The Poetry of Lascaux.

Philip Terry writes for the LRB (“Diary,” Vol. 44 No. 2, 27 January 2022; archived) about a remarkable discovery:

In​ August 2006 I visited an architect friend called David Martin who lived near the town of Montignac in the Dordogne. He was in the middle of a complicated job converting the interior of a nearby château, which had been acquired by a wealthy Japanese client. One evening he produced a large and rather dirty wooden crate. ‘I found it tucked away at the back of a cupboard in the château. They’re the papers of a local poet who used to live there, Jean-Luc Champerret. Have you heard of him?’

The crate, when I finally opened it, contained papers, some loose, some tied in bundles, all covered with thick brown dust, along with a few rusty pens, some pieces of charcoal, several bundles of letters, three small notebooks – one black, one grey, one blue – and six copies of a volume of poems by Champerret, Chants de la Dordogne, published in 1941 by a small press in Perigueux, Editions du Noir (presumably a reference to Perigord Noir, the region south of Perigueux, which takes its name from the black oaks that grow there). The poems were written in rhyming alexandrines, and were based on, or attempted to re-create, peasant songs from the region. The papers were fragile, and some of the leaves turned to dust when you picked them up. What survived included notes, and more poems, written in much shorter lines, accompanied by diagrams reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy, and a number of abstract drawings in charcoal done on standard Bureau de Poste blank postcards. There were also a number of visual poems with words and letters of various sizes distributed sparsely across the page, perhaps indebted to Apollinaire, certainly influenced by Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, of which they seemed a belated imitation. The grey notebook, the first I opened, had the title ‘Notes sur Lascaux’, and was written in pencil. The first 36 pages were filled with writing and diagrams in a diminutive and impenetrable script. The rest of the notebook was blank.

There was little on record about Champerret – I could find no other trace of Chants de la Dordogne, and the Bibliothèque Nationale did not hold a copy. […] However I did manage to track down his birth certificate via the mairie in Montignac. He was born in the village of Le Moustier, on the road from Les Eyzies to Montignac, on 11 September 1910, to Alice Rose Champerret and Gaston Yves Champerret. But there was nothing more. David Martin put me in touch with Isabelle Dupois, who had worked as a housemaid at the château where the crate had been found. She told me that Champerret had been living in Paris when the war began, and had, she thought, briefly been a member of a Resistance cell that included a tall wiry Irishman, before being forced to flee from the capital, returning to the Dordogne. There, he had gone to live in the château, which had been requisitioned by the local Resistance. He was a quiet man, who didn’t give much away, but she knew that he had worked as a codebreaker. When Lascaux was discovered by four schoolboys and their dog Robot on 12 September 1940 Champerret was sent by his cell to survey the caves, in case they could be used as a hideout for Resistance members. Nothing came of this: within days everyone in the area knew about the discovery of a new and remarkable set of cave paintings in the hills to the south of Montignac. Then in February 1942 the château was raided by the Gestapo. Champerret got away, but Dupois knew nothing of his subsequent movements. ‘Did he ever marry?’ I asked her. ‘Non,’ she replied emphatically, ‘ce n’était pas le type.’

The notebooks, I soon realised, supplied the key to Champerret’s work. During his clandestine excursion to Lascaux, made before any archaeologists had set foot there, Champerret had not only evaluated the caves’ potential for Resistance operations, but had looked very closely at the paintings, and particularly at the signs and marks. He used his skills as a codebreaker to examine them, and the notebooks contain the fruit of his ruminations. They are not always easy to decipher, and some of the pages are missing, many are blank, and at apparently crucial points they seem to have been chewed by rodents. And they are notebooks: the arguments are not made or advanced systematically.

Champerret seems to suggest that the signs he found in the caves – signs subsequent generations have almost unanimously deemed uninterpretable – should be read as a primitive form of writing, and in the last pages of the Carnet Bleu proposes meanings that should be attached to each sign. A row of vertical lines might perhaps represent spears, or a forest, or even rain. An upturned ‘v’ sign (or two such signs, one on top of the other) might represent mountains, or huts. A line of dots might represent people, or a journey, or faces, or stars. A row of horizontal lines might represent mist or night. A sign resembling an upturned question mark might represent a club; a sign resembling three-quarters of a circle with a dot in the middle, an eye; a meandering line or group of lines a river, and so on. ‘Le signe,’ he remarks at one point, ‘n’est jamais arbitraire.’ These signs, he argues, could be linked together to form primitive sentences, or to carry messages if scratched on a stone or a piece of bark, or in the earth with a stick. Or they might just record a transaction between tribes. So, for example, the sign for mountains in conjunction with the sign for journey could imply that a hunting party had crossed the mountains. A group of signs representing antlers might record the goods handed over in an exchange.

