Two days ago was the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Lascaux Paleolithic cave paintings. On September 12, 1940, four local teenagers (and a dog) were hunting rabbits when the dog, Robot, followed a hare down a hole. The boys pulled up some rocks and trees and followed Robot down the rabbit hole. They didn’t find a Mad Hatter or a Red Queen, but they did find a series of caves decorated with beautifully vivid paintings up to 18,000 years old.
Seven years later, LIFE magazine photographer Ralph Morse took the first pictures of the cave paintings ever taken. The Paris bureau of LIFE had just re-opened after the end of World War II, and the New York office sent Morse to photograph the art which had been much buzzed about but never pictured. It wasn’t an easy site to photograph, what with them being caves and all. Only adventurous spelunking types had seen the paintings, and obviously there was no electricity to light the walls.
Generators were hard to come by in postwar France. Morse had to have one shipped from London. He and his crew, including his wife, Ruth, piled the generator and equipment into a van and trundled off to make history. They would be the first people to see the paintings fully lit. The locals helped; they were just as excited as the photographers to get a chance to see the art in all its rich color and detail.
In honor of the anniversary, LIFE magazine has released a series of rarely and never published pictures Morse took over the next two weeks. Morse is still alive and kicking at 93, and he writes about his experiences in the captions. There weren’t even any steps in the beginning. He and his team had to slide into the cave down a piece of wood, lowering the equipment and generator cables down on ropes.
“The first sight of those paintings was simply unbelievable,” Morse says. “I was amazed at how the colors held up after thousands and thousands of years — like they were just painted the day before! Most people don’t realize how huge some of the paintings are. There are pictures of animals there that are ten, fifteen feet long, and more.” Above: An unpublished Ralph Morse photograph of what he described, in his notes on the assignment, as a “very important horse” that may well be “the first example anywhere of drawing in modern perspective. Regard the turn of the head, placing of ears, and shading to [suggest three dimensions]. Neck appears exaggerated because it conforms to contour of rock, which is impossible to show in photo.”
The year after Morse’s pictures showed the world the wonders of Lascaux, the caves were opened to tourists. Fifteen years later, in 1963, the French government closed the caves. Carbon dioxide exhaled by all those open-mouthed tourists and the variety of contaminants they unwittingly carried were damaging the paintings. Today the caves are opened a few days a years for just a handful of experts to assess the condition of the art.