Luc Jean-François Debecker

1978 Laureate, Cultural Heritage
Switzerland, Born 1934

Project Goal

Explore prehistoric lifestyles and beliefs through the study of European cave paintings

Location: France

The World's Oldest Art Gallery

Luc Debecker remembers setting eyes on cave paintings for the first time nearly 50 years ago: in the Grotte des Trois Frères in Ariège, southern France, as a teenage potholer or caver. With a prehistorian as a guide, the 16-year-old schoolboy from Belgium was able to examine some of the hundreds of paintings created up to 40,000 years before on the cave walls. He was immediately hooked on prehistoric art.

Debecker also remembers how difficult it was at that time to gather information about other caves where paintings could be found, the paintings themselves, or about the Late Palaeolithic (Stone Age) people who created them.

"I quickly realised that the historians were pretty much putting down what they wanted to see in the paintings," Debecker recalls. "For example, even in the middle of this century one of the leading prehistorians said that the bison in the paintings represented a male symbol, while the horses represented a female symbol. No one ever objected, though it was never proved."

Part of the problem was that much of the information was locked away in the historians’ drawers. "One cave in France was discovered in 1937 with 203 engravings, including very rare depictions of men and women. The details were not published until 1970," he notes.

Debecker decided it would be useful to have a comprehensive guide to as many caves as possible, including a description of what they contained. He immediately started to put together a file detailing the 200 known caves in France and Spain, with maps indicating where the paintings were located, what they depicted, and photographs and tips on gaining access to the cave art.

Private Passion

Debecker’s caving expeditions all took place in his free time, alongside his regular profession which is working as a civil engineer and industrial surveyor for construction sites such as road tunnels. "I worked in Africa, Belgium, France and Spain as well as in Switzerland, and between contracts I took time off to investigate the caves," he says.

By the 1970s, the self-taught prehistorian had catalogued some 50 caves and taken colour photos of some 1,000 cave paintings, all at his own expense. Already then, his records constituted an unparalleled resource on the art of Cro-Magnon man, who lived in the Late (also called Upper or Advanced) Palaeolithic period.

The term Cro-Magnon comes from a local word for a small cave (cro) in the south-western French region of Dordogne and from a Mr Magnon, the owner of the cave where railway workers installing train tracks for the community of Eyzies discovered four prehistoric skeletons in 1868. Cro-Magnon civilization lasted from around 40,000 to 9,000 BC, petering out with the end of the last Ice Age.

Cro-Magnons are considered the close ancestors of the peoples of southern and western Europe, and they were distinguished from the Neanderthals by a high forehead and a well–defined chin. "They were people just like us," Debecker points out.

Fitted Clothes

Even at their earliest period, Cro-Magnons were fashioning instruments from stone, bone and ivory. They also wore fitted clothes, jewellery and shell or bone ornaments. According to Debecker, they built the first ovens and developed new hunting tools. To combat the cold weather which gripped the whole of Europe at that time, the Cro-Magnons made comfortable clothing — hats, boots and jackets of which they have left us pictures.

But it is at the artistic level that this people showed their true human capacities. "Thanks to their talents for observation and imagination, they produced the most important art gallery of all time and the most amazing museum of animal life ever created in the world," says Debecker.

Some Cro-Magnon artists used their fingers to trace outlines in soft clay covering the rock. Others used iron oxide (hematite, or ochre) to create red pigment. Manganese or charcoal produced a black pigment. It is believed that animal-hair brushes or crushed twigs were used to apply the paint, although it also seems that paint was sprayed from the mouth or through a tube. Sockets in a gallery-wall at Lascaux — where the bulls are five metres (16 feet) high — indicate that scaffolding was used.

The most impressive Cro-Magnon site for Debecker is unquestionably Altamira in northern Spain. Discovered by a hunter in 1868, it is 270 metres (890 feet) long with bison painted on the ceiling and other figures in red, black and violet colours.

