These underground galleries, found mostly in France and Spain, also turn out to be remarkably old. The works at Rouffignac have been dated to around 13,000 years old, while those at nearby Chauvet and Lascaux are thought to be more than 30,000 years old. This testimony on rock walls – in daubs of ochre and charcoal mixed with spittle and fat – shows that our hunter-gatherer ancestors could depict the world around them in a startlingly sophisticated way. As the art critic John Berger once said of these painters, they appear to have had “grace from the start”. Picasso was even more awestruck. “We have invented nothing,” he remarked gloomily, after a visit to Lascaux in 1940 to inspect the handiwork of his Stone Age predecessors.
The symbols provide clear evidence of the way our ancestors moved from representing ideas realistically – as in those beautiful images of bisons and mammoths – to the stage where they began to represent concepts symbolically. In some cases, signs appear to emerge from the use of truncated images of an animal and eventually come to act as a symbol for that animal in its entirety. For example, a wavy line used to depict the back of a horse in a larger painting eventually comes to stand for the entire horse in different sets of paintings.