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Zoos and Zodiacs: The Lascaux Shaft Scene

The shaft scene is the most enigmatic image of Lascaux and possibly one of the biggest puzzles of Upper Palaeolithic art. It occupies a wall at the bottom of a 17-foot pit at the back of the Apse section of the cave complex. Executed in black manganese oxide, the monochrome art has a graffiti like appearance which is superficially unlike other Lascaux examples, but it would be misleading to believe they were not related.

 Early photograph of the shaft entrance from below (after Lechler, “The Interpretation of the ‘Accident Scene’ at Lascaux” 1951)

The scene which is about 6-foot across covers a natural bulge on the cave wall and shows a wounded bison with its entrails spilling. In front is an apparently naked man with an erection whom may have been the victim of the beast’s powerful assault. The man, which counts the only humanoid figure known at Lascaux, is bird-headed or bird-masked. Below him is a goose or grouse on the end of a stick, staff or totem-pole which bears virtually the same profile to the man. The man also has four-fingered hands further suggestive of an avian costume or transformation. To the left of the bird-man is a woolly rhinoceros, the only known rhino depiction in the cave. The beast, which seems to be shown moving away from the main scene, has an upraised tail with six black dots beneath. Facing this ensemble on the opposite wall is the partial image of a horse.

Originally, it was believed that the shaft was not part of Upper Palaeolithic Lascaux but was another cave reached by a different entrance now hidden and inaccessible. The Lascaux complex itself may have been known to Neanderthals. At Regourdou Cave, which is located only 800m away from Lascaux, are the remains of a man-bear burial where a Neanderthal man and brown bear were buried in deliberate proximity about 80,000 years ago (Pastoureau, 2011). It was thought Regourdou may have housed another subterranean entry to Lascaux. However, in lieu of an unknown entrance to the complex the shaft was accessed by a rope or ladder. The lip of the chasm leading to it is sufficiently worn to suggest a regular movement of people used this opening.

Reconstruction of the “original” Lascaux cave entrance discovered by Ravidat and his friends 1940 (picture, author)

Despite its limited space and likely restricted access, the cave shrine or sanctuary played an important role in the ritual and religious mysteries of Lascaux. Early ideas about the meaning of the shaft scene revolved around hunting magic and the depiction of a hunting tragedy, e.g. the man had been hunting the bison before the animal turned and gored him. His ithyphallic condition was explained as death by severance of the backbone. Believing the scene eulogised an actual hunting disaster, the early excavator Abbé Breuil thought that the shaft was a crypt and dug for the remains of the slain hunter below the image, to no avail. More recently, David Lewis-Williams, who sees physical entry into deep, subterranean passages equivalent to psychic entry into altered states of consciousness, interprets the panel as an ahistorical depiction of shamanic transformation. For him, figures of the scene such as the bison were fashioned out of natural discolorations on the cave wall so that the image-makers were fixing spirit animals on spots where, in a sense, they already existed. Moreover, from this perspective the figures are not earth-bound on a hunting ground, they are visions floating in a spiritual vortex (Lewis-Williams, 2002).

Fortunately, Lewis-Williams acknowledges a compaction of complex metaphors at large in the scene. A lot of the “shamanism” readings assume that people of the Upper Palaeolithic world were unimaginably different to ours, as if cave art was extemporised under the influence of a wild trance and that the only palpable way these concepts can be understood is through deeply altered states of consciousness. In these instances, a spirit world replaces mythology, or a mythology with which we are familiar. However, to identity the scene as a shamanic cosmology acknowledges nuances a hunting tragedy does not. Though he suggests these realms had diverse explorations, Lewis-Williams remains cautious about astronomical interpretation, since this would contradict his theory about cosmologies being neurologically generated (like Jungian archetypes) rather than observed.

The German prehistorian Michael Rappenglück examines cultural elements from a broad ethnographic spectrum in relation to the shaft painting. Alongside framing it as a shamanic cosmography, he suggests that the three stars of the Summer Triangle, Deneb, Vega and Altair correspond to the eyes of the man, bison, and bird respectively (Rappenglück, 1998). Luz Antequera Congregado had pinned the Summer Triangle onto, we might say, three unsuspecting bulls in a scene from Altamira in a similar way (A. Congregado, 1991). For Rappenglück the general idea is that the panel portrays a bird-man drifting up the celestial pole to the circumpolar region as if in shamanic flight. Somewhat related to this angle is the work of the late American anthropologist and body posture expert Felicitas D. Goodman. She suggested the sketch of the bird-man was a specific body posture instruction that was taught to initiates. Believing the figure to be recumbent on a hillock at a 37-degree angle, Goodman facilitated workshops based on the scene, including the use of a bird-mask, to cultivate shamanic flight experience (Goodman, 1986). However, Goodman idiosyncratically isolated the man from his graphical context for the reason she could not see any connection between him and the wounded beast.

Main scene and partial mare on the opposite wall (picture, author)

Alexander Marshack, who was perhaps closer to the pudding in his approach than a lot of other commentators, noted the combined presence of realistic, symbolic and mythological elements in the scene and alludes to the distinction between shamanic experience and later representation that makes the observer (visitor to the shaft) part of the story. In this way, shamanic death/transformation becomes a facet embedded in a seasonal narrative:

Since every shamanistic performance or trance is, in a sense, also a story – the story of an event, a search, a journey, a hunt, a trickery, an escape, a fight, a miracle – the bird as a subsidiary or specialized character able to fly and return and associated with the shaman would have a certain storied validity. Was this bird on a stick, then, the image of the shamanistic spirit, or did the bird carry or lead the spirit of the shaman on a journey? Was it a messenger of the four-fingered “bird-god” in some seasonal myth related to the bison? Or did the bird-headed man wear a mask to indicate his bird aspect in this part of the story? Was this the image of a journey to a far land – say to the land of spirits or the land of death – which required a journey or return in bird shape or with bird help? Or was it a story in which the mythological bison was killed by the shaman with the help of the bird or in his trance shape as a bird? Is this the image of a seasonal sacrifice or periodic rite? The possibilities, as you can see, are vast, and it is probable that none of those I have mentioned is the truth. But as with the notations, the details of the story are unimportant. It is the generalized use of the symbol and of the storied equation, in tradition and in time, that is significant (1972: 280).

Comparing the shaft scene with masked and wounded figures on engravings from Gabillou and Pech-Merle, the French archaeologist Annette Laming-Emperaire thought that the figures in the Lascaux shaft were mythical beings connected with the history of the ancestors of the group (Laming-Emperaire, 1959). Following this line, the American prehistorian Mary Settegast forged a compelling multileveled resemblance between the shaft scene and the Yima/Gayomart myth of the First Man and Primordial Bull of Indo-European cosmogony (Settegast, 1987). The archaic structure of this myth and rite continued, she suggests, in the bull in cave shrine iconography that was central in the cult of Mithraism, a secret religion founded upon, it has been argued, an astronomical discovery (Ulansey, 1989). It would not be unreasonable to conceive the “nether world” of the shaft being the stage of a hunter-gatherer mystery drama, a place where its story was narrated, or re-enacted, with music and costume as a teaching. Earlier portable Palaeolithic art, for example, such as the Lion-man of Stadel Cave has wear on its body caused by handling which suggests that rather than an aloof idol or decorative item it was passed around as part of a narrative or ritual that would explain his appearance and meaning (Cook, 2013).

Mithraeum grotto at Marino (after Carlo Pavia, 1986)

As set out in the paper, the shaft records an environmental knowledge that was explained in image and symbol through the character of the animal forms. The deep recess of the cave and boundless reach of the night sky both stood on the limits of the ordinary world and this is how they related. The other actors besides the man in the drama are the bird, rhinoceros, horse and bison which represent the solstice and equinox stations at that time. Being able to discern the exact day of a solstice or equinox would not have been necessary for the Lascaux people, they could have approximated these points over a period of several days.

Starting with the bird on the stick or staff we noted how Marshack emphasised it as a symbol of the season, one that recognises flight, disappearance and return. Pinpointing what species of bird it is cannot be done with certainty, although a good case has been made for it being a grouse, a Black Grouse or Capercaillie specifically (Davenport & Jochim, 1988). Davenport & Jochim compared the shaft bird, which bears a close resemblance the mask/post-mortem identity of the man, to a contemporary Siberian shaman’s spirit helper in the form of a grouse.  More importantly, however, these gallinaceous birds are especially well known to ornithologists and the public for their elaborate mating dances at spring which occur at gathering places known as leks. The bird therefore calibrates the spring equinox well.

