Why it makes so much sense to represent prehistoric cave art in virtual reality

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Last week, The Lascaux Caves museum launched a virtual reality experience. Visitors are now able to take a VR tour through the 235 metre-long cave network. This is an important moment for virtual reality’s evolution, as it helps connect immersive media with its ancient roots.

Part of Lascaux’s famous Hall of the Bulls

In 1940, a boy was out with his dog near the village of Montigna in south west France, when the dog fell down a hole. What the boy discovered in retrieving his dog has since played a huge role in historians’ understanding of human art and how it developed. The boy discovered dozens of caves containing 360 degree paintings of animals, characters and abstract symbols. It turns out this art dates back around 17,000 years.

The problem that historians face, however, is how to communicate this art to the rest of the world. Whilst tourists can visit a replica of some chambers, the original caves have remained off limits for almost six decades in order to protect them.

Photographs of the caves will never cut it. Why? Because this cave art is essentially a form of virtual reality. The immersive urge is ancient. Humans have always wanted to create and share fantasy environments, characters and objects . The Lascaux caves are an exquisite example of this human urge in action.

The first immersive experiences that both you and your ancestors had were probably very similar. Shared fantasy worlds are very often part of children’s play, and they require no technology whatsoever. For instance, when you played ‘stuck in the mud’, the game would have required you to imagine a shared reality of a big squelchy floor of sludge. These sorts of games simulate a scenario, rather than just representing it through symbols or words. You didn’t just talk about being stuck in that squelch, you got ‘stuck’ in it. One could even call this communally-imagined, squelchy, muddy world a ‘virtual reality’.

When so many peoples’ childhood involve pretend games like this, it is no wonder that as adults the same immersive pursuit has continued. As humans we have used the technology available to us at the time to attempt to realise this vision. The Lascaux caves are evidence of this; members of a Palaeolithic tribe in southern France sourced vibrant mineral pigments to paint huge magical bulls, stags, horses, felines and other animals right across every wall and ceiling of their caves. Archaeologists believe that sandstone lamps and fireplaces were used to not only light the space, but also to create a flickering, moving effect; essentially animating these majestic creatures.

The Palaeolithic people may well have combined this with music and performance. Imagine being deep in that cave with those huge flickering mythic animals surrounding you. This feels very much like today’s immersive theatre or dome projected VR.

These caves are proof that immersive experiences are not new. From full room Italian frescos to the View-Master of the early 1900’s it seems we have always had the desire to create immersive art. Today, we are simply better at capturing, bottling and sharing it. It is something to be celebrated that we are finally able to share the immersive cave art of our ancestors with a medium that fits. I like to think today’s VR technology would make our ancestors proud.

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