September 12, 1940 (a Thursday)

Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves.

Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves.

On this date, four teenagers followed their dog down a narrow entrance into a cavern near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. There they discovered the prehistoric artwork today known as the Lascaux cave paintings. The 15,000- to 17,000-year-old paintings, consisting mostly of large animals once native to the region, are among the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period. (The Paleolithic period is a division of archaeological time roughly coincident with the Pleistocene epoch of geologic time). The paintings were given statutory historic monument protection in December of the same year they were discovered.

Lascaux is located in the Vézère Valley where many other decorated caves have been found since the beginning of the 20th century (for example, Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume in 1901 and Bernifal in 1902). Lascaux is a complex cave with several areas: the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Lateral Passage, the Shaft of the Dead Man, the Chamber of Engravings, the Painted Gallery, and the Chamber of Felines. The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories — animals, human figures and abstract signs. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments although some designs have also been incised into the stone.

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