Rhinoceros, wounded man and disemboweled bison
Lascaux, France, c. 15,000-13,000 BC
Sometimes called the Well Scene owing to its location in a deeper, less accessible area in the caves of Lascaux, France.
This is a good image to use early in the semester to encourage class participation concerning the various ways historians obtain information. As this is a prehistoric image, historians have to interact with anthropologists as well as art historians to arrive at reasonable interpretations of its meaning. We must also stress that with any prehistoric art any such interpretations are educated speculation and could be totally incorrect.
General background: The artists were hunter-gatherers who, using flickering torchlight, painted such images in relatively inaccessible areas of certain caves. Because of their location most scholars believe that the paintings were meant to serve magical/religious purposes. It should also be noted that images of humans were rare and this is one of the first depictions of one of our early ancestors.
The big question: What does it mean?
Possible Scenario 1
Is it a narrative? Is the man dead or dying? If so, what injured him, the rhino or the bison? Who injured the bison (its intestines have been ripped out)?
It is worth noting that the artist, also a hunter, has perceptively shown the angry bison's hair standing up on end on the back of his neck.
Was this a record of an actual event?
Was it a warning, in other words, never, never do this!?
Possible Scenario 2
Is it some sort of a curse (like a voodoo doll)? There is evidence that the early artists ritually painted their prey on the walls of the caves and then ritually "killed" them in some sort of ceremony. The man is obviously important and has some relatively technologically advanced weapons. Could another tribal group with less advanced weapons have tried to use magic to even the playing field?
How do we know that the man is important?
- Someone took the time to paint an image of him.
- He is obviously a powerful male—the prominent penis is probably a sign of virility. (we should also add the caveat that some early tribal groups quite possibly were matriarchal rather than patriarchal)
- He has lots of specific weapons and other possessions.
- Is he wearing a bird mask? Is it camouflage for the hunt or is it for some religious or authority purposes.
- Is that a bird staff signifying authority?
- There is a spear in the scene.
The object under the man and to the right of the "bird staff" may be a spear-thrower, a very advanced piece of technology for the time.