Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Lascaux: archaeology of the mind - a LIM (Large Image Model) and a place of teaching and learning

Having written about this in several books, thrilling to finally get to Lascaux and experience the beauty of this early spectacular form of expression by our species. The Neanderthals had gone and this was the early flowering of the early Homo sapiens.

This is archaeology of the mind, as these images unlock our cognitive development to show that over tens of thousands of years we represented our world, not through writing but visual imagery, with startlingly accurate and relevant images of the world we lived in – in this case of large animals – both predator and prey – of life and death.

As hunters and gatherers we had no settled life. We had to survive in a cold Ice Age climate when there were no farms, crops and storage, only places small groups would return to after long nomadic journeys on the hunt. It was here they would converge in larger groups to affirm their humanity and, above all, share, teach and learn.

Cave as curriculum

After a period of disbelief, where it was thought such images were fraudulent and could never have been created by hunter gatherers tens of thousands of years ago, we had lots of perspectives; from Victorian romanticism of cave 'art' through to shamanic drug induced experiences, finally moving towards more practical, didactic interpretations.

The didactic explanations seem right to me and Lascaux is the perfect example. It was much used, purposeful and structured. A large antechamber and learning journeys down small branched passageways show narrative progression. like early churches, it is packed with imagery. Movement is often suggested in the position of the legs and heads, perspective is sometimes astounding and the 3D rock surface is used to create a sculptural effect. You feel a sense of awe, amazement and sheer admiration.

Narratives are everywhere in these exquisite paintings. Working from memory they created flawless paintings of animals standing, running, butting and behaving as they did in the wild. They dance across the white calcite surface but one thing above all astounded me - they made no mistakes. They used reindeer fat and Juniper which does not produce sooty smoke to light the cave, also scaffolding and a palette of black (manganese) and a range of ochres from yellow to orange and red. Flints scored the shapes, fingers palms, ochre pencils, straws, spitting techniques and stencils were used to shape, outline and give life to these magnificent beasts.

Learning journey

Entering the large rotunda with a swirl of huge bulls, horses and stags, you get a sense of the intensity of the experience, the proximity to these animals, their size and movement. But you are attracted by the scary dark hole existence of two other exits

The first has a foreboding warning – the image of a bear with his claws visible just next to the entrance. One can imagine the warning given by the teacher. Then into the hole of darkness of what is now called the Sistine Chapel of cave painting, a more constricted passage, just enough in places for one person to pass, with images much closer to you. At the end, a masterful falling horse in a pillar of rock, which you have to squeeze around, then into an even more constricted long passage with predatory lions. The narrative moves from observing animals in the wild to their death and finally to the possibility of your death from predators.

Choose the other side passage and you get a low crouching passage, at one point there is a round room, full of images, and at the back after a climb, a steep drop into a hidden space where a dead man (only figure in entire cave) lies prone, the charging bison’s head low and angry, its intestines hanging out. Beside the man lies a spear thrower and the spear is shown across the bison’s body. Beside him a curious bird on a stick.

What is curious are the dozens of intentional signs, clearly meaningful, often interpreted as the seasons, numbers of animals in a group and so on. It isprproto-writing and they have a teaching and learning purpose.

The cave is a structured curriculum, an ordered series of events to be experienced, gradually revealed and explained to the observer in a dark, flickering, dangerous world.

Setting the scene

Let's go back to the cave opening again. As you enter there is a strange, hybrid creature, that seems to say What is this? What animal could it be? The point may have been that we see animals as first glimpses, often at a distance and must learn to identify what they are – predator or prey? It has circular markings on its body, long straight horns and what looks like a pregnant belly. This seems like the spot an experienced hunter would explain that variability in markings, horns, body shape and knowing colour and breeding seasons matters to the hunter.

Expertise was rare, as people died young. The known had to be passed down generations not just by speech and action but permanently as images that told stories. This was a way of preserving thatvrare commodity - cultural capital.

