My 25,000 year-old friend

Earlier this year I visited the Peche Merle caves, known for their prehistoric drawings, in the south west of France.  Little is known about the purpose of the Peche Merle cave paintings.  There is some speculation that they were used in sacred rituals. 


So, as I made my way down into the caves and along the paths, I was prepared to enter a thin place.

Each grotto within the interlocking caves serves as a kind of gallery.  Delicate and evocative paintings and murals depict a wide variety of animals, including wooly mammoths, horses, bison, and aurochs, gamboling about.  

Given their complexity and beauty it is hard for me to imagine that they did not have some higher purpose than simple pleasure—although they certainly provide that more than 25,000 years after their creation.

After viewing the paintings, I emerged into the daylight.  While I was impressed and intrigued by the paintings, I must confess that at the time I did not feel as if I had been in a thin or sacred place.  

And yet, many weeks after visiting the caves, there is one aspect of the art that has stuck with me—that keeps calling me back.

The artist of the final mural one sees before ascending back into the daylight has carefully selected its location.  The painting shows two sturdy and spotted horses with overlapping rumps. The artist has ingeniously used the natural contours of the rock to paint the horses.  In fact, the shape of rock on the right hand side of the mural conforms almost exactly to that of one of the horse’s heads.  

pech311cyIn several of the paintings, but most prominently in the mural of the two horses, someone, presumably the artist, has placed an image of his or her left and right hands above the horses and then two more hand images elsewhere in the painting. 

The images have been created by placing hands on the wall and then spitting paint around and over them, leaving the outline of the hands—the inverse of a silhouette, if you will.  

This is a sophisticated artistic move—creating an image from the negative.  The hands are jarring in juxtaposition with the other more stylized drawings.

Furthermore, all of the other images in the caves have been painted from memory, but not the hands.  They are real. They are personal. They are particular.  They are alive.  

Are they a greeting?

The urge to put one’s own hand over the image of the artist’s hand is almost irresistible.  Even now, many weeks after visiting the caves, I feel a kind of kinship as I imagine high-fiving my 25,000 year-old friend reaching out from the past into the present.

That kinship—that human bond across the millennia—connects me to the divine.

Sometimes it is in the remembering that the “thinness” of a place emerges.

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

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