The wall art of the Palaeolithic period covers some 20,000 years of art history. Tests on charcoal used to draw a bison and woolly rhinoceros in the recently discovered Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of France indicated the paintings were made sometime between 30,000 and 28,000 BC, making them the earliest dated paintings in the world.

Mysteries Remain
New discoveries, such as illustrations on rocks outside caves, have led specialists to believe that Palaeolithic art was abundant wherever prehistoric peoples moved. Caves were probably merely their seasonal camps, which afforded shelter, shade and protection.

Because of their remarkable preservative nature, caves are the places where most of this art has survived. Although the paintings and artefacts found in caverns probably represent only a small part of the lives and activities of prehistoric peoples, they provide by far the best clues to this period.

While caverns were used by prehistoric peoples all over the world, most of the wall paintings and engravings have been found in some 200 caves located in Spain and France.

Exactly why the drawings and engravings were made is a matter of intense academic debate. Parietal (wall) art is often found deep in caves. Some chambers are large enough for ritual gatherings. Other paintings are found in narrow passages that can accommodate only one person at a time.

Extinct Creatures
At first prehistorians even doubted that Cro-Magnon culture included painting, and suggested that the realistic illustrations were quite recent. However, the discovery of drawings showing extinct creatures has helped settle that argument.

Finally, it was widely believed that this Stone Age art was purely decorative. "It’s now thought they were produced for mystical reasons," Debecker notes. "Art for art’s sake is not very common in history."

Strangely, parietal art only occasionally shows human figures. Geometric symbols and non-figurative marks are much more abundant. Animals, ranging from extinct creatures like the mammoths to apparently imaginary creatures such as the Lascaux "unicorn" as well as species still found in Europe, are the usual figurative subjects.

Horse and bison are the most common subjects of these paintings, though other animals such as reindeer predominate at some sites. Birds are rarely seen in wall art (Les Trois Frères is an exception), but they are more common in portable art objects such as pendants and engraved stones. As a result, prehistorians now believe that the paintings did not merely observe or represent nature, but that they probably had a meaning and structure.

Modern Threat
As more caves were discovered and opened to visitors, changes in atmospheric conditions brought about by modern human observers have begun to threaten the survival of these relics of the world’s oldest known civilisation. The original Lascaux cave paintings, discovered in 1940, were closed in 1963 because the paintings had begun to deteriorate, with colours fading and a green fungus growing over the pigments. A replica site opened in 1983, as many scholars feared that this heritage, which had lasted thousands of years, could vanish in a few decades.

The degradation of the most important sites made Debecker’s project even more urgent. His wife Micheline joined him in his research and helped produce booklets and articles on parietal art of the Late Palaeolithic period. With a quarter of the known caves documented, he applied to the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 1976 to help him continue the work.

Debecker received one of the first Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 1978. “Without the Rolex Award I would have given up long ago,” he says. His project also won praise from world renowned prehistorians such as Marc Sauter of Geneva University, who said that a detailed inventory would be “an indispensable working tool for the specialist and for the anthropological enthusiast”.

The interest in his work aroused by the Rolex Award led Debecker to create a group on prehistoric cave art that still links some 20 specialists around the world, enabling the network to share experiences and findings. The Debeckers have organised lectures in schools and public meetings about prehistory and their research. They have produced films and bought archive material to build up a film collection on parietal art.

A Life’s Work
It is unlikely that Debecker’s project could be repeated, as many sites are extremely difficult to reach and are located on private property. "Most of the caves are barred to outsiders now. It’s good that people have become aware of the threats. But I don’t think anyone today could start again. Even when I was caving, it was usually more difficult to get permission to carry out the visit — and find out who could give me permission — than it was to get to the cave itself."

Looking back over his decades of cave exploration and cataloguing, Debecker remains an enthusiast and adventurer: "I became convinced that we were dealing with a civilization that was very advanced artistically. What is astonishing is that very few people could have gone into the caverns — perhaps the witchdoctors or shamans, whoever they were — but these caves were used over several thousands of years. Somehow they were kept in memory and continued to be used."

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