Champerret draws attention to the three by three square grids frequently found on the walls of the cave, most notably in the polychrome blazon below the Black Cow in the nave of Lascaux. Taking a leap in the dark – and is this not what the bounding horses lining the ceiling of Lascaux’s axial gallery ask us to do? – Champerret proposes that these grids act as frameworks for the insertion of signs. Just as the signs for mountain and journey, placed in conjunction, acquire meanings, so a grid filled with signs and scratched on a stone might carry a message. When the grid is filled with signs representing the forest and signs for fire, for example, it might be a warning that the forest will burn. But Champerret goes further, proposing that although the grids may originally have been used for practical purposes, they evolved to form the basis of the first written poetry. This is an astonishing proposition.

Just as Wittgenstein argues that one does not learn a game by reading a book of rules but by playing it, Champerret seems to have believed that practice would prove or disprove the validity of his idea, and so he began to write poetry using these signs and grids. It’s unclear whether he decided on possible meanings for individual signs in advance, or whether the process of composition suggested these meanings, but the latter seems more likely. The notes attached to each sign seem to have been added to and developed as he worked on the poems.

Visit the link for examples of his poetry and the discouraging response he got from from the director of the Musée de l’Homme (“Your work is pure fantasy”). The whole thing seems like something out of Borges or Calvino, but I have to assume it’s real — at any rate, there doesn’t seem to have been a Letter to the Editor denouncing it as postmodernist fakery.

Update. Turns out it is indeed a bit of japery; thanks, Y!


  1. WorldCat as well shows nothing by this or any other Champerret—except for Terry’s edition of his poems and the rest, published last year.

  2. And now you know… the rrrest of the story.

    tl;dr: Never trust an Oulipian.

  3. Aha! “Terry’s performance has been so good, I myself sometimes wondered whether I might be wrong about his project’s complete lack of authenticity. […] And, in fact, he himself ‘came clean’ about the book in a July 6 piece for The Irish Times.” Thanks, I’m glad (though a little sorry) to have my suspicions confirmed.

  4. A primitive writing system used by ice age hunter-gatherers appears to have been uncovered by an amateur archaeologist, who concluded that the 20,000-year-old markings were a form of lunar calendar.

    The research suggests cave drawings were not only a form of artistic expression but also used to record sophisticated information about the timing of animals’ reproductive cycles.

    Is there any chance this is less “pure fantasy” than the story of Champerret?

  5. @Stephen Goranson: I am puzzled why that article keeps emphasizing “lunar” months, which make no sense. As noted here, the only calendar that is meaningful for agricultural and ecological timekeeping is a solar one.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    Do they think the “cavemen” did much agriculture? For (night) hunters and fishers (also mollusk gatherers) I would have thought moon cyles (and related tidal cycles) were also important…

  7. Amanda Adams says

    Sandi Toksvig would remind you –
    “The old saying is that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. This may be true, but it leaves out the fact that the inventor may also be somebody’s mother. Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” she said, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” We all looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” she continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”

  8. @PlasticPaddy, Amanda Adams: Sure, there are reasons to keep track of lunar months (and I mentioned menstrual cycles in the linked thread). The problem is that the Guardian article is talking about using a lunar calendar to track animal breeding times, which depend on the tropical year.

  9. On the other hand, if astronomy rather than monthlies was the motivation for months it still does not mean that the inventors were what you imagine when you hear “man’s first attempt” (bearded men with spears).

  10. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I just realized that my image of culture-carrying elders stereotypically being male is probably formed on romantic myths about 19th century American Indians. (In Danish, indianere are the US sort, and in a pinch the ones from the Amazonas; people from the subcontinent are indere). Sure there is the concept of the wise woman, but her domain is sort of restricted to knowing which mushrooms not to eat, and midwifery, not agricultural strategy.

    It’s always been possible to determine the sex of exhumed skeletons of mature age, but I’ve never seen if somebody has done the numbers to check if the over-50 (say) burials were predominantly male or female in the Stone Age, for instance. Any signs of veneration befitting the leader of the council, so to speak?

  11. Trond Engen says

    The solar calendar is a year by definition, but that isn’t very helpful for determining the seasons for hunting, fishing, sowing or procreation. You need to pinpoint everything somewhere on the yearly cycle, and that means counting days from one observable point on the cycle. But you’ll soon discover the need to start counting again when you lose count, so you also need observable subdivisions, and that’s really what the lunar calendar is about. You start the year at the observable point on the solar cycle, and you count moons and phases of the moon from there, and days of each phase of the moon, and if you lose count you pick up the day count the next day you see the moon. A pure lunar calendar works if it’s rebooted by observation every year.

