Virtual Realities Then and Now:
The Caves of Lascaux
Hidden away in the caves of Lascaux in southwest France is a 17,000 year-old painting on a
stone wall, which may be one of humanity's earliest narrative compositions. Almost
cartoonlike in appearance, it shows a man with the face (or mask) of a bird, engaged in an
apparently fatal disagreement with a wounded bison. As the bison uses its head and horns
as a weapon, the man falls stiffly back, apparently to his death. Nearby, in the same
painting, are a number of other images, including a pattern of dots, a rhinoceros, and a
stick with what appears to be a bird on top, all of which add to the sense that there is
more to the story than we can discern, today.
It is unlikely that we will ever know what the artist was trying to convey. Is the
painting, perhaps, one of the world's first news accounts, retelling an event that really
took place (and did the reporter give a fair and accurate account)? Does it illustrate a
fictional story about the punishment that comes with the violation of a taboo? Is the man,
as seems likely, a magician or shaman dressed in a costume, of a kind that can still be
found in some parts of the world?
This primitive illustration was a product of what may have been the world's earliest
civilization, which existed in Europe between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago. Among its
creations, it filled dozens of caves, including Lascaux, with the realistic, oversized
paintings of the animals it hunted for food and raw materials. Most are a good deal more
impressive than the depiction described above, although they don't tell obvious stories,
as this one does. This civilization also cut engravings into stone, and carved female
figurines out of bone and ivory, which show exaggerated sexual characteristics, suggesting
a fascination with fertility and the life cycle.
If what we know of the archeological record is an accurate guide to the past, these
people were the earliest, or among the earliest, creators of complex visual
representations, based on the unique human ability that allows us to abstract the features
of something in the world and reproduce it as a representation. But the visual arts
weren't the only form of representation produced by early humanity. By the time of the
cave painters, people were also performing rituals, in which costumes and a primitive
version of acting were used to represent what we would consider fictional roles or
characters. In another cave in Les Trois Freres, France, we see a 13,000 year-old wall
painting of what appears to be a shaman from this same civilization, taking on such a
ritual role, in which he is apparently supposed to represent an animal spirit.
The figure stares out at us from a stone wall, looking more than a little odd by
contemporary standards, wearing an animal costume and a tail, with antlers on his head. He
appears to be hopping or jumping along, perhaps lost in some kind of mystical state,
possessed by the animal spirit he represents.
Finally, we can surmise that, by this time, humanity was also creating another kind of
representation with words. Unlike the images and costumes and primitive performances
referred to above, words didn't (and don't) have the capacity to imitate the appearance of
something one might actually encounter in the world (with the exception of a few words
that may re-create a sound from nature). But words could be used to tell stories, which
made it possible to call up an "image" of scenes and situations in the mind of
What is interesting about these creations is that they were the forerunners of the
symbolic and sensory realm of art, drama and literature, which has become increasingly
elaborate with the progress of civilization. Each, in a different way, has allowed
humanity to escape the literalness of its surroundings, to raise our collective noses off
the ground, as it were, and produce a vision of other ways of living and other possible
worlds, which are enough like this world to seem plausible.
Much of the history of civilization is the story of how we have used these forms of
representation to create a "human world" that is richer and more interesting
than the world of nature. We have used our utilitarian tools to re-create nature into a
safer and more comfortable environment for ourselves, and used representations to
re-create our surroundings after the richness of the imagination.
The caves of Lascaux were particularly effective in this regard because the cave
painters and their descendants had to journey inside them, and leave the rest of the world
behind. The images were lit by flickering lamps, which must have added to the sense that
they were in a world apart, a world modeled after their own fears and desires, and
perceptions. The comparison to todays movie rides and virtual realities, with
electronic images surrounding us, or seeming to surround us, is inevitable. Both are an
expression of our desire to escape into seemingly human worlds, made lifelike through the
application of art and technology, in which the landscape is that of the imagination.
The caves of Lascaux demonstrate that long before the beginning of urban
civilization, the human race was creating imitations of reality, in which it took the
components of the actual world, and reshaped and recombined them, in conformity with its
own fantasies and imagination. Since Lascaux, these "imitation realities," have
taken all kinds of forms, including board games, stories and novels, paintings, theatrical
productions, even carnivals and similar fantasy-saturated celebrations. They have included
everything from costume balls to the gladiator contests of ancient Rome, in which
theatrical games were created that had life and death stakes for the participants.
But they have always had a number of things in common. All have used
materials provided by the arts, story-telling and the theater, to portray not only
characters and plots, but also physical environments that sometimes had their own forms of
space and time, and governing rules of existence. These imitations have also provided
"ports of entry" that allowed audiences to physically and psychologically
immerse themselves in the situations and environments that have been portrayed. In some
instances, such as in theatrical performances, audiences have been able to look in on
these fictional worlds from the outside, while, at the same time, becoming involved
psychologically, by identifying with the characters. In others, such as board games,
players have physically "incarnated" in the game, in the form of a piece that is
under their control and that represents them in the fictional world of the game. And in
still others, such as religious rituals acted out with costumes and props, participants
have experienced complete physical immersion, becoming characters in the story that was
The attempt to understand why we create these representations inevitably
touches on some of the most profound questions of human psychology. We do so, in part,
because we seem to have a built-in impulse to create world replicas, an impulse that is
manifested, among other ways, in daydreams, where we construct our own versions of
reality, using the insubstantial images of the world's first virtual reality computer, the
mind. We even create picture narratives spontaneously and without conscious intention,
during sleep, in the form of dreams. In imitation worlds such as stories or dramas, we
have merely externalized these creations of the imagination, and given them an objective
and more elaborate form.
We also invent imitation worlds because it gives us a sense of power to
be able to re-create a "world" in our own image. And we do so, because these
imitations act as "symbolic arenas" in which we can have experiences that are,
otherwise, closed to us, allowing us to vicariously live other lives, see other histories,
and explore alternative modes of existence. In effect, then, we create world replicas to
transcend the limits imposed by life, to overcome the "tyranny of actuality,"
and achieve a kind of freedom afforded by the imagination.
The ability to create these realistic world replicas is thus, an
inherent part of human nature. But it is also an ability that humanity has developed over
the centuries. In a sense, we have been going through a learning process that has allowed
us to create ever more realistic and engaging "worlds." We discovered how to
create convincing dramas, using stage sets and costumes; how to create forms of fiction
that could better bring a world to life, and how to create the illusion of
three-dimensional perspective in paintings, to name a few obvious examples.
Today, as we increasingly live inside lifelike fictions, and re-create
our surroundings as an endless form of immersive fiction, one has to wonder what will
become of human nature. Will it change, as well, or will we end up reenacting the same
things our ancestors did, but in increasingly spectacular forms?
Image via Wikimedia, which identifies it as a Lascaux
cave painting of aurochs, ancestors of modern cattle.
The Age of Simulation