A The man.  a The supra-ocular comb. B The Grouse on stick/staff. C Profile of a Blackcock. c The supra-ocular comb. D Grouse on a spear-thrower from Le Mas d’Azil. E Siberian shaman’s ongon or spirit-helper (after Davenport & Jochim, “The scene in the Shaft at Lascaux” 1988)

The now extinct woolly rhinoceros is drawn sketchily in a thicker line, perhaps by a different hand, than the main scene and is shown slightly apart from it. As a stout and heavy megafauna, the animal is a good match for the descending darkness and lack of spatial quality the autumn equinox heralds. Known for embodying the principal of evil in mythologies, an early interpretation by Breuil held that it was the rhino and not the man that was responsible for goring the bison. This view has not been discredited, but it is difficult to build upon. Notable are the six dots that were applied by finger beneath the raised tail of the animal. Although the precise meaning of the dots remains uncertain, it is significant that six red dots that are arranged in the same two rows appear on the wall in the Gallery of the Felines marking a point where the artistic decoration ends, and the gallery becomes physically impassable. The six dots in the shaft could similarly translate “end point”, more so in view of the restrictive character of the autumn equinox.

Extended rhino detail (picture, author)

Next is the image of the horse about which little can be said other than its presence on the opposite wall and the question of its participation with the other figures. Unlike the portly rhino, the horse moves swiftly without restraint which is a good equation of the increasing light and energy that starts to build after the winter solstice. In ancient Greece a chthonic horse featured in Poseidon’s winter solstice festival and in Vedic India the midwinter solstice was symbolised by the head of a sacrificed horse. There are other solar-horse and horse-sacrifice traditions of antiquity that could be added.

The bison is central to the drama, it occupies the main tumescence of the cave wall which is not discernible on photographs. In terms of aurochs as ancestors, this might apply at the mythological level too. Its hackles are raised bolt upright which was unlikely intended to depict the ruffled appearance of bison over their summer coat shedding rather than describe alarm. Its significance is not particularly due to its position at the summer solstice although this completes an important part of the date the figures write. Together, the figures record what Marshack identified as a time-factored use of art, myth, rite, and symbol. They yield a date of 15,150 BC to within 200 years, which agrees with proposed dates for the paintings at Lascaux. But see paper for the climate fluctuation recorded at this time. The barbed line running across the body of the bison has been interpreted as the spear/harpoon the of man; the broken line at the man’s feet, the spear-thrower. In this hunting scenario, the spear would be oddly placed to have been launched by the man, and the relationship between the bird-staff with the spear and spear-thrower obscure.

Amid the items excavated from the floor of the shaft were many stone lamps, the exact number and whereabouts of which have become lost, in addition to flint blades and ivory spears. As is the case with one sandstone lamp that has survived, the blades and spears were incised with ‘broken signs’ which have been compared to the broken lines that illustrate the shaft scene. Interestingly, these broken lines feature elsewhere in the cave and it is thought that they may have been used by the Upper Palaeolithic Lascaux people as a clan emblem. It is possible that these lines represent atmospheric phenomena to which the religiously-inclined people of Lascaux were exposed such as lightning or, by extension, a meteor shower.

Styled Lascaux lamp with broken lines (picture courtesy of Don Hitchcock)

Indeed, it is significant that these lines were used on lamps. A belief which is generally obsolete from the modern mindset was that fires had individualities, like people or animals, and levels of purity that were not mixed. In practices of fire collection (in distinction to fire production) some hunter-gatherer groups maintain the separation between “old fire” and “new fire”. Related to this was the belief that fire originated in the sky, which developed from the collection of fire from forests that had been struck by lightning or from other disasters. We possibly see notions of the above in the broken line signs of Lascaux. In addition to providing the practical provision of light in dark spaces, the lamp fires would be souvenirs from an aftermath of cosmic creation.

The scene in the shaft was used to share an understanding of the world. Its mediation in myth, symbol and shamanism does not make it unreal, it explains a realistic set of circumstances and dates them. Irrespective of impact hypotheses, the bison describes the position of maximum intensity of the Taurid meteor shower when Lascaux was occupied. At that time, this meteor shower was more intense than it is today. Such an awe-inspiring spectacle would be provocative of cosmogonic mystery. The death/transfiguration of the bird-man, who is perhaps the first ancestor, or the first mortal to die, is related to what is likely a celestial, world-seeding bovine by the errant lines of force. The fact Lascaux lamps and pre-metallurgical weaponry also bear them makes their identity more conceivable as aerial  darts and streaks of a cosmic fire.