    And then astronomy and maths develop to predict the yearly shift between the lunar and solar cycles, or decide how often an extra month is to be inserted even without observation.

    @Stephen G., @Dmitry; Thanks. Will read, but wisely enough I replied first.

  12. @Trond Engen: An annually rebooted calendar is not a “pure” lunar calendar. That’s a lunisolar calendar, and it’s farther toward the solar end than, say, the Hebrew lunisolar calendar.

  13. Trond Engen says

    Yes. But it really becomes lunisolar when the adjustments are predefined. Rebooting by observation is way simpler — and arguably what lunisolar calendars try to replace and refine with maths. Until then it’s just a lunar calendar with a manual reboot defined by the sun.

    (I should read the paper before commenting.)

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Japery, you say? That made me realize I had no idea of the etymology of “japery,” which rapidly led me to this proposal: “From Middle English japen (“to deceive, play tricks on; act foolishly, joke; have sex with”), of uncertain origin. Perhaps from Old French japer (“to bark, howl, scream; chatter, gossip”) (possibly conflated with Old French gaber (“to mock, deride”), see gab) ….”

  15. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I seem to remember a slight panic in tech circles a few years back when it was not very certain if the designated new moon-watcher in a row of countries would actually sign off on a specific month starting on a specific (gregorian) date. (Locally in each country, that month would obviously and unproblematically start on the first of that month, but Microsoft would have to answer a lot of phone calls about why Windows said it was the second already). IIRC it turned out “well,” in that the new moon showed up when supposed to.

    (Even if you use the astronomical definition of the new moon, that instant has to occur before sunrise at your latitude. And near the solstices that can make a big difference).

    I don’t remember if there are any calendars in current use where the insertion of leap months is actually governed by observation. It would seem to make contract writing a bit complicated — is it 12 months or until the same date next year? (According to the latest I’ve read, the oldest Roman calendar may have been purely lunar, with a cycle of ten month names that did not have anything to do with the solar year. Agreements were entered into for terms of ten months or a multiple of that. Adding two months and an occasional third to get a lunisolar one was radical).

  16. On a related note, an association of 19th-century faux-Indian petroglyphs has in recent years been identified, and dubbed the Western Message Petroglyphs. Dozens have so far been identified all over the western United States. The symbols were cobbled by one or more enthusiasts from images in publications about Native American picture writing (and a few from other sources). In addition to being an interesting footnote to the history of American settlement, one such message may indicate the last known record of beavers in the San Francisco Bay Area before their extirpation (and later reintroduction).

  17. David Marjanović says

    there are reasons to keep track of lunar months (and I mentioned menstrual cycles in the linked thread)

    As also mentioned in that thread, human menstrual cycles aren’t lunar on average.

  18. Trond Engen says

    I read the paper last night. They make a good but not watertight case that it’s a notation for counting moons. I’ll note that the starting point at “onset of the good season”, roughly May 1, is arbitrary and may well have been chosen after concluding that the events counted to were mating seasons for different species. That makes the statistical case weaker, but not invalidated. It could be dating by moon cycles even if the dated events may be discussed

    It’s still a stretch calling it a calendar. It’s a notation system for dating by counting, but since what is counted is moon cycles, one can say it’s evidence of the existence of a mental calendar or proto-calendar. Calling it writing is also a stretch. The notation is thought to represent concepts, not language. The signs are not combined and moved around according to rules of syntax and grammar but to differences in the represented concept..

    And an argument against the hypothesis: Apparently there was hardly any development of the notation or expansion of its utility for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years. That’s really hard to imagine.

  19. ‘Hooray, hooray, the First of May, outdoor screwing starts today.’

  20. David Marjanović says

    Harsh criticism of the cave-paintings-as-calendar paper, in a self-proclaimed “blog” that lacks a commenting feature.

    I haven’t taken the time to read most of it; seeing uncontroversial translated into French as incontestable (and the author getting all worked up about it) when I already have a bit of a headache and should be doing something else did not make me want to continue.

  21. Trond Engen says


    Yes, I meant to note that the word “uncontroversial” makes me wary.

    Related, one thing that bothers me now a day later is the selection and interpretation of the data. What criteria are used to determine the set and sequence of dots and other symbols? Can it be reproduced?

    I’ll try to read French when I’m less tired.

