Discovery, Destruction, and Salvage of the Lascaux Cave Paintings

When Jacques Marsal closed his eyes for the last time on July 15, 1989, at 63 years old he ended his 49 year vigil, which started September 12, 1940. That was the day he and three of his teenage pals discovered the Lascaux cave paintings.

Estimated around 15-17,000 years old, the discovery of the depictions in Lascaux, shook the anthropological about many pre-existing perceptions of early human life.

It all started when Marsal and his friends lost track of their dog. They chased him to where they believed he’d disappeared down a mysterious hole.

That hole would unfurl so much of what humanity once believed about early humans, where they lived, what sort of intellects they bore.

Jacques Marsal

It was Georges Agnel, Marcel Ravidat, Simon Coencas and Jacques Marsal who made the discovery, but Marsal would make it personal.

The teens were playing in the woods near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne, which is in the southwestern part of France. Their dog ran off, chasing a rabbit or some such thing, and when the kids went to find him they found a cavern.

Versions of the story include dropping stones down the entry, and also lowering the neighbor kid on a rope.

However they worked up the courage to check it out, the four made their way into the hole where they discovered a cave with cool paintings. There they found multiple rooms of artwork, depictions of animals painted in brilliant reds and browns.

For a short period of time, the teens keep their discovery a secret. Soon, however, they started charging admittance fees to pals.

Leon Laval

One of the four consulted their schoolmaster, Leon Laval, and convinced him to check it out. Despite his concern that the kids might trap him in the hole, he went down.

What Laval saw blew his mind. He happened to belong to the local pre-historic society so he knew he’d spied something precious.

He advised the four that they must stop telling people about it, that they should not disturb the space. Marsal vowed to guard the caves and pitched a tent to prove his dedication.

This dedication would stay with Marsal until the end of his days in ’89.

Abbé Breuil

Laval used his network to contact Abbé Breuil, an adept pre-historian who could put some context on the find. Breuil, after inspection, vouched for the authenticity and age of the discovery.

Word spread quickly, faster than the wheel of preservation, unfortunately. As it turned out, the caves were on private property. The family who owned them turned the find into something of a circus attraction.

Thousands of visitors would come to see the 15,000-year-old paintings. None of them knew that their very breath, the lights from their camera flashes, and every visit was expediting the destruction of the paintings.

André Malraux

As time went on, the painting began to fade. Experts stepped in to analyze them, but more visitors came to check them out.

By the 1960s, there was a buildup of moisture from all the traffic. Mold started to form where it had never been.

The French minister of culture stepped in, André Malraux, closing the caves to the public, but it was too late. In more recent history, they’ve discovered black mold. Removing it also removes the paintings.

Today, visitors can view a replica of the caves built nearby. Preservationists continue to do everything to preserve the originals, but the inevitable is that humanity may lose these paintings in time.

For now, reports from the French are that the caves are stable.