these before. They also suggest a fair amount about the people we used to be and what we might have cared about. What Lascaux tells me, though, is that this too shall pass – because it always does. The Ice Age ended. Paris was liberated. Whatever ‘it’ means for you today I cannot say, perhaps you are one of these early sufferers of climate grief, mourning a planet that we still have time to save. All I can do is point you to some very old paintings that no-one is ever going to see again and take a guess at what they can tell us about wherever the hell it is we’re heading.
Oliver Timberlake is 21 years old, and has recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth’s Creative Writing BA course, with interests in creative fiction and non-fiction.
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