Virtual Realities Then and Now: The Caves of Lascaux

Virtual Realities Then and Now:
The Caves of Lascaux

Hidden away in the caves of Lascaux in southwest France is a 17,000 year-old painting on a stone wall, which may be one of humanity’s earliest narrative compositions. Almost cartoonlike in appearance, it shows a man with the face (or mask) of a bird, engaged in an apparently fatal disagreement with a wounded bison. As the bison uses its head and horns as a weapon, the man falls stiffly back, apparently to his death. Nearby, in the same painting, are a number of other images, including a pattern of dots, a rhinoceros, and a stick with what appears to be a bird on top, all of which add to the sense that there is more to the story than we can discern, today.

It is unlikely that we will ever know what the artist was trying to convey. Is the painting, perhaps, one of the world’s first news accounts, retelling an event that really took place (and did the reporter give a fair and accurate account)? Does it illustrate a fictional story about the punishment that comes with the violation of a taboo? Is the man, as seems likely, a magician or shaman dressed in a costume, of a kind that can still be found in some parts of the world?

This primitive illustration was a product of what may have been the world’s earliest civilization, which existed in Europe between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago. Among its creations, it filled dozens of caves, including Lascaux, with the realistic, oversized paintings of the animals it hunted for food and raw materials. Most are a good deal more impressive than the depiction described above, although they don’t tell obvious stories, as this one does. This civilization also cut engravings into stone, and carved female figurines out of bone and ivory, which show exaggerated sexual characteristics, suggesting a fascination with fertility and the life cycle.

If what we know of the archeological record is an accurate guide to the past, these people were the earliest, or among the earliest, creators of complex visual representations, based on the unique human ability that allows us to abstract the features of something in the world and reproduce it as a representation. But the visual arts weren’t the only form of representation produced by early humanity. By the time of the cave painters, people were also performing rituals, in which costumes and a primitive version of acting were used to represent what we would consider fictional roles or characters. In another cave in Les Trois Freres, France, we see a 13,000 year-old wall painting of what appears to be a shaman from this same civilization, taking on such a ritual role, in which he is apparently supposed to represent an animal spirit.

The figure stares out at us from a stone wall, looking more than a little odd by contemporary standards, wearing an animal costume and a tail, with antlers on his head. He appears to be hopping or jumping along, perhaps lost in some kind of mystical state, possessed by the animal spirit he represents.

Finally, we can surmise that, by this time, humanity was also creating another kind of representation with words. Unlike the images and costumes and primitive performances referred to above, words didn’t (and don’t) have the capacity to imitate the appearance of something one might actually encounter in the world (with the exception of a few words that may re-create a sound from nature). But words could be used to tell stories, which made it possible to call up an “image” of scenes and situations in the mind of listeners.

What is interesting about these creations is that they were the forerunners of the symbolic and sensory realm of art, drama and literature, which has become increasingly elaborate with the progress of civilization. Each, in a different way, has allowed humanity to escape the literalness of its surroundings, to raise our collective noses off the ground, as it were, and produce a vision of other ways of living and other possible worlds, which are enough like this world to seem plausible.

Much of the history of civilization is the story of how we have used these forms of representation to create a “human world” that is richer and more interesting than the world of nature. We have used our utilitarian tools to re-create nature into a safer and more comfortable environment for ourselves, and used representations to re-create our surroundings after the richness of the imagination.

The caves of Lascaux were particularly effective in this regard because the cave painters and their descendants had to journey inside them, and leave the rest of the world behind. The images were lit by flickering lamps, which must have added to the sense that they were in a world apart, a world modeled after their own fears and desires, and perceptions. The comparison to today’s movie rides and virtual realities, with electronic images surrounding us, or seeming to surround us, is inevitable. Both are an expression of our desire to escape into seemingly human worlds, made lifelike through the application of art and technology, in which the landscape is that of the imagination.


The caves of Lascaux demonstrate that long before the beginning of urban civilization, the human race was creating imitations of reality, in which it took the components of the actual world, and reshaped and recombined them, in conformity with its own fantasies and imagination. Since Lascaux, these “imitation realities,” have taken all kinds of forms, including board games, stories and novels, paintings, theatrical productions, even carnivals and similar fantasy-saturated celebrations. They have included everything from costume balls to the gladiator contests of ancient Rome, in which theatrical games were created that had life and death stakes for the participants.

But they have always had a number of things in common. All have used materials provided by the arts, story-telling and the theater, to portray not only characters and plots, but also physical environments that sometimes had their own forms of space and time, and governing rules of existence. These imitations have also provided “ports of entry” that allowed audiences to physically and psychologically immerse themselves in the situations and environments that have been portrayed. In some instances, such as in theatrical performances, audiences have been able to look in on these fictional worlds from the outside, while, at the same time, becoming involved psychologically, by identifying with the characters. In others, such as board games, players have physically “incarnated” in the game, in the form of a piece that is under their control and that represents them in the fictional world of the game. And in still others, such as religious rituals acted out with costumes and props, participants have experienced complete physical immersion, becoming characters in the story that was being portrayed.

The attempt to understand why we create these representations inevitably touches on some of the most profound questions of human psychology. We do so, in part, because we seem to have a built-in impulse to create world replicas, an impulse that is manifested, among other ways, in daydreams, where we construct our own versions of reality, using the insubstantial images of the world’s first virtual reality computer, the mind. We even create picture narratives spontaneously and without conscious intention, during sleep, in the form of dreams. In imitation worlds such as stories or dramas, we have merely externalized these creations of the imagination, and given them an objective and more elaborate form.

We also invent imitation worlds because it gives us a sense of power to be able to re-create a “world” in our own image. And we do so, because these imitations act as “symbolic arenas” in which we can have experiences that are, otherwise, closed to us, allowing us to vicariously live other lives, see other histories, and explore alternative modes of existence. In effect, then, we create world replicas to transcend the limits imposed by life, to overcome the “tyranny of actuality,” and achieve a kind of freedom afforded by the imagination.

The ability to create these realistic world replicas is thus, an inherent part of human nature. But it is also an ability that humanity has developed over the centuries. In a sense, we have been going through a learning process that has allowed us to create ever more realistic and engaging “worlds.” We discovered how to create convincing dramas, using stage sets and costumes; how to create forms of fiction that could better bring a world to life, and how to create the illusion of three-dimensional perspective in paintings, to name a few obvious examples.

Today, as we increasingly live inside lifelike fictions, and re-create our surroundings as an endless form of immersive fiction, one has to wonder what will become of human nature. Will it change, as well, or will we end up reenacting the same things our ancestors did, but in increasingly spectacular forms?

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