  22. Trond Engen says

    I’ve read the French. The blogger Jean-Loïc Le Quellec is not anybody, but a retired directeur de recherches au CNRS, specialized on Neolithic rock art. I don’t read him as getting worked up. I think he’s giving a fair summary of the main points of the paper before hammering it down. I hadn’t noticed (fie on me) that Bacon et al cut the tail end of the groups at an arbitrary point leaving only numbers under 13. Together with the arbitrary choice of starting point of the calendar year, and apparently opaque criteria for Y-ness (as even I belatedly realized when looking at the illustrations last night), it seems that they allowed themselves to adjust both sets to best fit before running the statistical analysis. Also, they didn’t just start by deeming a contested notion “uncontroversial”, but they failed to mention a recent work on the same topic that might otherwise be credited with the idea. One is forgivable, together they taste of intellectual dishonesty.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Les auteurs disent partir du fait qu’aucune séquence de leur corpus ne comporte plus de treize signes similaires, d’où l’idée d’une notation calendaire basée sur le cycle lunaire. Mais lorsqu’on se reporte à leur propre corpus, on découvre que la réalité est toute différente, car ils ont tout simplement éliminé de leur étude tout ce qui est susceptible de la contredire. En effet, dans ce corpus, on remarque une séquence de 59 signes, deux de 29, trois de 16, et des séquences de 14, 17, 20, 28 sont attestées chacune une fois. Les auteurs disent avoir éliminé les cas «problématiques», mais dans leur fichier (en accès libre: merci!) ceux-ci sont marqués soit par une note indiquant «excluded», soit par un point d’interrogation, ce qui n’est pas le cas de ces occurrences à plus de treize signes.

  24. Trond Engen says

    Yes, it’s pretty damning.

  25. The “opaque criteria for Y-ness” was what jumped out at me when I looked at the illustrations as well.

  26. Y-ness is perfect, and therefore never opaque.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    We meant no harm, O Mighty Y.

    We were but condemning those knaves who seek to deceive the people by false claims to Y-ness,

  28. David Marjanović says

    they failed to mention a recent work on the same topic that might otherwise be credited with the idea

    Ooh, failure of peer review (…plus failure by the authors to be familiar with their own field).

    Les auteurs disent avoir éliminé les cas «problématiques», mais dans leur fichier (en accès libre: merci!) ceux-ci sont marqués soit par une note indiquant «excluded», soit par un point d’interrogation, ce qui n’est pas le cas de ces occurrences à plus de treize signes.

    Ouh là.

    Another critique that says the authors underestimated human cultural diversity.

  29. I seem to remember a slight panic in tech circles a few years back when it was not very certain if the designated new moon-watcher in a row of countries would actually sign off on a specific month starting on a specific (gregorian) date. (Locally in each country, that month would obviously and unproblematically start on the first of that month, but Microsoft would have to answer a lot of phone calls about why Windows said it was the second already).

    I lived and worked in several Islamic countries where obviously it was quite important when Ramadan begins, and I remember several times when it was expected that Ramadan started on day X, but the observers called it only on X+1. And I seem to remember cases in Lebanon when Sunni and Shia observers called the beginning of the month on different days (the reason being that one set – I don’t remember which – stuck to a pre-determined date, while the other set waited until they actually could observe the moon).

  30. @Hans: There are also sectarian differences over whether one is allowed to use binoculars to see the first sliver of the new moon. Interestingly, the discrepancies that arise as to the month can often be predicted ahead of time; there are some nights when it is known in advance that the moon will be invisible to the naked eye but detectable with sufficient magnification.

  31. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    And here in Denmark we can go a month or three without seeing the moon at all. Even in Lebanon clouds at sunrise must happen sometimes, even many mornings in a row.

  32. @Lars: IIRC, cloudy sky was the reason for the disagreement – one group trusted the calculations that the moon was there, the other wanted eyewitnesses.

  33. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    What I mean is, in Lebanon that happens one morning and next day the moon is seen. What if it took 6 weeks? (Or just 6 days, I imagine that would be hard to plan for).

  34. No idea. Maybe they never wait for more than one day. My cop-out would be that in Lebanon, it’s never cloudy everywhere for long 🙂

  35. PlasticPaddy says

    I believe there is a running gag or plot device about having to observe a six-month Yom kippur fast in “Solomon Gursky was here” when near the North Pole.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Harsh criticism of the cave-paintings-as-calendar paper, in a self-proclaimed “blog” that lacks a commenting feature.

    It goes on: rather than photos, the authors relied on published drawings, some of them of very bad quality, and it shows – some of the Y shapes they identified are simply not there, for example.

  37. Oh dear.

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