Carbon was there at the moment we became human.

That’s according to a book I’m reading about prehistoric cave art in Europe (in preparation for a visit in September). The cave in question is Chauvet, located in southern France, which was discovered in 1994 and carefully preserved. It exhibits the oldest known paintings made by humans, our direct ancestors called Cro-Magnons. The vivid herds of animals that cover Chauvet’s walls, particularly gleaming-eyed lions and galloping horses – all masterpieces of skill and vision – were apparently painted in a single episode 32,000 years ago. We know that because we can accurately date the charcoal that was used in the black pigment of the paintings and left on the floor after they were finished. Charcoal is mostly carbon, of course, and it was an early art supply for prehistoric people (the Cro-Magnon eventually switched to black magnesium).

Here’s a famous example from Chauvet cave:

The ‘becoming human’ part is courtesy of Max Raphael, a mid-20th century art historian who was one of the first researchers to realize that the animals depicted in the 300 painted caves in France and Spain were part of large, deliberate compositions, and not simply figures haphazardly placed on the walls. Subsequent research has supported his hunch. Raphael also believed the paintings are evidence of the moment when humans began to conceive of themselves as different from animals – the very moment, in fact, when we “became human.” That’s because they represent the earliest record of humans employing our burgeoning intellect, skills, longings and fears and focusing them on creating something completely new-under-the-sun: epic art.

This theory isn’t as widely accepted by researchers, however. As one prehistorian put it in reference to another theory about the motivation of the cave painters: “Perhaps. But we’ll never know.”

What we do know is that small bands of Homo sapiens sapiens entered Europe roughly 50,000 years ago, during a small break in the Ice Ages apparently, and overspread the continent, slowly but steadily driving out their cousins the Neanderthals (to extinction). According to researchers, they looked like modern humans in physical appearance. They also behaved like us – making music, conducting elaborate burials, wearing decorations, carving figurines, and painting beautiful images. It all implied a rich culture and a questing, imaginative intelligence. Armed with a stick of charcoal, for example, our ancestors began to express this intelligence in a way that resonates powerfully with us today on an emotional level, forty centuries later.

Just don’t ask what the paintings mean. Despite tons of research, we haven’t a clue.

Cave painting went on for 20,000 years, barely changing its style or subject matter. Consistently depicted were: horses, bison, rhinos, mammoths, aurochs (early cattle), reindeer, ibex, elk, deer, human hands, and lots and lots of abstract, geometric shapes. Also consistent is what’s not depicted (or very rarely) including: fish, rodents, flies, reptiles, birds, bats, hyenas, flowers, trees, rivers, the sky, sun, moon, stars, or any type of horizon or background landscape. The paintings are also G-rated, except for the occasional representation of genitalia. Humans are also infrequently depicted, usually as cartoon-like stick figures.

For the tradition of cave painting to have endured unchanged for so long, writes Gregory Curtis in his book The Cave-Painters, it must have been passed from generation to generation in a precise and memorable manner, since Cro-Magnons lived well before the invention of writing. This is important because it suggests that other skills were also being taught in a formal way. Music, for example, as evidenced by the bone flutes and pipes discovered from the period. It was another example of us becoming human.

It all adds up to a deep, visceral connection with the past. It also raises the eternal question: who are we? It’s a question no less obscure – or important – today than it was 40,000 years ago.

“The paintings speak to us so directly across the millennia because they are the conservative art of a stable society,” Curtis concludes, “because they have a comic rather than a tragic view of life, and because they are part of a classical tradition. In fact, they are the triumph of the first classical civilization in the world.”

And carbon was there.

The paintings in Chauvet cave were apparently never visited again after their completion – except once. Approximately 5000 years later, a ten-year old child visited the cave alone, judging by footprints left behind and the child-sized muddy handprints he or she made on the walls as they walked. The child carried a burning torch and touched it regularly to the wall, leaving a series of charcoal marks. He or she was probably knocking ash from the torch or creating a trail to follow back again out of the cave. Or both. We don’t know for sure. We can say with confidence that the child wasn’t lost. He or she had entered the cave deliberately and was prepared to explore it. Why? Was it curiosity? A rite of passage? Part of some special ritual? We’ll never know.

But we’ll never stop guessing – or exploring.

Here’s an image from Lascaux cave: