Marcel Ravidat, who in 1940 discovered the Lascaux cave paintings whose brilliantly colored renderings of prehistoric animals had been sealed from view for 17,000 years, died in March 1995 at his home in the village Montignac in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. He was 72. Village officials said the cause of death was a heart attack.

Four Boys and a Dog

In September 1940, four boys and a dog set out on an adventure in Dordogne. The boys – Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas – where intrigued by an old legend about a tunnel running under the Vezere River linking the old Castel of Montignac to the Manor of Lascaux. According to the legend, this tunnel would lead to a second tunnel and a treasure hidden deep in the woods of Montignac.

Robot the dog with two of the four cave’s discoverers

As they walked through the woods the little dog, Robot, ran ahead toward a deep depression in the ground covered with overgrowth and began sniffing the sunken hole. The depression had originally been created by an uprooted tree. The boys hurried to catch up with Robot. When they saw the deep hole, they immediately thought it might lead them to the legendary tunnel and the hidden treasure.

After trying to determine the depth of the hole by tossing rocks in the opening and listening for contact with the bottom, they decided to explore it. They enlarged the opening by removing a few stones around the edges with their penknives. Then, each one of the four boys slid through the hole in turn, along a semi-vertical shaft embedded with stalagmites down fifteen meters to a dark underground chamber. “The descent was terrifying,” recalled Jacques Marsal who was just fourteen years old at the time, the youngest of the four boys. Inside the chamber they used their oil lantern to look around shining it on the walls and ceiling.

Marsal remembers this first encounter describing what they saw as a “cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave; each animal seemed to be moving.” The ceiling was pure white, covered with calcite. And the paintings were brilliantly multicolored in reds, blacks, browns and ochres. The boys were standing in The Hall of the Bulls. Mesmerized by their findings, the boys ventured to the end of the cave. By then, the light from the oil lantern was fading and they realized they needed to return to the surface.

The boys were afraid of not being about to climb back out of the cave because of the steep incline of the shaft. But, in fact, the climb out was easier than they expected, recalled Marsal. The narrowness of the shaft served to their advantage allowing them to prop up with their knees and elbows, inching along until they reached the surface.

They were ecstatic with their discovery. The four boys promised to return the next day much better prepared for exploration. They swore an oath of secrecy determined to keep their discovery to themselves for the time being. Marsal remembers keeping the secret was harder done than said in families where brothers and sisters, and sometimes cousins, shared rooms with each other.

Discoverers Jacques Marsal and Marcel Ravidat with Abbe Breuil and teacher Mr. Laval at the entrance of the cave.
All four boys kept their promises and met again the next morning. This time they took a rope with them to help in getting down to the second level of the cave, The Well. Marsal described the descent into the deep fissure as “scary because the rope, which was tucked under our armpits, was cutting the flaky edges of the walls and earth kept falling on our face as we were lowered down into the well.”Robot the dog with two of the four cave’s discoverers

By the third day of their discovery, the boys could not keep their amazing secret any longer. They decided each of them could bring five friends to see the cave but would charge a forty cent per person admission price. Marsal said that was the first “commercial exploitation of the cave.” Once the word was out, the news spread like wildfire and soon the entire village was lining up to have a look at the newly discovered paintings. The boys enlarged the hole and made access easier for the public.

Overwhelmed by the number of visitors and aware that the paintings were probably prehistoric, the boys decided to seek the advice of their schoolmaster, Leon Laval. Mr. Laval, a member of the prehistoric society of Montignac, did not believe the boys’ description of what they had found. It took quiet a bit of convincing to persuade him that the whole story was not just a scam to push him down a hole.

The Well: Scene of the Dead Man. On the second day of exploring the cave, the four boys entered The Well and encountered this odd scene of a gutted bison, head lowered as in attack and a stick figure of a man with a bird like head falling backwards. Note the figure of a bird and the “broken” line which some have interpreted as possibly indicating an arrow lying across the wounded bison.

Once inside the cave, Laval was immediately convinced the paintings and drawings were from a prehistoric time. He instructed the boys and gave them guidelines about the fragility of the paintings. He gave them two rules: Do not let anyone touch the paintings, and, more importantly, guard the cave from possible vandals.

Summer vacation was coming to a close. Soon all of the boys, except Marsal, return to school and their studies. Marsal, worried about the cave’s safety, pleaded with is parents to allow him to guard the cave day and night. Realizing the significance of the paintings and their son’s devotion to the cave, they eventually gave in. Marsal pitched a tent at the entrance to the cave and begin what would become a lifelong commitment, the care and safety of the cave and its magnificent prehistoric paintings.

Visitors came daily to the cave and the fourteen year old Marsal became the de facto guide. One day, a young man with a sketch book in hand, came for a tour. As Marsal showed him through the cave, the man made drawings of the images as he went. The man, a student of the famed prehistorian, Abbe Breuil, immediately took them to his mentor who, by luck, was visiting in the nearby village of Brive. Breuil took no time in coming to see the cave after seeing the sketches of his student and confirmed the authenticity and the era of the paintings. The discovery was sensational and now substantiated by the highest authority. News spread throughout France, Europe and the world. The cave of Lascaux became known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art.

The cave was located on private property owned by the Count of LaRochefoucault whose family began the commercial exploitation of the cave. By 1948 daily tours brought as many as one thousand people a day through Lascaux. It was not long before the impact of so many visitors was felt.

The First Conservation Crisis

Carbon dioxide, from the breath of thousands, began to build in the cave. At times, carbon dioxide levels were so high that visitors passed out from the toxicity. Worse yet, condensation formed on the walls and ceilings of the cave causing moisture to run down the precious paintings. The Green Sickness, a green growth on the walls and paintings, was one of the first signs of how human presence adversely affects the cave’s health. High temperatures and humidity, together with high levels of carbon dioxide, brought on a second illness, The White Sickness, with calcite beginning to form over many of the paintings.

In 1963, France’s Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, closed the cave to the public. Until the most recent crisis, Lascaux remained closed to all but a small group of researchers and scientists. It is now to all but its caretakers. Jacques Marsal, the fourteen year old who pitched at tent at the entrance to the cave in 1940 to guard it from vandals, devoted his life to Lascaux and remained as chief guide of the cave until his death in 1989.