Basic skills

As you enter the huge ante-chamber, which could have held the entire hunter and gatherer group, you literally walk in and find yourself beneath a huge herd of animals. It would have been a surprise, not possible in the real world, a simulation. This is an introduction to many different species.

It has been carefully composed. You are in a representation of the real world, a simulation that focuses on what matters, what you must avoid as predators, and kill as prey. It needed a huge communal effort, as scaffolding had to be manufactured and built, materials gathered and skilled artists themselves trained and selected. This is an organised group, creating an organised venue for organised learning.

The effect of large animals coming at you out of the dark, within the confines of a cold cave would have been terrifying, like being a horror movie. The flickering lamps revealing a horned head here, a tail there. It is as if they understood the idea of attention, simplicity of image and their impact on learning and memory.


As hunters late palaeolithic people tended to hunt a specific species at any one time of the year. This matches the imagery, where one can stop at an image of one species (they had to enter difficult passages with small lamps) and move from one species to another sequentially. There are narrative structures within the images; breeding pairs, animals in motion, different seasonal coats. At the end you encounter a masterpiece – the falling horse, with a bloated stomach, dead,


In another long side cave, like a long break-out room, the images are entirely different, a bewildering set of outlines and scores that suggest a more direct telling of what it is to hunt. Like a huge blackboard, they have been drawn and overdrawn by what seems like more improvisational hands. Here, I think, they were explaining the details of hunting. This was the chalkboard lecture hall. It is low and requires one to crouch, more likely to sit and be taught. 

New teachers clearly overwrote on those that came before, as there were no board cleaners! There a huge range of animals in these drawings - horses, bison, aurochs (bulls), ibexes, deer, a wolf and lion. They are often partial images, especially heads, which suggests some specific points were being made about what you need to look for as a hunter. It is a series of drawings over-writing the earlier work, over a long period by different people. 

In this area there is a shaft, climb down and there is a black scene of a human figure lying prone beneath a wounded bison, its intestines hanging out, its head low as it charges. This is the only image of a person in the whole cave. Flint knapping debris and ochre covered flints were found here, indicating the teaching of tools for butchering. One can imagine this being a specific, final lesson – kill or be killed.

Sound and speech

What is missing are the sounds of the teachers and learners. But even here we have some clues. One image, called the Roaring Stag is prominent. I have heard this in the Highlands of Scotland while camping in Winter. The noise is incredible like wolves all around you. It is likely that these sounds would have been simulated in the cave, an intense and frightening amplifier. You can imagine people in the dark suddenly frightened by the sound of rutting stags.

Communal knowledge

I wrote about this in my books on AI and 3D mixed reality, as they tell us something quite profound, that learning, for millions of years, was visual. We were shown things. This is our primary sense and as learning was about the world we knew and skills we had to master, images were our content. But we also have meaningful symbolic communications - not yet rwiting as we know it but an account of sorts and a sense of number.

Additionally, this was the first example of a communally shared learning experience. What we learnt and knew was not owned by others. It was a shared dataset, brought together by the whole group, to be shared for mutual benefit. It took a huge communal effort to create the first LIM (Large Image Model). There were no arguments about who drew or owned what, no ethical concerns about the dangers of sharing our data, just the need to share to survive and thrive.


Altamira was my first illustrated cave, many years ago. I can still remember the shock of that experience, a visceral surprise. Lascaux is even more wondrous. These places reveal the awakening our species - Homo sapiens, the ‘knowing man’. When we began to teach and learn, preserving and passing on our cultural knowledge. We became smarter and more cunning. The Neanderthals, who dabbled in such cave representations, were already long gone. We had separated the known from the knower, so that it could be passed on to many others. We were on the path to externalising ideas, refining them, reflecting upon them and using this knowledge to create new things, moving from tools to technologies; farming, writing, printing, the internet and AI. We became Homo technus.

No comments: